From The Archive
Keith White
No. 6  December 1994

The Killer App

Wired Magazine, voice of the corporate revolution

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The Gateway to the Consumer

Earlier this year, some sixty slathering publishing would-bes jammed the upstairs of a brew pub in San Francisco’s SOMA district to hear the fifth in a series of “soirées” sponsored by the San Francisco writer’s guild. The soirée organizers looked warily at their dwindling stack of folding chairs—never before had one of these informal gatherings drawn more than ten or fifteen chronically unemployed writers. Tonight, however, was different; as pierced and tattooed writers and artists jockeyed with smartly dressed young execs for a position close to the evening’s attraction—a soft spoken man in his forties who was chatting with some lucky, starry-eyed fans. For the focus of this gathering was not just another lecture on such pedestrian aspects of publishing as “copy editing” or “fact checking.” This was a chance to meet face to face with the “artistic visionary” behind the nation’s hottest lifestyle magazine, a journal that had raced to over 160,000 readers in its first year, pausing only to pick up a National Magazine Award for general excellence and a big injection of cash from Conde Nast’s Si Newhouse. This was the magazine that had so successfully captured the Zeitgeist that Newsweek was breathlessly labeling it the “Rolling Stone for the Computer Generation.” We were here to listen to John Plunkett of Wired.

Plunkett’s address, as it turned out, was rather mundane. He divulged such secrets as why the first four pages of each edition are filled by extending a drop quote across computer generated art (“We originally did it to fill up some space”), along with the reason that so many of the magazine’s articles are hard to read (“I sometimes have to sacrifice readability when I’m pushing the edge of the envelope on design”).

Wired’s distinctive look of maimed typography and fluorescent hues may be interesting, but the magazine’s truly marvelous feature is its business-cultural mission. Wired is technology’s hip face, an aggressive apologist for the new Information capitalism that speaks to the world in the postmodern executive’s favored tones of chaotic cool and pseudo-revolution.

Wired’s expeditious rise was the payoff of perfect product positioning by its founders and their flawless implementation of an age-old publishing plan. For Wired is to the new cyber-samurai of business what The New Yorker was to the Organization Man (God rest his soul): at once captious doyenne and encouraging confidante to aspiring members of a new, socially insecure elite. Wired works, on the most basic level, by tweaking its readers’ anxieties, constantly reminding them that they are hopelessly behind the times on the latest developments in technology and underground hacker culture. It simultaneously offers careful instruction in vocabulary, name-dropping, thinking, and purchasing to allow readers to retro-fit their resumes, apartments and lifestyles in a manner more ‘on-line’ with current techno-opportunities. Wired then calms advertisers wary of its “phreakish” posturing by penning gooey appreciations of Silicon Valley CEOs and paeans to the macho individualism of your local cable provider.

The culmination of civilization, according to Wired, is the video game, and to play is the ultimate expression of one’s self in the Information society.

Voilà—a magazine with an affluent and impressionable subscriber base, eager to purchase the accouterments that make up this fascinating new mode of living. Wired tells its readers, in great and explicit detail, how to spend their money on consumer luxuries (some expensive, some cheap, all hip). It answers their most pressing info-consuming questions: Which laptop will look the coolest in my meeting? Which on-line service’s e-mail address suffix will give me the proper balance between cache and credibility? Who’s name should I drop to my boss—Peter Schwartz or Phiber Optik? The magazine’s miscellaneous consumption column—“Street Cred”—is full of the types of things that young professionals have the money to buy, month after month. Ordering is as easy as reading, since Wired is courteous enough to include phone number and e-mail address alongside every product they showcase. Big ticket items and limited availability prototypes are covered in a section called Fetish ($10,000 digital Nikons, $49,000 virtual reality headsets), but if you haven’t moved that far up the pay scale yet, there are plenty of ads showplacing what you can afford from the likes of Compaq, IBM, Microsoft, Absolut and Dewars. This is what’s known in the business as “selling up by stepping down”; in others words, I’ll show you the Lexus and you’ll know you’ll at least need the Toyota.

But car manufacturers and distilleries are small potatoes in the Wired revenue stream. Game manufacturers are where it’s at, appearing on the cover more than any other single group. Perhaps that’s because Wired views these “convergence plays” (where film, games, and merchandising meet)—also known as video games—as the highest form of art, more meaningful than literature (ha!), painting (ha ha!), film, or even the Internet. The culmination of civilization, according to Wired, is the video game, and to play is the ultimate expression of one’s self in the Information society. Or maybe it’s because, as Wired often notes, the gaming industry takes in over $6 billion in revenues, which makes it the single largest component of the infotainment industry. Either way, each gaming product launch—3DO, Rocket Science, Doom 2, Myst—is welcomed as the future of the art and given generous coverage in Wired (“smart money is betting that this audacious upstart might just hold the secret recipe for some of the tastiest thumb candy to come!”), complete with glowing profiles of the game’s creators (variously described as “introverted” artists and guitarists who are “gamers, in every sense!”) and never leaving out the most important elements (“the per unit margins are huge!”). The favor is generally returned by manufacturers who take out multiple full page ads over the next few months as they set about hawking their product.

Magazines that cover particular industries are always tempted to let down the wall between advertisers and editorial, since the subjects of their articles are also the buyers of their ad pages. Most publications work hard to at least maintain appearances of objectivity. But with the chaotically joyous blurring of boundaries accomplished by the Information Revolution, such rules are no longer as binding, a fact which Wired, naturally, has been among the first to exploit. The magazine seems to aim, quite simply, to facilitate the moving of product by the technology industry. As such, Wired strives to be more than just a magazine; it wants to be a market maker.

The Killer App

Everyone in business now realizes that the changes being brought by information technology are real enough, and plenty of corporate vice-presidential-level effort has been devoted to trying to predict the cyber-future. The big prize for which every Information Age corporate adept is questing is the elusive “Killer App,” the computer program that will mesh together all the rapidly converging technologies, will successfully transform life into a jolly interactive game, and will consequently keep consumers happily paying their info-bahn bills. While the rest of the corporate America pursued the grail by debating the merits of cable vs. fiber optics, a cadre of San Francisco techno-philes were building their own killer app with existing technology, a mere magazine. Print, as it turned out, would be sufficient to meet the ideological goals of the great quest, exploiting the new affluence of those on the “digital vanguard.”

The brilliance of this idea was not readily apparent. What was apparent was that the computer industry continued to suffer from a serious public relations problem that had developed during the dark days of the Cold War. In the public mind computers were associated, at worst, with world destruction, the blown tube that caused a nuclear war in Fail-Safe, at best with the cold mind of the corporation. That quintessential volume of the 1950s, The Organization Man, came wrapped in a dust jacket decorated with IBM cards, emblems of a repressive number-happy society. As Steven Levy has noted, participants in the counterculture almost universally regarded computers with suspicion: “computers fueled the War Machine, that grinding, wheezing hunk of Kafka that murdered little babies and told us to report to 400 North Broad Street for a physical.” But as the ideology of the counterculture became the ideology of corporate America, a major transformation in the image of the computer had to take place. Information technology would have to undergo a gigantic face-lift to achieve proper acceptance in a business world increasingly fascinated with notions of chaos, revolution, and disorder. The famous TV commercial that introduced the Macintosh in 1984 as an implement of conformity-smashing suggested the course that ideologues of the computer should take; Wired simply picked up where the TV advertising left off.

Wired’s founders put together an ideological packaging for information technology that screamed nonconformist. The magazine’s constant references to an interactive “underground” as its primary means of giving computers the rebellious image they required. Its layout utilizes the now-fashionable fractured, illegible typography that is the calling card of such radical publications as Raygun, Sassy, and Inside Edge. In addition, appearances by leading pop ideologues like Camille Paglia and R. U. Sirius signaled the direction in which the magazine was headed: straight into the hearts of what one Ogilvy & Mather executive giddily describes as the “techno-savvies.”

killerapp

This fall, Wired made public its “HotWired” site on the World Wide Web, and created a media sensation by becoming one of the web providers to offer advertising. In addition to the plaudits they received from major agencies, the service attracted the advertising of over 14 big name clients (including AT&T, MCI, Sprint, IBM). Ever the rebels, Wired restricted the use of its site to those who registered by name and e-mail address, which will no doubt come in handy later for merchandising opportunities. Unfortunately, within two months, HotWired’s executive editor had quit. “A glib and probably unfair way to state our differences is that [founder] Louis [Rossetto] wanted to create something cool for the sponsors and I wanted to create something cool for the people on the Web,” said the departing executive editor. Needless to say, the advertisers remain.

Wired refers to its readers as “digital revolutionaries,” but don’t be fooled: the “r” term is being used in the same way it is elsewhere in recent management literature—to signify a particularly unscrupulous type of executive. In fact, according to Advertising Age, some 84 percent of Wired readers are made up of managerial professionals with a median household income of well over $80,000. They may be revolutionaries, but they also happen to be the legions of MBAs graduating each year from business schools around the country, where Wired is a must read. This group is rooted economically rather than geographically, and must keep up with the latest thinking on the frontiers of Information if they are going to kick ass like their parents did.

Wired has staked out a classic market niche for itself; the kind of ready-made ideological profit-center that only comes along once every ten or twenty years. It is more than a mere high-end showplace, but a full-blown lifestyle guide, like Vanity Fair was under Tina Brown, speaking to its status-seeking readers with a familiarly curious blend of sympathy and exacerbation. It understands what they want, but it is forever scolding them for being slightly behind the curve.

The Rationalizer

Wired’s vision of the good life is impressively consistent: money, power, and a Game Boy sewn into the palm of your hand. Equally consistent is the absence of any serious consideration of the problems that come with business control of Information technology. In order to reconcile its standard pro-business politics with its rebel image, the magazine makes a great display of embracing a certain strain of extreme information antinomianism.

The perennial favorite issue in this strangely contentless variety of “revolution” is the clipper chip, which has made it into about eight issues in the last year. The clipper chip is a device invented by the National Security Agency which would allow them to “listen in” on all on-line conversations. However “radical” Wired’s diatribes about the chip may sound, nobody’s going out on a limb by supporting this one around the office: business information is as closely guarded as the plots of anarchists once were. Furthermore, the NSA’s plan calls for companies to bear a substantial financial burden in installing the chip. By setting itself in opposition to this ludicrous remnant of the Cold War state, Wired encourages its readers to imagine themselves revolutionaries when all they are doing is standing up for their first amendment rights.

For all its radical posturing, Wired’s chosen cultural duty (and market niche) is as the Great Rationalizer of the new technology.

Another Wired cause célèbre is the outlaw hacker. In almost every issue, it seems, the editors find a new way to stir readers’ outrage over the fate of one Phiber Optik, a jailed hacker described as having a “colorful urban style and a near suicidal willingness to demonstrate his prowess at picking the locks on telephone company systems.” While Wired’s ongoing loyalty to the troubled young man is admirable, its frequent stories do little more than use him to reaffirm the myth of the rebel entrepreneur so celebrated in contemporary management literature. The bottom line, as usual, is that computers are empowering, and that we, too, can best the stodgy Organization Men, à la War Games, if we show a little pluck.

For all its radical posturing, Wired’s chosen cultural duty (and market niche) is as the Great Rationalizer of the new technology. While Time and Newsweek might devote special numbers to the internet, every issue of Wired blares forth the party line: being wired directly to manufacturers will mean more democracy, increased power for the little guys, greater freedom for consumers who will be able to order goods and talk to their friends (finally!) through an electronic medium. As the magazine maintained recently, “Life in cyberspace is more egalitarian than elitist, more decentralized than hierarchical. We might think of life in cyberspace shaping up exactly as Thomas Jefferson would have wanted it: founded on the primacy of individual liberty and a commitment to pluralism, diversity and community.” Further down the page, the Jeffersonian ideal is said to include “all the dazzling goodies of home shopping, movies on demand, teleconferencing, and cheap, instant databases.” And we thought he would have been happy with a mere Northwest passage. But wait—it gets even better. Not only will the new information technology empower each and every one of us beyond our wildest dreams, it will also allow us to implement all those neat Gingrichian platitudes about government that we’ve been mouthing for so long: “The net is merely a means to an end,” Wired notes sagely, “the end is to reverse engineer government, to hack it down to its component parts and fix it.”

Wired has a simple message from which it never strays very far: computers are not implements of conformity, over-organization, and all those other evils of the 1950s; on the contrary, computers are fun. They are liberating. It will be a good thing—hell, let’s go all the way: it will be a bona-fide utopia when we are all finally wired electronically together, the big culture conglomerates acting as intermediaries. Rebels with funky hairdos and rockin’ attitudes will rule, we’ll finally get to tell those stiff gray guys what to do. No, wait, it’ll be even better than that, we’ll get to choose from two hundred channels. Can you imagine?

Naturally, there is nothing wrong with corporate control of the cyber-future. In fact, Wired dots its best to present the masters of the “business community” as hip fellow-hackers. The recent cover story about TCI’s John Malone, which featured a photograph of this eminent Captain of Information “raster mastered” (Wired-speak for computer imaged) to a picture of Mel Gibson as the Road Warrior, showcases this approach at its wryest. Even though the guy has been screwing consumers with high margins for years (to the point where those meddling feds had to step in and put an end to his monopolistic plundering), he’s still depicted as a self aware hipster who you can feel comfortable admiring.

The secret of Wired’s success is rather a simple thing, when you come right down to it. The magazine’s founders identified the direction in which American business was moving, the strange cross between sixties countercultural ideas and the usual exploitative behavior which was coming to dominate the boardroom. And then they put themselves out in front of it. Being a corporatron isn’t dull and conformist anymore—it rocks! And though it may sound bad to spend all your free time imbibing corporate product, it’s really a form of rebellion: just look at those excellent typefaces, the way we’ve run the lines into one another, stood up to all those guys that insist on readability and other such implements of patriarchy!

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