The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   1

Boiled Twine

Wired, with its on-line twin HotWired, is probably the best magazine of the New Edge, so let's start with the faults.

``Techno-anarchy --- sponsored by AT&T.''

These begin with an awful truth: Wired is a magazine sold in the newsstands of midwestern airports; at Detroit it is stacked above the car rags but below Vogue and Cosmopolitan, which seems fitting. The HotWired FAQ claims that they are not ``cold, marketing concepts'' but ``the heartfelt expression of the passion of [their] creators.'' There is neither logic nor understanding in the claim that heartfelt passion prevents cold-blooded marketing --- read, for instance, Jacques Barzun's biography of Berlioz --- and is in any case tripe. Both Wireds are advertising-supported magazines. They support themselves partly through their (extortionate) cover price and subscriptions but more through selling the attention of their audiences to their sponsors, which include all the usual corporate suspects: IBM, AT & T, Volvo, Sprint, MCI, Home Shopping Network, Club Med, Coors et cetera ad nauseam.

The strategy for so selling --- the ``cold, marketing concept'' --- consists of (a) pretension and --- at least with Wired --- (b) making computer parts look like sex objects and vice versa. (How much of the look of Wired, Mondo 2000, et alii comes from Barbarella?) The appeal, then, is to people who like to think themselves superior to the common herd, to play with their toys, and to play with each other: which is fairly benign, compared to the raw fear, aggression, and greed of lower-class ads, but nothing to be proud of. The pretension shows almost everywhere --- the nearly-illegible typography of Wired, the squiggles passing for design in HotWired, the steady self-promotion, especially in HotWired, the assurance that they and their readers are, as the Bolsheviks used to say, the vanguard of progressive mankind. ``HotWired is live, twitching, the real-time nervous system of the planet.''

Now, all of this --- sex, arrogance, pretension, borderline lies and all --- can be excused if only the substance is good enough: one forgives Leonardo or Voltaire or Li Po for not being modestly self-effacing, polite, and completely honest. But of course neither Wired nor HotWired is the work of a Leonardo or Voltaire or Li Po; they are not even an Atlantic Monthly c. 1880; they are American fashion magazines of the fin de millenne, and it shows.

Perhaps there is now a ``Second Renaissance'' in the arts; if so, it is not be found in the ``Renaissance 2.0'' section of HotWired. Indeed, the thought that the --- selections, let us say --- probably are better than most of their peers, is a profoundly discouraging one. (I suggest --- as no more than an interesting hypothesis --- that Europe had a second renaissance, 1814-1914, which like the first was ended by political collapse and foreign invasion.)

Since taste may well be arbitrary, I am willing to leave this point to one side if need be.

Journalism is another matter. They claim to be not in the ``content business'' but the ``context business,'' for ``people today don't have the time or inclination to make sense of the data flood.'' By this they seem to mean that they will actually provide coherent, rational stories, rather than disconnected blips; the optimistic would even look for analysis and interpretation. The pessimistic will recall that corruption of thought goes hand-in-glove with corruption of language, and cast a dubious eye upon context without content. A still more dubious idea is that someone who had neither time nor desire to make sense of the data flood --- née the world --- will Get It after reading a feature article of perhaps nine pages. Even if we granted them twenty, it wouldn't help, for most of the articles are really no better than those in The Atlantic or Mother Jones. Some are distinctly worse: for instance, the piece on the ``Zippies'' (Jules Marshall, May 1994, pp. 75ff.).

Mr. Marshall follows his authorities as carefully as Aquinas does Aristotle or Time Dr. Kissinger; granting that a London club owner could be honest, while Dr. Kissinger cannot, he can still be a blithering idiot, and we are given no reason to think he is not. One should like, similarly, to learn at least the official excuse for the suppression of raves and ``festivals''; also what constitutes, in Mr. Marshall's eyes, a ``bona fide Druid.'' Mr. Marshall seems to be claiming that zippies will metastasize across the globe, because they listen to electronic music, take drugs and have some vague millenarian notions. But if that's all it takes the Futurists and Bolsheviks would be going from strength to strength, to say nothing of the Red Guard --- The East Is Red being a very satisfactory substitute for house music, and revolutionary fervor for more chemical ecstasy.

The content being anemic,it come as no surprise that the ``context'' was virtually nil. Take the very basic question of who these people are: how were they educated? what parts of Britain are they from? what do they do for a living? who are their parents? This was barely touched upon for those who were the nucleus of this movement, and not at all for the late-comers, who form, by the estimates of Marshall's authorities, about half of the 200,000 zippies. Consider the basic question of where the money that was pouring into the hands of these ``entrepeneurs'' Mr. Marshall says deserve Thatcher Awards came from. Consider whether anyone should make as much money as they did, for as little work as they did, or whether police actions --- reducing competition and restricting information --- were a decidedly un-Thatcherist subsidies. Their relations with the rest of society --- other than the police --- are left a complete blank; we are not even told how people reacted to four days and night of music played ``as loud as possible'' on their local commons. Nor was that remarkable beast, the zippie worldview, at all considered, apart from being taken at its face value as the wave of the future. One should like to know whether they have any critical intelligence at all, or whether any doctrine they fancy is picked up, tarnished into Scripture and added to the Watts Tower of their Weltanschauung.. Admiring Sheldrake, Dawkins, Leary, Heisenberg, Hofstadter, and --- what living fossils! --- the Maharishi and Teilhard de Chardin, all at the same time, strongly argues that they have the brains of magpies.

These are the sorts of things an informative magazine would look into; but a cold marketing concept can launch a style without doing so, and in fact did. (It was very amusing to watch the 'zines and advertising rags in San Francisco plagiarize the Wired article this summer.) Next season zippies will be out and --- for all I know --- cypherpunks will be in. The mode will demand printing your PGP key on your clothes and making jewelry from Clipper chips. (``Zima --- it's cypherbeer.'')

Sometimes --- especially in HotWired --- we descend from the over-sold to the actually corrupt. Consider the piece, in HotWired, on the thousands of people --- I use the word loosely --- who payed $10+ to be extras in a movie by going to a rave --- a rave with Ticketron tickets! There is a profound story in who these people are, and how they came to be so incredibly confused; as satirical material it is worthy of Swift. HotWired gives us publicity puffs, a fashion spread, and a few shots of men in drag draped ornamentally over scaffolding.

``New thinking for a new medium,'' indeed.

Redeeming Social Value

Of course, ``digital'' fashion rags are now spreading like the clap; they are beneath contempt, though worthy of notice as Grave Portents and Awful Warnings. Any one of them would not merit as much attention as I have shown Wired.

But Wired is not just a cold marketing concept. In its own domain, its feature articles are --- usually --- as good as anything in the mainstream cultural magazines, to say nothing of the horrors of the academic press. At times they are outstanding: anything by Sterling is worth reading. It would be foolish for me to elaborate on this, for res ipsa loquitor.

Do these virtues make up for the considerable faults? Must fruit be nourished with such vast quantities of manure? As they say in the old country, ``Allah knows.'' For the moment, however, Wired Ventures Inc. is not charging you anything to subscribe to HotWired. For the moment, Wired Ventures Inc. is swearing up and down that subscriber information will not be disclosed to any third party. While this is so --- probably they'll start selling your data before they start charging you --- you might as well harvest the articles, and ignore the rest. (If you feel guilty about this, send them a check.)

2 December 1994, last mod. 19 January 1995