[The Rise and Fall of Wired] [Stephen Downes]

4. Reinventing McLuhan

"There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved. Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions."

Marshall McLuhan. In Wired 4.01

Wired likes to reinvent itself in the .01 issues. In 1996...

The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool. Wired 4.01 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.01/features/saint.marshal.html Add odd look at McLuhan, a counterpoint to some of Wired's earlier pronouncements. The original McLuhan, you see, was a religious zealot. Time for a makeover.

Channeling McLuhan. Wired 4.01 Channeling McLuhan But I heard a new slogan recently that appears to be perfect for this new economy: "Welcome to the future - it's broken." Yes - and in a similar fashion, Wired's recent fixation on the 'new economy' is broken.

When the Channeling McLuhan article came out, I thought it was an interesting way of presenting McLuhan's thoughts. Well - it was an interesting presentation, but in retrospect, and most certainly in the context of today's discussion, it can be seen only as a reshaping of McLuhan's thoughts. A way to change the corporate mission without alerting the faithful. Consider By Gary Wolf's presentation of McLuhan's supposed take on today's issues (all are direct quotes from the article):

  • Cypherpunks think they are rebels with a cause, but they are really sentimentalists.
  • I realize and am trying to demonstrate that these anonymous remailers are among the great publicity devices of all time.
  • We fear that the owners of the monopoly will crush us, but this never happens.
  • The capitalist understands that to improve competition, he must encourage monopolies.
  • Just as the advent of printing created a market for medieval culture, the advent of the Net will build an audience for book authors.
  • The advertising gives the group of consumers its identity and raison d'etre, and with a little bit of priming the group then begins to interact and entertain itself.
  • The Net is the premier invention of the digital era. It is not about finding anything. It is about superfluous connections and wasting time.
Welcome to the New Wired. Where the internet is a device for wasting time and consuming advertising, and where corporate control of the net is an objective to be lauded.

Wired 4.02 embraces the New McLuhan big time: a Steve Jobs feature, a glowing look at the Spam King, a defense of low wages, a restatement of the anti-cypherpunk thesis, and a trashing of India's software industry. In Wired 4.03, Time's managing editor, Walter Isaacson and Jim Barksdale, the former head of Federal Express and McCaw Cellular. And the smarming was on...

But there was still a lot of good stuff...

The Resistance Network. Wired 4.01 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.01/departments/electrosphere/countrynet.html "For Americans, if it doesn't happen on CNN, it doesn't happen." The net as resistance movement.

The Berlusconi of the Net. Wired 4.01 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.01/departments/electrosphere/video.on.line.html Video On Line is staking its future on local content offered in the local language - but through global media. Cool idea. Never heard from them again.

Who Am We? Wired 4.01 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.01/features/turkle.html Computers are not just changing our lives but changing our selves. From MUDs to multi-tasking, the new technology results in new thought processes.

Advertising Webonomics 101. Wired 4.02 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.02/webonomics.html The Web should not become yet another mass medium, but rather the first truly interactive one. Others took this advice to heart, but not HotWired.

The Cutting Edge. Wired 4.03 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.03/cutting.edge.html As you leave, there is an exhibit detailing the pathogenic effect of the inhalation of a spore by a large West African ant. The Stanford omputer scientist as rebel? Sure, why not.

Wisecrackers. Wired 4.03 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.03/features/crackers.html It may roundly be asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve." The hacker as anti-cypherpunk. They're still pushing the same theme, but it's an interesting article.

"Americans Are Not As Free As We Think We Are." Wired 4.04 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.04/es.states.html We can't count on print media or television to tell us when our liberties are jeopardized at the state level. I have mixed feelings about this whole campaign. Sure, I support freedom of speech on the internet. I participated in Dave Winer's 24 Hours of Democracy and I still have a blue ribbon on my home page. But were our online civil liberties really in any jeopardy? I'm not so sure about that. And in retrospect, I wonder if this wasn't all some big distraction.

Sex, Lies and Avatars. Wired 4.04. http://www.wired.com/wired/4.04/features/turkle.html The postmodern situation: our many stories. We are multiple. We tell our many stories many ways. An interesting look at the sense of self in the information age. The real McLuhan would have approved.

Bots Are Hot!. Wired 4.04 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.04/features/netbots.html Flattie and Int3nSity hit #riskybus on the afternoon of October 23, seizing control of the popular Internet Relay Chat game channel after nick colliding all the humans right off the net. The Human Macro-organism as Fungus. Wired 4.04 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.04/features/viermenhouk.html The Internet is little more than the nervous system of our human macro-organism. Another expression of the 'Internet as Gaia' hypotheses. And instance of the Something Wonderful is Going to Happen meme.

The Great Web Wipeout. Wired 4.04 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.04/features/wipeout.html The dream ended quietly for the once scorching Web site known as The Spot. I was an original Spotnik, as we called ourselves, one of the chorus that littered the Spotboard with our theories, accusations and dreams. The Spot peaked when it was named Cool Site of the Year in 1995; after that, it was all downhill. But in its time, it was a web original. The Spot never did get any good coverage in Wired. Too bad. p.s. The article notwithstanding, The Spot never did unplug its computers. You can see it all at http://www.thespot.com/.

I actually liked Wired 4.04.

Caught by Coherent Light. Wired 4.05 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.05/es.counterfeiters.html Chen finally came clean: he wanted Armstrong to copy the hologram affixed to Microsoft software. The bad guys (they used to be good guys) get tossed in jail at Microsoft's behest. The 'Information wants to be free' mantra has now made a complete turnaround in the pages of Wired.

Memetic Engineering. Wired 4.05 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.05/idees.fortes/memetic.html This is the disquieting vision that Daniel Dennett proffered � the human mind as a mere meat computer, conscious human beings as puppets dancing to the blind watchmaker's hidden melodies. It would have helped if the author had also read Brainstorms or any of Dennett's other thoughtful works. Wired's psycholiteracy on the wane.

Seek and Ye Shall Find (Maybe). Wired 4.05 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.05/features/indexweb.html If the entire Web can be organized, that goes a long way toward organizing all of knowledge as well. This was the last really great article in Wired. http://www.wired.com/wired/4.05/features/stone.html In many ways, the cat with the transmitter and me with the headphones was the first actualization of what Gibson called "simstim." Gibson is invoked in so many ways...

Wired 4.06 features Bill gates on the cover (again) and a reorganization. Not a good sign.

Metaworlds. Wired 4.06 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.06/features/avatar.html The best man has the head of a cartoon cat. The maid of honor seems to be a panda. How do you make money from MUDs? Create cute little cartoon characters, and charge users for the interface. That's what Time-Warner's The Palace did. An interesting article, but less of an analysis and more of a promo for TW's brave new Internet. This article would have been much more interesting as a serious look at the ongoing efforts being made by many wizard to create graphical MUDs, and some discussion of whether that's a good idea.

Pachinko �ber Alles. Wired 4.06 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.06/features/pachinko.html I want to broadcast pachinko culture to the world. Japan resurfaces in Wired - as the purveyor of mindless entertainment. Hm.

"What they've done is learn not only how to do the job," says Mataric�, "but how to do it efficiently as a group. That's very different. Of course, it would be possible to have a society of completely greedy individuals, but that wouldn't work well � there would be too much interference, like if we all tried to squeeze out the door at the same time."

Obviously that's true, but how does she get the robots � programmed to collect the pucks individually � to think in terms of the group?

"Well, that's the tricky part," says Mataric�, "biasing the system to give them some impetus to do things that have no payoff to them as individuals. There are animals that act in this way all the time. They sublimate their own goals for the good of the group. And that's what we're trying to get the robots to do here."

Jerry Shine describing Maja Mataric's work with robots in Wired 4.06. What I like about edge philosophy is how subversive it is.

Herd Mentality. Wired 4.06 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.06/esherd.html You can get intelligence, Brooks asserts, simply by stacking up reflexes until a system of behavior begins to emerge � a controversial proposition, to say the least. So also said Minsky in The Society of Mind. Could government work this way? Could the internet work this way?

Somebody left the gates open in Wired 4.07. Ignoring Katz's Cyber-Rights for Kids article, we get a pretty good issue...

Digital Video Discs. Wired 4.07 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.07/geek.page.html DVD players will be capable of reading discs seven times the density of normal discs. And I thought I would be using CD-ROMs for life. Silly me.

Computer Insect. Wired 4.07 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.07/es.sinobug.html What's the basic element of computing? Binary notation! That's the theory of yin and yang. Copyright? You want to talk copyright?? China reasserts itself.

The Net ensures that "news judgment" decisions are no longer made solely by the pros, like Kurtz or Vanocur, who think they know what's best for us. Those decisions are in our hands now. So the task is no longer to find the newspaper editor we can trust � we must become that editor ourselves.
Mike godwin, in Wired 4.07
Daily Planet. Wired 4.07 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.07/idees.fortes/daily.html Kurtz and his confreres use the most frivolous talk on the Net as an excuse to dismiss its value as a source of journalism.

Is Phoenix Burning. Wired 4.07 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.07/features/srl.html The invisible becomes visible, everything that is repressed in the sterile prison of so-called rational engineering returns in a hideous and terribly authentic guise of claws and spikes and fangs. What Bruce Sterling gets is that the edge is a messy place, where Good Tools are contorted and twisted and made to do things they were never intended to do.

The Cult at the End of the World. Wired 4.07 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.07/features/aum.html "We have a new initiation," said the cult doctor. "Please drink this." Japanese cyberpunk.

>What I, and IMHO others, look for in a site is content and
>design that conforms to the good design standards developed in
>the paper-publishing world.

Oh gawd. That explains everything. Let me say this and say this loudly and firmly: THE WEB IS NOT PRINT. THE WEB IS NOT PRINT. THE WEB IS NOT PRINT.

Glenn Davis, echoing some of the themes of this post, in today's issue of "A List Apart". (http://www.alistapart.com - aka, the edge).

Intelligent RAM. Wired 4.08 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.08/geek.page.html IRAM may finish off the job that Patterson started with RISC: destroying the Intel and Motorola duopoly. Or, we may have to wait for the DOJ.

Dejpu'bogh Hov rur qablli! Wired 4.08 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.08/es.languages.html In Klingon, "belief" often translates as saliva. Which would make spitting polite. Language informs culture. Hm?

The Electronic Scriptorium. Wired 4.08 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.08/es.cybermonks.html "We just couldn't get the same quality offshore in Jamaica. With the monks, we get quite a lot for our money." Cybermonks. This article is just... odd.

Japan Enters the Crypto Wars. Wired 4.09 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.09/es.crypto.html So, will events in Tokyo or Paris decide the future of encryption controls? The answer is Tokyo. Not everything revolves around Congress. Crypto is a case in point.

Space Case. Wired 4.09 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.09/es.sky.html Being edgy is looking at a glossy brochure from a LEO satellite company and saying, "No, I want something better." And knowing what better would be, in the context.

Lost in Translation. Wired 4.09 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.09/idees.fortes/translation.html Unicode's available 65,536 codes could not support the more than 75,000 Chinese (sic) characters used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. What we need here is a better idea. Wired used to supply those.

Go With The Flow. Wired 4.09 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.09/features/czik.html People enter Web sites hoping to be led somewhere, hoping for a payoff. Too many choices are as bad as too few. Interactivity is no virtue if it has no point. This article is a good attempt at understanding the medium.

Netheads vs Bellheads. Wired 4.10 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.10/features/atm.html I felt as if a curtain had been stripped away, exposing a hidden side of the industry - and revealing that much of what I thought I knew about ATM was wrong. This is still an interesting debate. And now that the telcos own most of the internet, will they start changing the technology? We need more on this.

What Would McLuhan Say? Wired 4.10 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.10/features/dekerckhove.html Today, identity is a point of being. We add the new possibilities of mixed identities, collective identities, just-in-time identities, fabricated identities. Geekdom is about constructing realities, beginning with ourselves. It's an idea worth exploring from all angles.

Jet-Powered Computers. Wired 4.10 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.10/es_embedded.html A hundred years ago, electric motors were relatively large "stand-alone" devices. Love the analogy. This article is a good example of taking a good idea and running with it. Wired used to do this all the time. Now it's oh so rare.

Machine Translation: Using interlinguas to map between languages. Wired 4.10 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.10/geek_page.html Languages have structures and systems. They work in quite mechanical ways. This makes machine translation (MT) a possibility. Jacking In. Wired 4.11 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.11/geek_page.html The key to harnessing brain-actuation techniques is to assemble a suite of EEG signatures that users can control simultaneously. And I always thought brain-controlled interfaces would require direct physical contact between brain and machine. Silly me.

That's it for Wired 4.11 - when it came out I finished the iss in about an hour. A far cry from the beer-soaked days of Wired 3.01. Why? Let's let the epigram tell the story:

"The Web Dream is what smart kids across America are dreaming. Here's a cheap and easy-to-use medium that lets anyone seize the attention of the planet...It'll hardly cost a dime and you might get rich. Fuck waiting in line for your turn. Piss in the milk of oligarchy. Take the money ...then run like hell."

Joshua Quittner, in Wired 4.11

And the rest of the issue - it's about "Money, power, ego-fulfillment -- and the quick Sell Out (aka Suck)". But for us, it wasn't the money. It was never the money. Geekdom isn't a get-rich-quick scheme. That was always the domain of the Wall Street barons - you know, the enemy.

Mother Earth Mother Board. Wired 4.12 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.12/features/ffglass.html By "human capital" I mean their ability to dispatch weather-beaten operatives such as the Lan Tao Island crowd to difficult places like Suez and have them know their asses from their elbows. A little history never hurt anyone.

Qua. Wired 4.12 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.12/features/ffmassalin.html You feel kind of stupid when you don't understand a genius. The famous piggy-back man. Good stuff.

Thinking About Thinking. Wired 4.12 People don't learn enough science. They are methodologically impaired: their causal reasoning is about the same as that of a chimpanzee or a fox. Remember the good long articles about Papert and Schank? This one - featuring Paul Churchland - is a fraction of the size - a snippet, really - and leaves you wanting more. But then, of course, it would get technical...

It's December, my Wired is finished in a couple of hours, and I'm wondering what went wrong. Well, here are two articles which are suggestive...

Beyond the Banner. Wired 4.12 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.12/esadvertising.html The formation of the IAB is just the latest sign that forces are trying to turn the once-eclectic Web into the ultimate 24-hour marketing machine.

Reclaim the Deadzone. Wired 4.12 http://www.wired.com/wired/4.12/esmadsen.html The beleaguered Web banner can be zapped into an effective and eye-popping advertising shingle. But radical surgery awaits. Eye-popping, yes. Eye-rending, eye-tearing, eye-slagging. These two articles demonstrate all that went wrong with what we thought we had at the end of 1994.

What happened, really? It's this (my emphasis)...

But in the midst of this lofty goal-setting, the advertisers - the people who write the checks that sustain many a Web site - make it clear they want a new role in the brave new world of the Internet. No longer are they content to simply paste their ads on a cracker-sized piece of Web real estate. And forget about trying to attract attention through gimmicky multicolored onscreen eyeballs that blink when you click them. Instead, advertisers want to work hand in hand with publishers to coproduce the material that packs Web pages. In essence, they want to abolish the Web as we know it.

Joan Voight, in Wired 4.12

That's what happened. To Wired. To Hotwired.

[5. The Corporate Shill]