'We're Creating Our Own Evolutionary Next Step'
Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto on the digital revolution and the death of the megastate.
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.
reason: It really did seem that way throughout the '90s, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and the rise of computer technology: the idea that politics wasn't going to matter as much. But then, after 9/11, it seemed that politics expanded. We seem to be in an era now where politics is very much in the way because of the way the government spends, the way it regulates. It gets in the way of everything.
Rossetto: Well, it always did. But I think it's even more present in our lives because the remnants of big media tend to focus on it. And because they're advocates of it, in general, it becomes the major story that they talk about.
I'm not sure it's the real story. I mean, government has always been dysfunctional, it's always been a producer of unintended consequences, and it's always made messes of all sorts of stuff. And it's still doing the same thing now. I don't think much has changed.
What happened after the '90s was the sort of regression into the kind of primitive, political division that might have characterized the 19th century. The kind of vitriol that you throw at your enemies. It's become institutionalized.
reason: Fewer people care about politics in the sense that fewer people are willing to identify as liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. But the people who do-the dead-enders-are much more fiercely committed to that as a primary identity.
Rossetto: Yeah. If you're a normal person, why would you want to engage in the mud battles that are going on with basically psychopathic people? People who are involved in politics, going back to Wilhelm Reich, are emotional cripples of some sort who are working out their psychoses on the public at large. Why would a normal person want to associate with that?
reason: Let's be clear, Wilhelm Reich understood psychopathology from the inside as well.
Rossetto: He was an expert. Let's put it that way.
To go back to the beginning question: That was what went wrong. People devolved into politics again where they had started to step out of it.
The message, though, is still the same-and maybe even more pressing. Because the digital revolution has been marching through society and demolishing institutions that have been essential in lots of ways. Whether it's education or the court system or the police or whatever, they've been developed over centuries, and they're no longer relevant or they're obsolete or they're counterproductive or they're destructive. So there's a real need for something else. And what that something else is-and this is also an outgrowth of the digital revolution-is for citizens, humans, to recapture the civic space from those institutions. If there is a better future, it's gonna be because individuals and families and the institutions that they work with, at whatever level, decide to take power back and work directly to make that better world.
reason: Are there examples that you can point to? Is YouTube that kind of space? Is that a new public sphere that is more participatory? Is Whole Foods an improvement over old-style supermarkets? What are the types of demonstration projects out there that get your energy up?
Rossetto: It's tweets, it's YouTube, it's Instagram. It's all the places where you can have, for want of a better word, a democratic discussion where it's unimpeded by the gatekeepers and media. That's an amazing step forward. And that also gives me hope that the gatekeepers and the media are on their way out in general. There's a Rossetto law of media, which is it's a zero sum game. If you're looking at Twitter or YouTube, you're not watching NBC or reading The New York Times. You're leeching attention from them, which is the thing that they need the most. And with that rediversion of attention, you start to have a different kind of political or idea environment than you had before.
reason: You've got kids. When you think about the future, do you expect that their future will be brighter than yours was, as yours was brighter than your parents' and grandparents'? Or do you wake up with fear and trembling?
Rossetto: I look at my own children, and I think they're capable of finding their way in the world and succeeding no matter what. I worry that the environment that they're gonna be operating in is going to be a lot more challenging than it was for me.
reason: In what ways?
Rossetto: I just think that in its death throes, the megastate is gonna make a lot of mess. The externalities from that are going to be difficult to navigate through.
reason: How confident are you that we are in the death throes of the megastate? Are we really broaching a historical limit here?
Rossetto: It's not as if the state is gonna go away, any more than churches went away. I just think that their hold on imagination and the authority that's given to them by the public at large, by humans and citizens, is gonna diminish. They are proving themselves incapable, and there are other alternatives out there.
I think part of the challenge for media-for you guys and anyone else-is to start telling the other story. People think they have to pay attention to these guys that are vibrating in Washington. That's not the right story, and it's not a good story to try to internalize. Yet we're obsessed, like some kind of a moth heading toward a fire.