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

5. The Corporate Shill

Trust is one of those metaphysical concepts the Web has already thrown into high relief. Am I chatting with a man or a woman? A person or a bot? Most netizens are already well aware of the problem: the medium itself isn't geared - right now, anyway - for easy verification. One can agree, to paraphrase free speech advocates, that the best antidote to bad information is more information. But amid the surfeit of potentially dubious data, a lot of people learn very quickly to be unselfconsciously, even involuntarily, suspicious. Because the bar for presenting things honestly on the Web is pitifully low, suspicion is very nearly hardwired into the nature of netizenship.
What happens, then, if it's the advertisers writing the content?

News You Can Abuse. Wired 5.01 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.01/netizen.html It's always worth pointing out that the Net hardly invented bad information. Wired 5.01 focusses on artificial intelligence. It looks like a return to the heady days when the mag explored a subject from all angles from an insider's point of view. This time? The 'experts' are Stanley Kubrick, to cover the movies angle, and Arthur C. Clark, to cover the book angle. Add a fetaure on Douglas Trumbull's special effects and a short story by Brian Aldiss and you have... pap.

As always with the New Wired, the best stuff is hidden in the corners...

Cellular Obsessions. Wired 5.01 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.01/features/ffisraeli.html A brief jaunt almost anyplace in Israel these days reveals that the Jewish state is chock-full of cell phones.

Evolution Revolution. Wired 5.01 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.01/features/ffgenome.html Once the full sequence of human DNA has been disassembled and annotated, we will be able to recompile the resulting code for our own purposes. Well, it wasn't exactly news, but this article on the Human Genome Project was interesting.

Digital Underground. Wired 5.01 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.01/esgrayzone.html Early one Tuesday morning in July 1996, Dorothy Sherman was doing what her rock-star clients hire her to do: getting the goods on music bootleggers. Notice how the point of view has shifted since the days of Wired 1.x

The Doomslayer. Wired 5.02 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.02/features/ffsimon.html "It's the difference," he says, "between a speculative analysis of what must happen versus my empirical analysis of what has happened over the long sweep of history." Hey, this is a neat approach, one only Wired could try: set up the corporate shill as the hacker working outside the mainstream. Give him a straw man to work against. Oh, for the days when Wired authors actually understood Deep Ecology (cf. Deep Technology, Wired 3.10).

Lifestreams. Wired 5.02 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.02/features/fflifestreams.html Lifestreams takes a completely different approach: instead of organizing by space, it organizes by time. It is a diary rather than a desktop. Hey, a cool concept that's not owned by Microsoft.

Head Start. Wired 5.02 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.02/esberger.html Berger won't rest until he has built a bionic brain. I gues you do need implants in the brain, after all.

Hart of the Gutenberg Galaxy. Wired 5.02 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.02/esgutenberg.html Since Hart first typed the American Declaration of Independence into a U of I mainframe 26 years ago, Gutenberg has put about 1,000 titles online. You gotta know the publishers just hate him for this.

The Father of the Web. Wired 5.03 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.03/features/ff_father.html I really expected it to be more interactive. For instance, why isn't all email hypertext? Good question. We haven't seen a Wired analysis of email since 1994.

Hangin with The Fat Man. Wired 5.03 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.03/es_fatman.html "The record companies can't give you this music because it's too risky," he says. "We can make it any length. We can use any instrument. The lyrics can be about anything we want. We don't kiss anybody's ass." Sounds like making a film score would be a demotion.

ADSL. Wired 5.03 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.03/geek_page.html The need for higher speed Web access that avoids tying up telephone voice switches, as modems and ISDN do, is driving the commercial development of ADSL technology. A good advance notice from the Geek Corner.

Wired's big PUSH issue (Wired 5.03) is a good indication of what happens when you let the market guys control the content. Wired was off on this one - waaaayyyyy off. Not for lack of hype. Rather, for lack of understanding the new media.

Simnet. Wired 5.04 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.04/marinedoom/ff_simnet.html Thorpe's plan, which he later described in an academic paper, was to build a network of interacting simulators. I am reminded of Star Trek's Chekov, who always reminded us that the Russians invented this or this. If it's simulations we're after - well, Pong (which I played in the arcade when it came out) was the first simulator. But Cyberspace - Gibson's or otherwise - is not simulation. It's a different reality.

What we see - more and more as Wired moves away from the source - is the magazine just getting the concepts wrong.

The Internet Revolution. Wired 5.04 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.04/belgrade/ff_belgrad.html The antithesis of information transparency is information opacity... Opacity is the absolute prerequisite for successful thought control. Good lessons for the information age, courtesy of the Serbian underground.

Katz's The Digital Nation appears in Wired 5.04. Amazing how the consumer Katz describes is almost exactly that revealed in the 'poll' in Wired 5.12 - and even more amazing how the results differed from the Wired poll described in Wired 3.09 at a time when the web was even more homogenious. Honesty, thy virtue is lost...

Warez Wars. Wired 5.04 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.04/warez/ff_warez.html In Phil's world, warez are a menace. In warez world, Phil is. Phil is losing. Now, though, the tone is not triumph, but alarm.

No Freedom of Information. Wired 5.04 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.04/es_freedom.html In some ways, the whole debate boils down to who owns the information - the government or private citizens? Or corporations? Remember the Eqauifax article? Of course, they're the good guys now.

The Epic Saga of The Well. Wired 5.05 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.05/features/ff_well.html Mandel had been one of the most visible members of the club, and although he had actually laid eyes on only a handful of the other people, this was the place he wanted to go to die. It wasn't my community, so I can't say... but this article succeeds in drawing out the sense in which online community really works.

In Search of the Electronic Brain. Wired 5.05 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.05/es_evolutionary.html "I'd like to try to evolve lifelike behaviors inside virtual worlds and then download them to the real world." AI 101. So people will be able to read the heady articles of Wired 1.x and 2.x

Reversible Logic. Wired 5.05 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.05/geek_page.html Landauer's work eventually led to the development of reversible computing - a system that recycles leftover bits and their energies instead of dissipating them as heat. And you scoffed at recycling...

Following the end of the Cold War, certain developed nations (meaning the United States and its allies) are determined to protect their own interests by labeling themselves as internationalists. They pretend to be the benefactors of all mankind, while constantly expanding their sphere of influence and attempting to contain the development of others. ... They want to envelop everything in their information umbrella.

- Yang Xueshan, head of the State Information Center's Capital Investment Office

The Chinese aversion to corporate control was depicted as deeply cultural in the Old Wired (In the Kingdom of Mao Bell. Wired 2.02). But in the New Wired, it just gets painted with the tired brush of socialism and denounced as subversive. What changed in the last three years? The medium? Or the message?

The Great Firewall of China. Wired 5.06 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.06/china.html "If the Chinese cracked down on the Internet, the average businessman would not move out," McGregor says. "These are not such dramatic things that companies would be affected in terms of profitability." Hm?

The Long Bloom. Wired 5.07 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.07/longboom.html We're facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that? Barring an Asian economic meltdown, of course, or a nuclear exchange in south Asia. Another case of Wired getting it wrong.

The Body as Password. Wired 5.07 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.07/biometrics.html Our unique biological characteristics - hand geometry, eye structure, fingerprints, voice patterns, even the way we smell - are being mapped and digitized as part of a booming new industry. What I want to know is - how does this affect culture?

Plotting Away in Margaritaville. Wired 5.07 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.07/crypto.html Can the Net preserve its state of unregulated freedom as it matures into a vast worldwide society supporting all kinds of financial transactions? It can, if technology can accomplish what the police failed to do: enforce honesty. But one wonders if people want to be that free...

Thinking Big. Wired 5.08 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.08/malaysia.html "Don't you think it's strange," I remark, "that the same guy who banned Schindler's List is now guaranteeing a censorship-free Internet?" Oh yes, there will be lessons to be drawn from Asia.

Private Spy. Wired 5.08 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.08/spy.html In a matter of weeks, anyone with a Net connection and a bank balance should have access to a commercial high-resolution, earth-imaging system: a time-share spy satellite. It would beat the hell outta Seinfeld. But again - give us analysis, not hype. What would life be like in such an environment?

It Takes a Village to Make a Mall. Wired 5.08 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.08/hagel.html He believes the road to Net profit is to let online commerce reinforce virtual community. Gosh, you'd think he just discovered it. MUDders have known it for years. But then, they weren't Harvard business professors.

Companies attempting to survive, much less prosper, in these new environments are going to be ill served by traditional business-school notions... The chief objective of a company now is to maximize value for the Web. This is counterintuitive to most senior management, particularly those coming at this from outside the computer industry. Traditional management reaction to high uncertainty is "I want to maximize control," whereas the real operating principle here is "Don't try to control everything. Share the risk. Get others involved."

- John Hagel, in Wired 5.08

It's been a year since Net.Gain and the HotWired community has become more closed, not more open, despite not only the advice in the book, but also the mantra from HotWired's early days. Wired would have done a lot better if it had learned from informed analysis of the net, rather than the pseudophilosophy expressed in The Digital Nation and The Long Bloom.

No. Instead we have...
WiredE.print prices:

US$5/ per copy for permission to make up to 100 copies
US$4/ per copy for permission to make up to 200 copies
US$3/ per copy for permission to make more than 200 copies
From the ad in the Wired 5.09 archive. And you have to pay the printing costs yourself. These guys just don't get it.

(D)Riven. Wired 5.09 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.09/riven.html Asked to define what they were doing, Rand used the phrase "immersive environments." Seeking the sequel to Myst. And understanding what made Myst so different.

New Rules for the New Economy. Wired 5.09 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.09/newrules.html Repetition, sequels, copies, and automation all tend toward the free, while the innovative, original, and imaginative all soar in value. What gets me is that the 12 principles went over with, well, a thud. See WiredE.prints, above.

The Next Big Thing Is HTML. Wired 5.09 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.09/geek.html Despite the tremendous advantages of online distribution, the Web's fast rise really derailed multimedia development. It looks like DHTML is finally putting things back on track. Of course, to judge by the browser stats, people didn't think it was such a big deal. Like push. Another miss for Wired.

Building a Learning Society. Wired 5.10 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.10/learning.html It's wrong for educators to think they can totally control how and what someone is going to learn. Some good stuff in this article. Too bad it's so superficial.

The Bleeding Edge. Wired 5.10 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.10/es_gaming.html If you're looking for what's next in online technology and commerce, just follow the gamers. Words of wisdom for Wired editors. And if you want to understand why the internet works, understand why online games work.

If you're wondering, I left out the otherwise cool articles "Eli Noam Wants to Disturb You", "Map the Genome, Hack the Genome", and "Wireless Gets Real" because they were done earlier and better in previous issues of Wired. Can we say "encore presentation"?

The Call of the Wired . Wired 5.11 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.11/arctic.html The outposts, hamlets, towns, and cities of both entities (of Canada's Northwest Territories) will be linked, for the first time, to a high-speed digital network most US Internet subscribers would be happy to access. Government intervention in action.

Heart of Darkness. Wired 5.11 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.11/heartof.html "This program was written in the city of Sofia © 1988-89 Dark Avenger." An interesting exploration.

They Coulda Been a Contender. Wired 5.11 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.11/es_apple.html The Rise and fall of Apple. Fascinating reading. Raises the same complaints I'm raising here.

Pattie . Wired 5.12 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.12/maes.html If you can define your interests and have your agent serve them up, you have the potential to simplify the world, narrowing it down to comfortable ideas and people who think like you. I spent Christmas vacation of 1996 exploring Firefly (www.firefly.com) inside and out. It informed my own coding for the next year. That was a full year before Wired decided it was worth mentioning, despite its wide reputation and demonstrated success. What prompted Wired to finally look at the site? Well - it could be because in late 1997, Microsoft decided to joine the alliance promoting Firefly's "Open Profiling Standard". This was a huge story, which Wired sat on for a year. Earth to Wired: geeks want the scoop before it becomes a mass media meme.

The Brain Builder . Wired 5.12 http://www.wired.com/wired/5.12/degaris.html By the late 21st century, you're talking huge computing capacities with 1030 or 1040 components. Compare that to our brains, which have around 1010 - that is, tens of billions - neurons. Tantalizing, big vision stuff. Remember?

We have two really interesting models of cognition (and therefore, of media, of the internet, and of government) at work here: the Minsky idea, where the components are semi-intelligent, autonomous agents, roaming around at will guided by a few basic rules, and the connectionist idea, wherein cognition rests in the patterns of interaction between interconnected neurons. In both cases, intelligence of the whole is an emergent phenomenon, something which is greater than the sum of the parts. This is the basis in the end for the 'Gaia Hypothesis' thinking about the internet, the idea that Something Wonderful is going to Happen.

The genius of Wired in its early years was that it tapped into this idea.

The failure of Wired - except for brief flashes, such as the two just cited - is that it has abandoned the idea. Instead of asking, "How does a meme interact with other memes?" it asks "How does a meme make money?" theerby focussing on a particular - and outdated - idea. The really interesting question is not, "Who makes the most money," but rather, "Who makes the most interesting world?"

1997 was the year of Wired as the corporate shill, abandoning any pretense of objectivity or of interest in the same thing that stirred the loins of geeks, instead opting to kowtow to the loci of control.

Because of that, we found we could no longer trust Wired.

[6. The Sell-Out]