As a defining media presence of the 1990s, Wired did more than change the way magazines looked (though it certainly did that, in vivid Day-Glo colors). The brainchild of editor/publisher Louis Rossetto, Wired gave the world a way of talking about how digital culture is revolutionizing society and radically reshaping human destiny. Wired: A Romance (Random House), by Gary Wolf, tells the story of how Rossetto and his partner Jane Metcalfe put their path-breaking publication together and how they were ousted just a few short years later.
Partly a smart social history of the '90s and partly a high-stakes business tale, the book richly evokes the tech-bubble world and its collapse. The 41-year-old Wolf, who worked at Wired in its early days, lives in San Francisco and is the coauthor, with Joey Anuff, of Dumb Money: Adventures of a Day Trader. Still a Wired contributing editor, he is currently at work on a novel.
Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie interviewed Wolf via e-mail in July.
Q: You call your book "a romance." Why?
A: I use "romance" in a novelist's sense, to refer to the uncanny, the supernatural. Ghosts and demons are not permissible in journalism, but there are other forces in the world that hauntingly take possession of individuals. Ideas—powerful new ideas—often appear unexpectedly in several places at once. Like ghosts, they are "in the air."
Once they begin to work, they can have an uncanny, almost demonic effect, causing otherwise rational people to act strangely. The Wired book is a romance mainly in this sense: It traces the effect of a fantastic idea, the idea that computers will make every existing authority obsolete, as it worked through and upon the man, Louis Rossetto, who conjured it up.
Q: Did Wired chronicle digital culture or did it effectively create it?
A: Wired did not create digital culture. But that does not mean it was "merely" a chronicle. By presenting digital culture in a powerful way, by naming it and packaging it, Wired created a feedback loop that had an enormous effect on its development.
Q: What's Wired's most important legacy?
A: The original idea of Wired had nothing to do with the tech bubble, and as the pain of the bubble's collapse fades, this idea will be recovered as Wired's most interesting legacy. The idea is that existing authorities are undermined by computer technologies. Now, this may turn out to be false. Perhaps computers will only strengthen the status quo. I doubt it, but I admit that it is too soon to pronounce a verdict. My book tells the story of Wired and its idea, but does not resolve everything.