Wired's Founding Editor Recalls the Dawn of the Digital Revolution
May 19, 2008 | By Louis Rossetto
Dear Orson and Zoe,
Fifteen years ago, when your mom and I started Wired, you weren't even born. And now look at you—you guys were playing Go Fish with the original crew at the magazine's 15th anniversary party. Back in 1993, we had only the slightest glimmer of what the Internet would eventually become.
But we had a very clear idea what Wired was supposed to be about: the people, companies, and ideas driving the Digital Revolution. The results of that revolution—Googling your homework, iChatting with your cousins in Paris, buying your Lego NXT off eBay—seem like so much background noise to you now, but back then it was a big deal. In the very first issue, I wrote, “The Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon.” Got a lot of grief for that typhoon reference—as if it were a pretentious exaggeration instead of the understatement it turned out to be.
Should have said the Digital Revolution was ripping through our lives like the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs. Practically every institution that our society is based on, from the local to the supranational, is being rendered obsolete. This is the world you are inheriting.
We at Wired saw it coming, because our mission was to connect our readers to the reality of our times. It's the evolutionary function of media: Those individuals/tribes/societies that are most connected to the larger world, as it really is, are most likely to survive and thrive—and move on to the next level in the big game of life. We were successful as an enterprise not because we used eye-popping fluorescent colors (although that didn't hurt) but because we did the hard work of accurately describing the world as it was changing.
Of course, we didn't get everything right. Here are three things we got wrong, 1993-2008:
1. The End of History
Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that history ended with the demise of the Soviet Union.
The future would be characterized not by the literal but only the figurative war of ideas. We believed him. We were wrong.
Wired failed to see how a new generation of fanatical geeks would use the Internet in their effort to take over the world. Instead of ending, history looped back on itself, and we are now confronted by a recrudescent and particularly virulent religious ideology straight out of the Middle Ages. We recognized a world in transition, but we missed the danger in front of us.
We eschewed conventional wisdom, but we couldn't escape it. Takeaway: Be contrarian, and then be contrarian again.
2. The Death of Media
We predicted the demise of what we called Old Media (aka mainstream/lamestream/dinosaur media) over and over again, and yet it's still alive. True, we said the Internet would erode Old Media's monopoly on interpreting reality, and we were right about that: If you're surfing Boing Boing, you're not reading the paper edition of The New York Times. The result is imploding Old Media and exploding Google ad revenue.
But we underestimated how slowly Old Media would auger in—and how irresponsible it would become in its death throes. As John Perry Barlow put it on our first TV show, the purpose of media isn't, ultimately, to inform; it's to sell our eyeballs to advertisers. And how better to do that—if your monopoly is being eroded by this newfangled Internet—than to scare the shit out of us? Then we're so paralyzed that we stick around through the commercials.
Faced with fierce competition for those eyeballs, Old Media is hawking the apocalypse: The world is inundated by war, poverty, destruction, fascist Republicans! It's about to be swept away by tidal waves unleashed by melting polar ice caps! More on how this is humanity's own fault—after the break. Wired Promo From 1993: This publicly aired promotion for Wired in its debut year, 1993, shows a style that was frantic but advanced for its time, swiftly conveying the mission and content of the magazine. For more, visit video.wired.com.
3. The Death of Politics
We envisioned the eclipse of the nation-state. Electronic networks were enabling the friction-free movement of capital and ideas.
This would take power out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats and put it in the hands of super-empowered individuals and networked communities. Wrong. Governments are still here, presumptuous and bossy as ever.
And what's worse, although the zoo door was pried open and the monkeys peered out, we chose not to step into the brave new tomorrow, preferring to go on playing games inside our cage. So instead of spending a decade rebuilding civil society—reinventing how we resolve conflicts and build consensus—we got MoveOn and Daily Kos and Soros-funded 527s that divert immense energy into the mud of politics, all in the naked pursuit of political power. This has resulted in one of the most toxic and least productive eras of public discourse in our history.
Good thing we got some stuff right:
1. We Called the Long Boom
In 1997, we published “The Long Boom.” Some pundits snarked that it was dotcom-stock boosterism. Instead, it pinpointed what was behind the unprecedented increase in material well-being for most of humanity: the spread of liberal democracy, globalization, and technological revolutions.
The boom began with the introduction of the personal computer, and it will continue until at least 2020, when you two might have kids of your own. Skeptical? Recent reports say that illiteracy worldwide has fallen by half since 1970 and is now at an all-time low of 18 percent; more people live in free countries than ever before; the number of armed conflicts worldwide has declined by almost half since the early '90s. Indeed, the average human born in 2025 will live to be 73—25 years longer than one born in 1955.
There's a lot of noise in the media about how the world is going to hell. Remember, the truth is out there, and it's not necessarily what the politicians, priests, or pundits are telling you. Wired Promo From 1997: A later promotional video from 1997 features some of the big players, such as co-publisher Jane Metcalfe, cofounder Louis Rossetto, executive editor Kevin Kelly, designers John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr, deputy editor John Bartelle, and associate publisher Drew Schutte, discussing the challenges and rewards of putting out the magazine.
For more, visit video.wired.com.
2. We Foresaw the One Machine
We didn't name it; founding executive editor Kevin Kelly came up with the term only recently.
But we certainly predicted a new planetary consciousness based on humans using ever-more-powerful PCs and networks. Take our current hardware/wetware mashup: 1 billion CPUs on the Internet; 8 terabytes of traffic with 2 million emails per second; 3 billion cell phone users; 264 exabytes of magnetic storage. The One Machine now has a million times as many transistors as your brain has neurons.
Let's say that gives it processing power equivalent to a single human brain—1 HB; by 2040, the One Machine should surpass 6 billion HB, exceeding the processing power of humanity. In an era when even progressives are trying to stop time to preserve some notion of planetary perfection, it's clarifying (and humbling) to note that evolution has not ceased—and that we are not evolution's ultimate product.
3. We Knew Tech Would Change How We Relate
We wrote about how every institution—businesses, schools, churches, the courts—was being pounded to obsolescence by the Digital Revolution.
So we stressed the need to join together and not just vote but directly rebuild civic society—how we live together as human beings—for the 21st century. We tried to describe new ways of relating to one another—how we do business, how we invest, how we can defend, educate, cure, shelter, and govern ourselves. We coined the term Netizen to describe this new social actor.
We invented the Digital Nation, the Netizens' new homeland. And we championed new heroes, chronicled new successes, and encouraged those struggling to create this new world. Millennial Moments: In an unusual, Zen-like campaign, Wired tells us, “This is the age where you can finally do it all.” For more, visit video.wired.com.
Fair trade, the organic movement, pressure on manufacturers to improve conditions for their workers overseas, blogging, social networks, Surfrider Foundation, One Economy, Amnesty International, One Laptop per Child, networked homeschooling, cracking the human genome, YouTube social media as a means of creating new political consciousness, distributed artistic expression, up to and including the One Machine—these are all reinventions of the institutions we rely on as social animals. So what's next? You are. If Wired was the Scout for a generation, Kevin Kelly was the scout for Wired.
One chewy chunk of fresh kill he brought back early on was a book by William Strauss and Neil Howe called Generations. It concluded its generational history of the United States with the Millennials, members of the next major demographic cohort, the first of whom were born around 1980. Strauss and Howe's description of Millennials inspired us: “This generation will show more teamlike spirit and more like-mindedness in action than most Americans then alive will recall ever having seen in young people….
Millennials will carry out whatever crisis mission they are assigned—as long as they can connect it with their own secular blueprint for progress. If crisis brings war, soldiers will obey orders without complaint. If it involves environmental danger or natural resource depletion, young scientists will make historic breakthroughs.
If the crisis is mostly economic, the youthful labor force will be a mighty engine of renewed American prosperity. Whatever their elder-bestowed mission, these rising youths will not disappoint. Assuming the crisis turns out well, Millennials will be forever honored as a generation of civic achievers.”
What's heartening to me, Orson and Zoe, is that even though you and your peers have grown up watching your parents become self-absorbed, hypocritical, and now plain crotchety and rancorous (not Jane and me, of course), and even if you stand in the rubble of the social institutions toppled by the Digital Revolution, your response is not the me-me-me of your parents' generation but us-us-us.
Whether you're addressing climate change or serving in Iraq, you are simultaneously more traditionalist and future-forward, more practical and idealistic, than your parents. The challenge is obvious, the dangers present, the need great. But be optimistic.
I would say that, wouldn't I, since we were often accused during my time at Wired of being overly optimistic. But optimism is not false hope, it's a strategy for living. If you are optimistic about the future, you will step up and take responsibility and attempt to make it better for yourselves and your own children.
Yes, we didn't know it at the time, but we were making Wired for you.
All love, Dad.