In 1971 a young writer named Louis Rossetto co-authored a cover story in The New York Times Magazine announcing that young people were turning against the played-out politics of right and left. "Liberalism, conservatism and leftist radicalism are all bankrupt philosophies," the piece proclaimed. "The only question at issue among their adherents is which gang of crooks and charlatans is to rule society, and for what noble purpose. Freedom of the individual is considered obsolete as a political issue. Nevertheless, advocates of individual freedom not only continue to exist, but are increasing in number."
In 1993, after an adventurous career that included long stretches in Europe and a book on the making of the camp/porn/power classic Caligula, Rossetto, along with Jane Metcalfe, launched Wired, a publication that not only revolutionized magazine design but chronicled, critiqued, and in many ways created the Internet Age. The concept was to cover the real change makers, far from the halls of power in Washington and New York, who were ushering in a transformational era of technology-fueled liberation.
Wired was a critical and commercial hit. Condé Nast purchased the publication in 1997, and Metcalfe and Rossetto raised a family, did angel investing, and ultimately started an award-winning chocolate company called TCHO.
On November 6, 2013, Metcalfe and Rossetto received the inaugural Lanny Friedlander Lifetime Achievement Prize at the Reason Media Awards. The prize, named for reason's founding editor, honors people who have created a distribution platform that expands human freedom by increasing our ability to express ourselves, engage in debate, and generate new ways of understanding the power of free minds and free markets. Shortly after the ceremony-and two decades after the first issue of Wired went to press-Rossetto sat down with Reason TV Editor Nick Gillespie to talk about Wired's vision, the promise of the digital revolution, and why, "in its death throes, the megastate is going to make a lot of mess."
reason: The first issue of Wired was January 1993. When you look back, what did you guys get right and what did you get wrong about the future?
Louis Rossetto: It's hard to cast your mind back to that time. The number of computers that were connected to the Internet was in the low millions. We came out and said that there's a digital revolution happening and it was going to change everything. And that the people who were making it happen were the most powerful people on the planet. It wasn't the priests and the pundits and the politicians and the generals who were making positive change. It was these people. And that meta-story was absolutely spot on.
So in many ways we were a mirror: We put up a mirror to a group of people who had been obscure, if not ignored. For other people it was sort of like a window into a near world which they didn't know about. If you were reading The New York Times, you had no idea what was going on. The New York Times, for years after we launched, had a continual series of articles that were essentially "Internet: Threat or Menace?"
It wasn't about computers. It was about brains being connected to brains through digital communication aided by these brain appliances we called computers. The value of those connections-well, the analogy is a fax machine. One fax machine is useless; two fax machines start to have value. When you have lots of fax machines, the value is logarithmic. It's not linear anymore.
At this point there are 3 billion people connected to the Internet, which is still less than half of humanity. And at the same time there are probably multiple times that number of machines connected to the Internet. [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin talked about the globe enrobing itself and making itself a brain out of electric technology, and I have the sense that already there's a certain level of consciousness that we can't perceive anymore. Any more than fish understand they're swimming in the sea. Things are happening without our control or knowledge.
reason: We're verging into Singularity territory.
Rossetto: Oh, I don't want to go there.
reason: So what you're talking about here is not a phenomenon that is either good or bad. It is simply the medium.
Rossetto: It is. It's the universe. The universe was always out of our control, and it has always been unknowable. Now we're creating our own evolutionary next step, and I think what's arriving is, again, unknowable as we move into it.
reason: Let's think about this in an institutional framework. What are the types of large framework or institutional decisions we should be trying to impress upon our leaders, or ignore from our leaders? How do we maximize the potential to create a post-scarcity world? What are the factors that can really screw things up?
Rossetto: I guess one of the regrets I have for Wired is that throughout the time that I was there, we tried to focus not on politics and on government but on those agents of change-on those tools and instruments which could make a better world. And I think to some degree we've had a certain amount of success with that. We had Clinton say the era of big government is over, and I think there was a lot of focus on the possibilities of creating a new future for ourselves by ourselves.