December 1998
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen



My story is like many others, at least until you get to the part where I implant programmable Lego products into my urethra, but we won't get to that part of the story today. No, readers, today we follow the all-too-familiar sine wave of Web evolution, using the all-too-familiar Wired magazine as a guide.

The year was 1995. Alanis was at the top of the charts and I was a young, strapping buck, full of dreams and unaware of my own potent, primitive sexuality. Fresh out of beauty college and sending my resumes to the top thirty Supercutses around the nation. As I flew back and forth between interviews, I was starved for reading material and one day I made the fateful decision to pick up the headache-y bright Wired instead of the usual Women's Day.

The effects of what I saw within can only be described by cheap slang cliches. It "blew my mind." It "rocked my world." It was "a nonstop orgy of dope grooviness." The Internet, and the Web in particular, said Wired magazine, was going to change every single aspect of human culture and society. Period. By connecting every human being to every other human being, by putting freedom of speech and creative expression into the hands of all, by giving everyone a voice, the Internet was going to topple governments, create entirely new art forms, break down geopolitical barriers, assemble a new global economy - basically everything up to and including buying the world a Coke and teaching it how to sing. To the writers and editors of Wired, this was not blatant, stomach-churning hyperbole, but rather a foregone conclusion. And their preaching was so breathless and convincing that I was instantly converted.

Does the fact that I swallowed all of this almost without question say more about my wide-eyed optimism/ignorance at the time or the polished mastery of the magazine? Immaterial! The point is that I bought it. There was something in almost every article that made me look into the distance, jaw slack and mind aflame. I wasted no time in getting an AOL account and then quickly fleeing to a local ISP. A wretched homepage was soon to follow. I was one of the millions.

Wired continued to be my bible. The issues were so heavy and glossy that I was loathe to throw any of them away. I read the thing cover to cover, which is no mean feat because it's dense with content. You'd think something so design-heavy and about the Web would be as trifling and unfilling as they come, but it was packed with text, with factoids in minuscule type filling in the borders. I remember one Neal Stephenson feature article that was over 60 pages long. Where's that kind of monstrous bloat, O venerable New Yorker? Wired was rich with unbelievable ideas, new technologies, wild theories, and an amazing collection of personalities.

A year later, I let my subscription lapse. The magazine became something to skim. The big-ass articles no longer held the same potency. I tossed my collected issues into one superheavy garbage bag and sent them to the landfill. What happened?

More cliches: I changed. The world changed. The Web became exactly what it was supposed to, given the thought processes, dynamics, and vision of human beings: A place to seek attention. Attention in the form of buyers, sellers, hate, love, sex - the usual. It's certainly neato, and although it's cluttered up the world with a vast amount of crap, there's still plenty to enjoy. The Web is possibly the most useful construction to ever come down the pike. But when you get down to it, we're still creating and consuming the same stuff - all that's changed is the venue. And now that it's firmly settled in the public consciousness, now that we can discuss and analyze it without the need for extensive introductions and metaphors, now that there's a movie called "You've Got Mail" and a Garry Trudeau-penned Silicon Valley sitcom coming out, we realize that the Web is not going to have quite the momentous effect on all aspects of life that Wired predicted back in the day.

So where does that leave the magazine? It seems to now be following the time-honored tradition of waking up from idealistic dreams and scrambling to re-evaluate and adapt in order to survive. Wired always seemed spiritually (and perhaps superficially) connected to the hippies, with its exhortations of a global village, an emphasis on community and decentralization, predictions of mass revolution, and a refreshingly unrealistic optimism. But although the world was changed in some significant ways due to their efforts, The Revolution didn't happen. Like the love children who peaked and crashed and came to in the '70s, Wired suddenly found itself bought out by Conde Nast and having to change their focus. It was, after all, a magazine and not a bible. It had to sell, and so it had to be interesting to those people with the crucial disposable income. So now, when flipping through Wired, the overwhelming emphasis is on business. What's this month's sexy centerfold? "Your foldout guide to every nation's tech wealth." We delve deep into the rather tepid psyches of technology CEOs. Instead of the proverbial "Get Wired" on the cover, we get the new "The Business of Change."

The thing is, this really isn't a 180 for Wired magazine, merely a sharpening of its focus, and this was just as inevitable as the commodification of the Web. Wired's cover boys were always balding, spooky CEOs and much of the content (e.g., the Fetish section, where they feature Sharper Image-like expensive tech toys) was always geared toward that juicy Web demographic of wealthy white males. They're more realistic now; we're all here to make some money in a novel and perhaps more entertaining fashion. The most likely revolution will be economic, and while that makes for a tedious read for the joes like me who built their ugly homepages on Wired's foundation, it's the only way to stay afloat.

And now I find myself working at Wired Digital, a place that consists almost entirely of echoes from the past. Many of the old-school people are still there, still plugging away, but with Lycos buying out the company there's definitely an elegiac mood. The chaos and passion of the glory days are long gone, and we're left to figure out what to do next, how best to use what we've learned to create something that's both valuable (read: profitable) and meaningful, or if those two concepts are now mutually exclusive.



in the junk drawer

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