Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Thu 14 Aug 03 17:56
Joining us today is Gary Wolf. Gary is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where his feature stories have included profiles of Steve Wozniak, Rem Koolhaas, Sir John Templeton, Richard Saul Wurman, Ted Nelson, and Stanislaw Lem, along with imaginary interviews with John D. Rockefeller and Marshall McLuhan. His most recent book, before "Wired -- A Romance," was "Dumb Money," a humorous nonfiction journey into the dark side of the stock market, written with Joey Anuff and published by Random House. Wolf was born in Columbus, Ohio, was raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, and now lives in San Francisco. He first joined The WELL in 1988. Every time he dropped out and rejoined, his member name got longer. Leading the discussion is Kevin Kelly. Kevin was in the pioneering first wave of settlers who founded The WELL, and directed the Point Foudantion at the time it launched the WELL in 1985. He was later co-founding editor of Wired and -- in full disclosure-- worked with Gary Wolf while he wrote for Wired. He wrote a couple of books (see www.kk.org) in between. Recently he co-founded the All Species Inventory and Long Bets -- two ambitious non-profit enterprises with distant long term payoffs. He is currently at work on a book about "what technology wants." Since Kevin appears in Gary's book, he relishes the conflict of interest inherent in interviewing Gary. Welcome, Gary and Kevin!
Kevin Kelly (kk) Thu 14 Aug 03 18:21
Thanks Cynthia for setting this up. Welcome Gary! Gary, was there a particular moment while you were working at Wired, or afterwards, that prompted you to write a history of Wired? I mean why you and why at all?
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Thu 14 Aug 03 18:31
As any journalist will probably admit, a notepad is a great way to defend yourself against worry. When I worked at Wired, I witnessed many scenes that baffled me - the company had such an overheated, melodramatic atmosphere. The company accelerated so quickly through all the stages of growth (and then collapse), that I needed some tools of comprehension. When I was totally at a loss, I would pull out my notebook. Interestingly, very little from these notes actually ended up in the book. When I left the company, in 1997, I thought I would write a book that would be based on my experiences, but as I finally got around to it, I ended up reporting extensively. The interviews and the documents I gathered gave me the bulk of the material. Still, the impulse to write the book in the first place, and many of the characterizations of the people in the book, came from my own confusion and fascination.
Kevin Kelly (kk) Thu 14 Aug 03 18:35
That's interesting. I recall many times when I found you chuckling while you scribbled some notes about something absurd that had just happened. Why didn't your eye witness reports, which presumably had great detail, get in?
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Thu 14 Aug 03 18:42
You've probably had the experience, if you know any young kids, of hearing lengthy stories about the kid's friends, whom you don't know. This is charming - in children. But I found that the things that amused me greatly in the hothouse atmosphere of a magazine office were less interesting once I had a little distance, especially since there was a deeper vein of humor to mine. The humor in the story doesn't come from "outrageous" scenes of bad behavior in the office, but in the more complicated irony of a group of people who are successful far beyond any expectation - who are too right, you might say, and have to deal with the terrible consequences of being too right. As was writing the book, a number of magazine memoirs appeared that "dished the dirt" on famous editors. Sometimes these books were thinly disguised as fiction. I found them boring - and besides, Louis Rossetto, my hero, is hardly a celebrity in the common sense of the world. There was simply a more interesting story to tell - a fact that I wasn't able to realize until I stepped back from my own experiences. That said, a few of the more telling scenes I witnessed, including some remarkable dialogue from the in-house banker and HotWired CEO, Andrew Anker, are preserved for history.
Kevin Kelly (kk) Thu 14 Aug 03 18:46
Ok, since you were writing this to make sense of the chaos of those times, now that you have spent several years writing it, has it cured your confusion? What WAS the meaning and main contribution of Wired in its first decade?
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Thu 14 Aug 03 18:57
Not only have I cured my own confusion, but I've cured everybody's. Or so I wish. Today, the story of Wired is still tangled up in the story of the dot.com crash, but as I wrote the book I became convinced that this is an incomplete context. The timing is wrong. The great rise of the bubble companies came later - and Wired was not one of them. Wired was a contributing, even a key factor in the bubble, but it was key because it gave focus and intensity to ideas that were still very obscure at the time it launched, in 1993. Louis Rossetto, Wired's editor, concentrated - in his life and in his magazine - a number social forces: anarchism that shades into libertarianism, technological innovation in the printing and publishing industry, an obsession with revolution, remnants of counterculture. But these forces were still latent at the time Wired launched. In putting them into a commercial package, Wired gave direction to a social movement, with shocking, unforeseen, and sometimes comical consequences.
Kevin Kelly (kk) Thu 14 Aug 03 19:22
You mentioned humor and the comical several times, but one thing most people agreed on -- even its editors (me included) -- was that Wired itself did not have a sense of humor. That wasn't true of its staff; only the persona of the magazine itself. In your book were you trying to provide Wired with the hilarity it never had?
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Fri 15 Aug 03 08:42
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Fri 15 Aug 03 08:56
Humor is contradiction, and one of Wired's defining qualities was to boldly proclaim a variety of facts about the present and future, while maintaining a productive blindness to possible contradictions. Wired was almost always serious (but... Sonic the Hedgehog as Man of The Year?)outwardly. The kinetic humor was low, but the potential humor was high. Wired discovered things and invented things, and I wanted to capture the humor, which had elements of desperation, without claiming that they should have known better. Maybe it would help here if I added: ha ha. Or, as some critics prefer, har har.
Kevin Kelly (kk) Fri 15 Aug 03 12:04
Or, as the Wired Style Guide would not permit: :-) :-) :-) Gary, what was the most surprising thing that you discovered in your research for the book? Something you had no idea of before you started?
Kurt Sigmon (kd-scigmon) Fri 15 Aug 03 14:09
I have a couple of questions, one for Gary and one for Kevin. First let me say that I am enjoying this book very much. Gary - the subtitle is A Romance. Why? I assume it refers to more than the romances between some of the protagonists. And Kevin - what do you think of your own representation in this book?
Kevin Kelly (kk) Fri 15 Aug 03 17:15
This is Gary's 15-minutes of fame, so please direct all questions to him. I'm just the shill. (Throughout the book I found Gary's depiction of people to be fair and accurate -- except for me; I come off much nicer than I am. The Kevin Kelly of his book would have never posted this note!) Kurt's question is a good one. What is so romantic about WiReD?
Get Shorty (esau) Sat 16 Aug 03 05:40
I enjoyed the book a lot -- flew through it, in fact, though talks of boardroom machinations don't exactly excite me. After a while Wired the magazine appears to be a machine to is running itself. I was only sorry you left off a great piece of trivia, that in the first issues (3? 4?) there were no URLs or email addresses at all. I was also sorry to not find an epilogue. What are Louis, Jane, and others doing now and did you purposely omit this?
Kirsten Jones (synedra) Sat 16 Aug 03 07:29
I found the book very interesting, although it made me sad to have missed the actual events themselves. It was clear that Louis in person was a very charismatic individual, and I suspect he had a great deal of that just-below-the-surface bubbling energy which makes people like him difficult to resist. I was also hankering for more anecdotal descriptions of the kind of interaction you get when very intelligent and somewhat geeky folks hang out together for 12+ hours a day, but I totally agree with your assessment above that it tends to be 'cute' but pull attention away from the central story line. When I got to the end of the story, I was actually somewhat relieved to have finished with Louis - he was a fascinating individual but I could feel my energy being drained just reading about him. Did you feel the same way in the aftermath of your time at Wired?
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Sat 16 Aug 03 15:09
Why a romance? I use romance in a novelist's sense, as an indicator of something uncanny, even supernatural. As I mention in the book, ghosts and demons are not permissible in journalism, but there are other forces in the world that weirdly express themselves through individuals. Such as: a haunting idea. The idea of the digital revolution rendering all existing authorities obsolete possessed Louis - and Wired - adding strength, but also causing otherwise rational people to act strangely. The "romance" in the title is also an answer to people who have asked: is it a comedy or a tragedy? There are funny elements, inspiring elements, farcical elements, and sad elements, but in the end it is neither pure comedy nor any kind of tragedy. It is like a story that takes place during Carnival, when the world is turned upside down. Afterwards, you wake up and ask, "did this really happen?"
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Sat 16 Aug 03 15:22
I was glad to see <esau>'s question about why there were no URLs or email addresses in the first issue of the magazine. The problem with including this anecdote, which I found to be very commonly repeated in critiques of Wired made after the fact, is that in regard to URLs it isn't fair and in regard to email addresses it isn't true. Mosaic, the first widely popular Web browser, was released at the beginning of 1993, as Wired's first issue was published. If you go back and review the growing popularity of the Web in 1993-1994, you will see that Wired's coverage tracked this closely, with more and more URLs appearing the magazine as the Web replaced gopher, ftp, and other popular protocols. People who go back and look at the first few issues and notice a paucity of URLs forget that the Web was just being born. On the email question: the very first editorial in Wired, following an "intro quote" from Marshall McLuhan, was Louis Rossetto's manifesto comparing the digital revolution to a Bengali typhoon. At the end of this manifesto, he signed his name: Louis Rossetto - LR@wired.com There _was_ an embarrassing email snafu in the first issue. In a last minute panic about whether funder and contributor Nicholas Negroponte would want his email address published openly, the editors decided to replace it with a "generic" address: nn@internet. This made them look idiotic, and in following issues a genuine email address was used. From the beginning, email addresses were included in the masthead, and the second issue published a number of letters to the editor that arrived via email. This was at a time when it was still possible for Josh Quittner to go out and register macdonalds.com and claim the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Sat 16 Aug 03 15:37
<esau> asks: Why no epilogue? The Wired story had a mythic structure -the rise and fall of a hero - albeit on a small scale and with a comic dimension. I wanted to present this in a straightforward, self-contained way, almost as an old-fashioned novelist would. That meant no short, journalistic segments, no stories about how I got the story, no "where are they now" epilogues. Not that I think these aren't perfectly serviceable devices. But I enjoyed not using them.
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Sat 16 Aug 03 15:40
Kirsten asked if Louis exhausted me during my time at Wired. The answer is yes, Wired was exhausting, but it was not all because of Louis. He was the focus of the drama, but the effects were spread into every nook and cranny of the company, including the one I occupied. Writing the book held the additional interest of tracing down the source of this mania (and exhaustion), which, I think, spread not just throughout the company but throughout the country.
Kevin Kelly (kk) Sat 16 Aug 03 19:17
Gary is correct about the urls and email. From the second issue onward we began including the emails of anyone who would let us. In fact I think Wired was the first publication to regular include the address of authors and later editors; to my knowledge even the computer magazines weren't doing it then. People forget the climate at the time. There were many authors I could not persaude to include their email address. It was considered very much like publishing your home phone number; at best it was a private thing you exchanged. Of course companies and institutions had no addresses themselves, so there were none for us to print. The absence of emails for authors in issue # 1 (except for Louis') is primarily an artifact of chaos in trying to get the first issue out on an impossible deadline; it was yet another innovation that didn't happen until #2. So Gary, if you were a very bad man and were sent to hell, and for your punishment you had to write "Wired - A Romance" all over again from scratch, what --if anything --would you do differently?
Chip Bayers (hotwired) Sat 16 Aug 03 20:48
I'm sure people are curious about what the reaction of some of the main characters has been to the book. What, if anything, have Louis and Jane, Barbara Kuhr and John Plunkett, Beth Vanderslice, Carl, Andrew said that you can share here?
Kirsten Jones (synedra) Sat 16 Aug 03 23:06
Not exactly a question, but a thought which keeps coming to mind as I go over the book mentally - the book felt a bit strange to read because it was a pretty clinical narration of some very chaotic individuals and events. I don't know how it could have been done any differently but there was a somewhat jarring disconnect while I was reading calm, detailed descriptions of some rather bizarre behavior. This is especially true because I have had the (mis?)fortune of working with individuals of this sort and it tends to be very difficult to describe their actions in an objective way.
Seahorses of the Liver (mnemonic) Sun 17 Aug 03 10:40
FWIW, when I wrote a piece for TIME in 1994, I *begged* my editors, including my former friend Philip Elmer-DeWitt, to include my e-mail address at the end of the piece. The official response of TIME was "we don't do that." As a writer, I knew that enabling reader feedback was going to turn out to be an invaluable resource. Needless to say, this was not a problem at WIRED.
Berliner (captward) Sun 17 Aug 03 12:03
And I remember when Wired used to have a card bound into it you could pull out with the URLs of the advertisers and the companies mentioned in the stories, too.
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Sun 17 Aug 03 12:49
Kevin asks what I would do differently were I rewriting the book, and he stages the site of this rewrite in hell. The most devilish punishment would be to be forced to confront an issue I was accused by some reviewers of skirting: the relationship between my personal experiences at Wired and my role as narrator/historian. I didn't want the book to disappear into its own navel (or, as I put it on http://www.aether.com, up its own asshole), so I kept the emphasis away from myself. This was an obvious choice, since I was a minor character. But, at the same time, there might have been a way to incorporate a sexy, modern, narrative trick by which I narrate my own decision to narrate... my own decision to narrate... my own decision to narrate... (n, n+1, etc., where n = narrate and n goes to infinity). You can see why this version of the book is composed in HELL.
Gary Wolf (garyisaacwolf) Sun 17 Aug 03 13:08
Chip asks what the people written about think of the book: Louis Rossetto, Jane Metcalfe, Barbara Kuhr and John Plunkett, Beth Vanderslice, Carl Steadman, Andrew Anker. I don't have a great deal of detail on this. Andrew Anker, the banker, is as sanguine in life as he is in the pages of Wired - A Romance. He likes his own character. Carl Steadman, lord of plastic.com (http://www.plastic.com), has larger interests and concerns - and besides, he is one of the heroes. Louis disagrees vehemently with a few things - not with the facts so much as with my choice of emphasis. He took special exception to my presentation of the end game. He believes that Wired was betrayed by the cynical bankers, and that their sale of the company was an error. As I tell the story, the bankers were indeed cynical, but their decisions made perfect sense from the well-defined rules of their own game. In obedience to the first principle of the book, which gives priority to each character's self-explanation, I take venture capitalist Paul Salem's theory of his own behavior at face value. The reader can thus judge Salem _as a type_, rather than as an aberration. Louis had a number of other arguments with how I told the story. BUT - I was hugely impressed by his fortitude in the face of my demands for more, more, more information. He knew he did not control the end result, but he is an editor and publisher himself, and was incredibly rigorous in his renunciation of any attempt to use his power over documents, etc., to manipulate the outcome. His attitude has been: "it is Gary's version of the story, and only Gary's version." He has his own version. Jane Metcalfe cooperated on the same basis.
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