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Wired unplugged

Despite editor/publisher Louis Rossetto's insistence that his magazine is still reassuringly Gutenbergian, printed on "non-glossy, recycled papers," the reader can't escape the nagging suspicion that Wired is actually the shape-shifting android from Terminator 2, disguised as a magazine.

Wired is a Mighty Morphin PowerBook. Despite editor/publisher Louis Rossetto's insistence that his magazine is still reassuringly Gutenbergian, printed on "non-glossy, recycled papers," the reader can't escape the nagging suspicion that Wired is actually the shape-shifting android from Terminator 2, disguised as a magazine. [1]
Like the liquid metal T-1000, whose "mimetic polyalloy" enables it to morph into "anything it samples by physical contact," Wired uses digital technology to "vacuum up all references within the known history of mankind," according to creative director John Plunkett, who in collaboration with his partner Barbara Kuhr designed the magazine.

Equal parts corporate annual report and cyberdelic migraine, Sharper Image catalogue and The Medium is the Massage, Wired is the limit case for postmodern technodazzle in graphic design, pushing the eyestrain envelope to just this side of unreadability. (It falls to magazines with a younger, fringier demographic, like Ray Gun and Poppin' Zits, to shatter the legibility barrier into postliterate fragments.) Plunkett and Kuhr's design is meant to communicate the sped-up, off-center whirl of late 20th century culture, the cowabunga fun of surfing the Third Wave.

Wired's logo and coverlines are printed in hot pink, orange, and yellow fluorescent inks that simultaneously evoke neon nightlife and the high-resolution color monitor. The four-page introductory spread invites comparison to movie titles and cinematic montage: a quote from one of the issue's contributors unfurls across checkerboards, supersaturated color fields, and resonant images from our collective memory (Walter Cronkite, happy shoppers, mushroom clouds).
Immediately after the contents pages comes "Electric Word", an eight-page barrage of newsbriefs and product reports whose layout crosses the hard-edged geometry of Bauhaus design with the stroboscopic editing and in-your-face camerawork of MTV: images inset in colored rectangles float over blocks of prose, headlines chop articles in half, and a gossip column set in type so small and light it can only be read with a jeweler's eyepiece slices horizontally across the entire section. " 'Electric Word'", says Plunkett, is "where we've deliberately pushed as hard as we could against the conventional linear presentation of information." When many readers talk about the magazine, he notes, they're really talking about "Electric Word"; it is there that Wired's aesthetic attains its sci-fi apotheosis, erupting through the body of the text like some chest-bursting Alien.

Most of the feature articles that follow are presented in a (relatively) straightforward manner, with about one notable exception per issue: Wired 1.1's notorious feature on the Otaku, which ran sideways, with a sidebar running down the middle in a purple stripe; William Gibson's cover story in 1.4, faintly visible through hazy swaths of color and blown-up buzzwords; and, in the same issue, my interview with Manuel De Landa and Mark Pauline, drastically abridged to accommodate an eye-crossing spread laid out like a checkerboard, with squares of prose hopscotching over photos. [Conflict-of-interest disclaimer: the media bias police will see score-settling in the last example; most will take it for what it is---a subjective view of deconstructionist magazine design, from the perspective of the body (copy) on the operating table.]

Because Wired is an unabashed commodity fetish that delights in the play of images across its glossy surface, it invites the throwaway critique that it is nothing but surface. This mistake has been made before, in the denunciation of cyberpunk SF as "literary MTV" (George Slusser), the dead end of postmodernism's obsession with texture and quotation. In Wired's case as in cyberpunk's, this reductionist write-off is too easy. Langdon Winner, a penetrating critic of technoculture, revealed an uncharacteristic blind spot when he dismissed Wired as vapid technophilia, wrapped in seductive packaging. "For those in the middle of a cyborgasm," he wrote, in Technology Review, "there is evidently little need to think." [2] Reading Winner, one senses an implied causality between Wired's supposed vacuity and its "surrealistic images in Day-Glo colors" and "jumbled mix of typefaces." [3
There is a hint of puritan censoriousness here, a deep-rooted distrust of flamboyant display and Dionysian abandon that makes strange bedfellows of moralists on the left and the right. Winner's charge that cyberzines such as Wired are "cyberpornography," "bombarding their readers with pure sensation for sensation's sake," resonates sympathetically with conservative calls for the exorcism of '60s libertinism.

On the contrary, I would argue that Wired, far from being depthless, is dense with ideas. Indeed, it has become a bully pulpit for corporate futurists, laissez-faire evangelists, and prophets of privatization. In 1.5, the futurist Alvin Toffler bemoans the fact that the shortsighted U.S. is airdropping food rather than fax machines and camcorders in the former Yugoslavia, and that Washington is concerned with ho-hum Second Wave issues such as the decaying urban infrastructure when it should be paving the Information Superhighway. In 1.4, George Gilder, an apostle of info-capitalism, reweaves the threadbare myth that in the near future, when each of us commands the googlebytes of a supercomputer, economic and political power will be magically redistributed. (This cherished article of cybercratic faith underwrote Newt Gingrich's so-called "Let Them Eat Laptops" speculation that perhaps the government should provide "the poorest Americans" with laptops---after it has unburdened them of frivolous entitlements such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, presumably.)
And in issue 1.3, Peter Drucker, the Moses of management theory, reprises the corporate-friendly refrain that since our post-industrial culture runs on information, the blue- collar worker is obsolete---a joyful noise to managerial ears in an age of outsourcing and downsizing, but bitter music to former laborers, now consigned to the subsistence wage purgatory of the service industry. No matter, consoles Drucker disciple and corporate futurologist Peter Schwartz: "massive unemployment...became the fertile ground in which Silicon Valley bloomed." [4]

In the silicon social Darwinism ostensibly popular with the 33-year-old, 81k-earning male who is Wired's typical reader, the evolutionary race goes to the wunderkind "small player" enshrined in computer industry myth (Bill Gates, the two Steves who founded Macintosh); the unskilled and the de-skilled masses are stampeded in the mad rush to the millennium. "Tofflerism-Gingrichism," asserts Hendrik Hertzberg in a recent New Yorker essay, is not unlike Marxism-Leninism in its "worship of technology," its "know- it-all certainty," its "scientism," its "'revolutionary' rapture." [5] There is, he notes, a "similar exhilaration that comes from being among the select few to whom the mysteries and the meaning of history are vouchsafed...a similar patronizing contempt for those who don't 'get it' and are therefore fated to be swept into the dustbin of history." [6]
It does not follow, however, that the party organ of Tofflerism-Gingrichism recognizes a family resemblance on the Left. Wired makes no pretense of ideological balance---Winner and other left/liberal critics of smiley face free-market futurism get no airtime in its pages---and its heady vision of a high-resolution, broad-bandwidth future is dangerously myopic, blind to environmental concerns, race relations, gender politics, and labor issues. But, misbegotten though many of them may be, there's no dearth of ideas in Wired.

Moreover, though it sometimes drowns out textual meaning, Wired's visual cacophony reverberates with meanings of its own. In fact, its design embodies its editorial ideology, prepping what Marshall McLuhan called Typographic Man for his millennial metamorphosis into Homo Cyber, reconciling 21st century cybercapitalism and countercultural rebellion. Not for nothing is McLuhan listed as "Patron Saint" on the magazine's masthead: in Wired, the medium is the message.

At the same time, Wired inverts McLuhan's theory of "rear- view mirrorism," which states that the content of each new medium is the medium it superseded (early movies emulated stage plays, for example). By contrast, Wired's "cyborgasmic" graphics are a computer simulation of things to come; Plunkett and Kuhr wanted the magazine to look "as though it had literally landed at your feet as a messenger from the future."
But there are ironic quotes within quotes, here. Wired is also always telegraphing its own putative obsolescence by harking back to the Gutenberg Galaxy: its square spine, coated cover, matte paper stock, book size, and Bodoni-esque Waldbaum serif typeface (evocative, says Plunkett, of "the Renaissance, the first full flowering of what printing presses could do") all say "book." The "messenger from the future" arrives wrapped in the legitimating mantle of Gutenbergian authority.

Again, larger issues are reflected in the mirror finish of Wired's design. Its aesthetic of overt manipulation---of "overdesign"---is the graphic equivalent of the opening sentence in Gibson's Neuromancer, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Abandon nature, all ye who enter here: both Gibson's world and Wired's remind us that technology is transforming our environment into a profoundly denatured, digitized---and, increasingly, corporate---place. "Electric Word"'s incredible shrinking articles and ever-expanding images enact the much talked about televisualization of print media---an especially alarming trend in the U.S., where literacy rates are declining, growing numbers of cities are one-newspaper towns, and two thirds of the citizenry claim to get "most of their information" from television. [7] Simultaneously, the deluge of information that overwhelms the Wired reader springs from the received truth, in cyberculture, that we are the "Third Wave people" imagined by Alvin Toffler, "at ease in the midst of [a] bombardment of blips," accustomed to gulping "huge amounts of information in short takes." [8]

Ironically, Wired dramatizes the extent to which our notions of rationality and critical thinking are still configured by the written word. Metaphorically speaking, reading Wired causes "simulator sickness"---the nausea experienced by cybernauts when perceived movement, in a virtual reality, is not matched by a corresponding disturbance in the inner ear. Its articles require readers even as its design yearns for inhabitants: Wired is a magazine that went to sleep and dreamed it was SimWorld. Plunkett and Kuhr's aesthetic approximates the sensation of bodily immersion familiar from video games and techno-thrillers, where warp-speed, gravity-defying flights through cyberspace, seen from a computer- generated POV, offer gamers and moviegoers a taste of cyborg vision. Miming disembodied hyperkinesis, Wired simulates a simulation---the immersive virtuality promised by a recent NEC ad, which declared, "Everything you know about multimedia is about to change. And fast. Call it 'virtual reality' if you like, but before long you'll actually be able to step into magazines...Images and words will surround you. You'll be able to control, even touch, what you see." [9]

In the terminal worlds modeled in Wired and the NEC ad, the written word is vestigial---an evolutionary remnant of print culture. Intriguingly, Plunkett and Kuhr's attempt to cyborg the obsolete body of the text or jettison it altogether parallels the corporal politics of cyberculture at large, where the body is surgically remade in the image of posthuman media fictions or reimagined as dead "meat" to be transcended through neo-gnostic technologies such the roboticist Hans Moravec's popular fantasy of "downloading"---mapping our minds onto computer memory and thereby rendering the flesh superfluous. Wired's deconstructionist design completes the circuit begun by Mary Shelley's monster---the original exquisite corpse, an anatomical cut-up who prefigured a body of 20th century experiments in textual surgery, the best known of them by William S. Burroughs, a disgruntled former medical student whose corpus is in one sense a Ripper-esque assault on the text, a logocidal attempt to "rub out the word."
Enacting the world-view of a postliterate, digitally disembodied culture, Wired begs the obvious, on every page: What are all these the words doing here, like some troublesome corpus delicti that can't be disposed of? As a millennial artifact, Wired impels us, unavoidably, toward questions of critical significance: Can literary content be disembodied and reincarnated in a post-linguistic, purely graphical form? More profoundly, is the centered, bounded self, which McLuhan argues was a product of print culture, fated to liquefy into a polymorphous perversity like the T-1000? Reading Wired, we feel ourselves beginning to morph.


[*] Copyright Mark Dery 1996; all rights reserved. No part of this essay may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the author, with the exception of brief quotes in reviews, printout for personal use, or nonprofit information exchange between interested parties.

[1] Louis Rossetto, "Get Wired (Monthly)," Wired 1.5, November, 1993, p. 12.

[2] Langdon Winner, "Cyberpornography," Technology Review, February/March, 1994, p. 70.

[3] Loc. cit.

[4] Peter Schwartz, "Post-Capitalist," Wired 1.3, July/August 1993, p. 82.

[5] Hendrik Hertzberg, "Marxism: The Sequel," The New Yorker, February 15, 1995, p. 7.

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 18.

[8] Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam, 1981), p. 166.

[9] Quoted by Jordan Crandall, "Fucking Screens: Notes Toward a Diagram," an essay published and distributed on February 25, 1996, via the electronic mailing list Nettime.


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