Trump Diminishes the Power of the State in Our Heads: Wired Co-Founder Louis Rossetto on Heroism, Politics, and the Dot-Com Bubble
Change Is Good: A Story of the Heroic Era of the Internet chronicles tech culture circa 1998.
"Trump is a refreshing reminder that the guy that's in the White House is another human being," says Louis Rossetto, the co-founder of Wired and author of the new book Change Is Good: A Story of the Heroic Era of the Internet. "The power of the state is way too exalted [and] bringing that power back to human scale is an important part of what needs to be done to correct the insanity that's been going on in the post-war era."
In 2013, Rossetto was the co-recipient of Reason's very first Lanny Friedlander Prize, an award named after the magazine's founder that's handed out annually to an individual or group who has created a publication, medium, or distribution platform that vastly expands human freedom. Rossetto is also a longtime libertarian who knew Friedlander personally.
While still an undergraduate at Columbia University, Rossetto co-authored a 1971 cover story in the New York Times Magazine titled "The New Right Credo—Libertarianism," writing that "[l]iberalism, conservatism, and leftist radicalism are all bankrupt philosophies," and "refugees from the Old Right, the Old Left and the New Left, they are organizing independently under the New Right banner of libertarianism."
Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Rossetto to talk about his new book (the paper version was lavishly designed and crowdfunded on Kickstarter), the 1990s tech boom, and why Trump "diminishes the power of the state" in our heads.
Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Ian Keyser. Cameras by Paul Detrick, Justin Monticello, Zach Weissmueller.
Machinery by Kai Engel is used under a Creative Commons license.
Photo Credits: Chris Kleponis/ZUMA Press/Newscom—Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/Newscom—Abaca Press/Douliery Olivier/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom
This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: What's the plot of, Change is Good? It's a novel right?
Louis Rossetto: That's an easy question to start with.
Rossetto: There are six characters, each of them have their own stories. I suppose for you, at this moment, the most interesting thing about the book is the focus on that time. The book is set in the 1990's. The 1990's were this pivotal moment in world history, where … Well, cast your mind back. It was a period of unbelievable optimism.
Gillespie: The Cold War is over. The internet is taking off. It's becoming a mass medium.
Rossetto: The Cold War end-
Gillespie: The economy is doing great.
Rossetto: The Cold War ends at the beginning of the 90's. The internet takes off with the arrival of the web. The period … There's drugs: ecstasy. The rave culture. Multiple different levels there are massive changes going on that are affecting all aspects of our life. The 90's is this pivotal moment where there's this burst of optimism. Young people are arriving in this new space, the internet, the web, digital technologies in general.
There's a sense that the future is utterly malleable. For the first time in a long time, after the Cold War, the fear and anxiety of the Cold War, now there's this open running room. It's the end of history, literally. Fukuyama says so. Now, anything's possible. Any weird, crazy idea that you have, is no longer bound by normal restrictions, like finance, or law, or even physical bounds.
Gillespie: It is incredibly hard to go back to those early days of even pre-internet culture. Even AOL, American Online, had the walled-garden, where people were anonymous. You had fake names that you would use and talk about anything. Usenet groups. You could reproduce things cheaply. DVD players were 7$, or whatever.
Rossetto: I mean, companies that had zero income had billion dollar valuations. Companies were more valuable than General Motors that were selling in the tens of millions of dollars. It had Bill Clinton saying the era of big government is over. There were all sorts of things happening in society, at that moment, and all levels of society, that were pointing toward a millennial future that was going to be almost utopian. There were people involved, in the 90's, that were making that happen. The gen-X'ers of that time were adventurers and revolutionaries, consciously looking to travel to a new land, west of California, and bring back fresh kill for the human race. That was a future. They were actively out there making that new future.
Gillespie: That's what's heroic, in the sense that people felt like they could do heroic undertakings. You could do whatever … If you could dream it, you could do it. It was kind of like Walt Disney on ecstasy.
Rossetto: It's heroic when you do it in the face of danger and opposition, which you also had at the same time. You were moving like Louis and Clark, into this new territory, that was undefined. That was unmapped. That was full of danger in lots of ways. Any company could go under at any moment. Any weirdness could be popping out of the things that you're discovering. "Change is Good" is about six characters exploring this new realm, like Louis and Clark, going out into this uncharted territory and hoping to discover what that was all about. In fact, also helping to create our future.
It takes place in 1998, which is another pivotal moment within a pivotal moment, because for most of the 90's, there was this expansionary sense of the future looking incredibly wonderful. Then there was this ton of money that flowed into the sector in 1998. What was the digital revolution, became the .com bubble. What was utopian became greed. I'm trying to examine that particular tipping point, between the moment when people had fire in their eyes and wanted to change the world, and they ended up being perverted, in a kind of way, into, or seduced into, pursuing the pure joy of making a lot of money.
Gillespie: I hope one day to experience that myself. If that was heroic age of the internet, how would you characterize the internet now? Or America now? The internet does not seem to be particularly heroic. Does it?
Rossetto: I think the Internet's just become part of our life. It's gone from occult to the culture. It's just everything that's normal today is connected, as we said it would be, to digital technologies and the networks themselves. I think you have to look to other places to see where this edge is today. In many ways, what James is doing, is looking for that edge again.
Gillespie: That Neolife?
Rossetto: That Neolife, exactly.
Gillespie: Yeah. A lot of it is … It's kind of interesting, 'cause baby boomers obviously also took charge in the 90's. I remember when Bill Clinton was the first baby boomer president in '92. Baby boomers have long been accused of being solipsistic and inward-looking, but-
Rossetto: Totally true.
Gillespie: Also, now, literally, that's happening. Right? 'Cause we're looking at our own bodies and changing them in ways that were unimaginable, even a few years ago.
Rossetto: There's a new generation that's pursuing this new adventure. There are new adventurers out there. I think, the Internet's become the background. There's an edge. There are still edges all over the place. The genetic revolution is one of them. Space is another. Transportation is another one. There are explorations to be had all over the place. The kind of incredible fervor that you saw with the arrival of the internet, that affected everything simultaneously all over the planet, that kind of change is unlikely to happen in the same broad way that it did then. Instead you have a bunch of little, or smaller, changes that are erupting and that will become their own major thing. There are just lots of them happening out there.
Gillespie: You also talk about the book, and this brings us to Erik Spiekermann, it's a revolution in printing. What is unique about the printing process? Why the attention to that detail?
Rossetto: Why make a bunch of atoms, put together a bunch of atoms, to experience the story, instead of just putting it out digitally? It's a very good question. In the end, we also wanted to create another experience. There's a story, which is an abstraction in lots of ways, and then, there's a physical object of the book. In lots of ways, books have become devalued as they've migrated into the digital domain. The book itself, as an object, has become degraded. It's a mass object that is not special, that doesn't deliver a great experience. The inks are not great. The paper's not great. The binding's not great. Nothing about it is special.
We said, why don't we make a real … Nevertheless, it's still the best way to read things. We like to read things on screen, but still paper offers the best way to read.
We said, why don't we make a special experience. The best experience we can make in the twenty-first century, for reading itself. That required Erik to begin an exploration of printing itself. He rediscovered an old way of printing, letterpress. Instead of, the more normal way everything is printed today, which is offset.
Letterpress is actually an image pressed into a piece of paper. It's something that got lost in mass-marketing, because it just couldn't make the transition to the new technologies for producing print.
What Erik has done, is reinvented a way of producing plates for letterpress, which enable you to use all the digital tools for publication, but apply them to this classic technology of letterpress. He created tools to make the plates that go on the press. This particular book, "Change is Good," is among the very first to use his technology. It's the first one that he's designing and publishing himself.
It's just a special experience to read a crisp type, impressed in the paper. You actually have a physical impression in the paper, which adds a third dimension to the experience of reading. We don't really know about anymore, because everything we get is offset, which is completely flat. You have the experience of the impression of the type on the paper, and then you also have black ink, which you never get with offset. Offset is, by definition, a variance of gray. This ink that's pressed into the paper is actually black.
Altogether the experience of reading, "Change is Good," is basically state of the art for twenty-first century.
Gillespie: You also have thrown in a Spotify soundtrack.
Rossetto: Also, because we can.
Gillespie: Yes. Okay.
Rossetto: If you look at the very beginning of the book, there's a link to Spotify, which enables you to listen to the soundtrack that we put together, which is like 10 hours of music, for listening to the book at your leisure.
Gillespie: We've known each other for about 20 years now, or coming up on 20 years. One of the things over the past couple years that ex- You have always been a maverick, at a time when during Wired you seen as suspiciously libertarian in your proclivities, and whatnot. You have surprise a lot of people over the past couple years by being, if not pro-Trump, pro-Donald Trump, you are enjoying his intervention into politics, into the political status quo. How do you feel about him after a year in office? What is it about him that peaked your curiosity? What is he bringing to the stage that you think is really vital?
Rossetto: I think for most of my life, my tendency has been to try to diminish the power of the State, in general. Part of that is literal power, and part of it is the power that's in your head. The presidency has taken on this otherworldly position in people's minds that is beyond Pope-hood. It's this figure of immense authority that you obliged to respect and that has all this … Because of the power of the United States in general, has the ability to project that power all over the planet.
I think Trump, in lots of ways, is a refreshing reminder that the guy that's in the White House is another human being. The power of the State is way too exalted. Bringing that power back to human scale is an important part of what needs to be done to correct the insanity that's been going on in the post-war era, where you have these large institutions that control all aspects of our lives.
Leaching respect and authority out of the State, is kind of a good thing, on its own level.
Maybe I'll just leave it at that.
Gillespie: Well we will leave it there. We've been talking with Louis Rossetto, the co-founder of Wired and the novelist behind, "Change is Good: A Story of the Heroic Era of the Internet" and a revolution in printing. Louis, thanks for talking.
Rossetto: Pleasure, as always.
Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie.