The Story of Wired

The whole Wired project began here, in Amsterdam, and, I'll get to that in a second. Jules Marshall asked me to speak here. I asked him what he wanted me to talk about. He asked me to talk about what Wired is, what's it all about, how Europe affected the development of Wired, and what Wired became. And then, to talk about an idea that we kicked around four years ago when we did Electric Word here, and that was the idea that technology is the rock and roll of the 90s.

So to begin with I'd like to show you a little video that we created when we launched Wired in January, and also a piece of tape from CNN that talked about our launch as well, and that should be a good introduction to what Wired is.

We've come a bit since then, it's ten months later. We're now selling 100,000 copies an issue, we have 23,000 subscribers, we have 63 pages of advertising. At the time when that was shot we had about 12 people working in our offices, now we have 30. And in general, we've been covered by a lot of different media, a lot more television and other magazines, and Wired has established itself in the American scene pretty firmly.

The basic idea behind Wired originated here in Amsterdam, when I was working here on a magazine called Electric Word. I was working with much of the people who happen to be in this room, as a matter of fact. Jules Marshall, who helped to organize this conference, was the executive editor of Electric Word. It was designed by Max Kissman, Henry Lucas, and had designs by Peter Berns in it, Jeff Hoxin was our managing editor, Jane Szita was an editor, and Adam Adelmans, who started Flux Magazine here in The Netherlands, was also involved in Electric Word. Electric Word was a very special magazine. It was a magazine focused on very advanced technologies for handling word-based information, and it handled everything from machine translation to word processing, or from voice recognition to grammar checkers. And one of the things we learned in doing it, was that we were talking to very vertical audiences, that didn't recognize the activities that were going on in fields very similar to them but happen to be separated by something in distance or concept.

Making the magazine was talking about very advanced issues for people who had different languages and we ended up having to make a magazine that had a lingua franca they could all understand. That just happened to be just ordinary common language. We had to make a magazine that they could get into, that they could find themselves in, find the importance of the work that they were doing. So we decided to make a magazine that didn't focus just on technology, but focused also on ideas, on people, and on companies. These were some of the ideas that ultimately became part of the spirit for the start of Wired. The Wired business plan actually began about six years ago here, when I did a series of spread sheets and a publishing model, and it became more concrete in January of 1991, when we sat down and wrote the actual business plan for this publication.

We would have loved to have done it here in Holland, but it was our belief that the culture that we're describing in Wired hadn't developed sufficiently in Europe to support a magazine like Wired, so we decided to take the Wired concept and go to the place where we had the most chance of being received, the place where all of this was happening. John Lennon was asked why he lived in New York, and he replied that if you were alive at the time of the Roman Empire you would want to live in Rome, and for Wired it's a matter if you're alive at the time of the digital revolution, you'd want to live where that revolution was happening, and that place, the seat of the revolution, comes out of Silicon Valley. It's still exceptionally strong there. So, in March 1991, Jane Metcalf and I packed up all our belongings and moved to San Francisco, and both of us had spent most of our adult lives outside the United States, and in many ways went to San Francisco as immigrants, with about 20 boxes with all our personal possessions. We had no real business life in America, we had a reputation that preceded us with Electric Word, but we knew no lawyers, no bankers, no investors, we had no corporate connections of any kind, we just had an idea. The idea was based on the premise that we were entering a new era, and this new era was being created by the convergence of computing, telecommunications and media, and it was something that had been predicted for a good 10-15 years, foreshadowed in the work of Nicholas Negroponte, and it had been a while arriving, but it's arriving now, and we felt it's time to make a magazine like Wired. It was time to talk to an audience that was doing exciting things, to show this audience who they were themselves, because they were doing these exciting things in a lot of different fields, and to let the rest of the world see who these people were, and what they were doing, and how interesting and powerful the things that they were doing really were.

To give you an idea of where our world is now, there are some statistics that we put in our media kit when we were going out looking for advertisers. The percent of the US work force involved in information work is 55%, the industrial company whose market value is less than Microsoft's, that's General Motors, the value of computer hardware and software sold in the United States, and that was in 1992, was $500 billion. The size of the US defense budget was by comparison $270 billion, the value of computer hardware and software in the US as a percentage of GNP, fully 10 percent of the US economy now is based on computer hardware and software, the market for new technology in 2001, 1 trillion dollars. The percentage of computers connected to networks in 1989 was 10%, the percentage of computers that was connected to networks in 1993 was 65%. The growth of the Internet global computer network 15% per month, the growth of traffic on the Internet, 20% per month. The US box office for all Hollywood movies, was 5 billion dollars. The size of the US video game market was 5.3 billion dollars, and, to give you an example of the explosive growth in all of these sectors, the gross worldwide revenues for SEGA in 1989 was $800 million, the gross worldwide revenues for SEGA in 1993 were $3.8 billion.

Microsoft chair Bill Gates calls this "the new digital world order." And it was part of what inspired us to try to make a magazine that talked to the people who were making this digital revolution. We went through a lot of names about who they were, and I don't think the names are really important, but they're a generation that grew up with MTV. A generation that's accustomed and familiar with computers, and that have been affected by this technology in profound and even neurological ways, that have their heads re-wired, that become different from the background population. They look for cohorts, and they find other people who are doing the same kinds of things that they are doing. We felt that these kind of people were important, that needed to see who the others who were doing these kinds of things were, and that the world needed to see who they were.

Marshall McLuhan said, "we move from an era in which business is our culture to one in which culture is our business". And he's describing what's become a global revolution. We've called it a digital revolution. It doesn't matter what you call it. But it's something that's sweeping the world, and it's affecting, the smallest and the largest institutions. I mean, all the East Bloc disappeared in the last four years as a result of technology. Corporations are falling as a result of technology. New industries are being born, new professions are being born, old professions are being revolutionized. Almost every aspect of the way we live today is being changed, and Wired was an attempt, or is an attempt to focus on this change and try to make it visible and talk about the effects on us as individuals and on our society.

Alvin Toffler talked about the third wave. He talked about the first wave being the change of society from hunter-gatherer to agricultural, and the second wave being of civilization from agricultural to industrial and mass production. We're involved in a third wave, which he describes as a change from mass production and industrial to communications and information. What the exact dimension of this change is, how it's actually going to work itself out is still to be seen, but we can know that the effects are incredibly profound, and can make the Russian revolution or any previous political revolution look like child's play in comparison.

When we made Wired, we tried to be aware of the changes that were happening in the media, and there's a comment in the video `why are we being made on paper?' I think the point was made in the video itself that paper is still an incredibly important medium, it's very user-friendly, it's portable, it's quasi-interactive. You can make notes on it, you can rip pages out and send them to your friends, you can flip back and forth, but we knew that paper wasn't enough for Wired and for where technology and the new media are going. So we are trying consciously to integrate paper into this new world. We see paper as incredibly important, a place where high thought content and good graphics can reside. Bob Stein's comments about literacy are real important, and we don't see that going away, we think paper is going to be a major part of how we communicate, but it's not quite enough any more. The paper vehicle that we've created is also a doorway into new media. It's an index, and a gateway, to other things. We have five on-line services that are connected to Wired. We publish e-mail addresses for all our correspondents, and for all the material that we cover in the magazine. We try very consciously to amplify the meaning of media. Media is two things: it's information, and it's also community. A lot of the media we have out there today is one-way. In fact, you might say that this previous generation of media is a one-to-many publishing model. What we're talking about is a many-to-many publishing model that encompasses, that offers feedback to readers, and we're actively trying to connect back to this community, to have them be an integral part of how we do our business. So we offer and we're developing on-line services that don't replicate a magazine, we're not making a magazine on-line, we're using on-line to amplify what the magazine is. In the end it will ultimately subsume the magazine, and create a new experience of which the magazine is one essential part, but not the only part.

Jules asked me to talk a little about the European influence on Wired.

As I mentioned, Jane Metcalf and I had spent most of our adult lives here. I had spent 10 years in Amsterdam. She had spent ten years in Paris, Geneva and Amsterdam. I think that we had to have learned something in that time. And I think that the things that we learned had to do especially with design. When we went back to make Wired, we consciously set out to make something that looked radically different from other magazines. American magazine design was incredibly boring. And we wanted to bring in some kind of energy, some kind of playfulness and intent, to shape up what in America is very staid design. So we came in with ideas from Neville Brody of Face, and Max Kissman, and others here, to try to make a magazine that truly represented the richness, not to mention the cacocophany, that new media technology is today.

The other thing that came out of it, not only is design important, design requires taste. There are some American magazines that try to do different things. Very few have the restraint or intelligence to present information in a coherent way that people can access. That was another thing that, I think, we took back. It's very important to not only be lively, but also, to be accessible.

Another thing we took back from Europe, is a sense of the importance of social issues to what's going on here. Bob Stein talked about them as being important to what he was doing, and important for everybody to think about. Wired is built on the premise that the social is the most important aspect of what's happening today. It's not the technology. It's not the boxes. It's how this is changing our lives, and how's it's affecting us, and what that means for the future. In this revolution, everything is changing. Revolutions are not necessarily good. But they are, as a hurricane or tornado isn't necessarily good or bad, they just happen, it's important to understand what they're doing, how they're affecting us, and that's a part, a very big part, of what Wired is trying to do. A third way Europe influenced us, was that, we weren't in America. That sounds really trite, but if we had been in America, we wouldn't have been so naive to think that we could actually start this project. For it's not an idea that's particularly unique to Jane or me, or the others who worked on the Wired start-up, it's an idea that had currency, or people thought about doing a magazine like this, but the ones who were doing journalism or working in publishing at the time were all sort of hidebound in their little jobs and knew the million and one little reasons why it couldn't be done. We, coming from outside had a different perspective, we just thought, this is right, we've worked with the stuff for a while, we've seen what's going on, it's apparent that this is happening now, and let's make it happen. The fact that we were outsiders and going to America with this idea served us very well.

I want to leave you with a couple of ideas, hopefully to chew on, after this session. One of them is to describe a little bit of the landscape in the interactive future. In America they talk a lot about 500 channels as being what interactivity is all about. And actually what we're really talking about is probably closer to 50,000 channels, or 100,000 channels, or actually, a globeful of content-providers. This whole model of one-to-many publishing is going away, and is being replaced by the opportunity for people not only to download information and entertainment, but at the same time to upload. The path is going to be bi-directional. So, the chance for new voices and new visions to find space in the future is going to be much broader than it is today. Not to say that there aren't going to be packaged media, and that there aren't going to be editors necessary. It's just that there will be a chance for people to stake their own claim. In America today there are 40,000 bulletin boards, places where individuals or small companies have set up space on line or at the end of the telephone and offered themselves as repositories for content that anyone can come and take down, or actually put comment, put content on to. This is a model all of us should be thinking about, because it offers a chance for a lot of us to become content providers and producers that otherwise would have to go through channels that in the past have been restricted, and in the control of large corporations with slow changing agendas.

The second idea that I'd have you think about is that artists would be radically different in the future. Art may never be finished. F.Scott Fitzgerald said, `art is never finished, It's just abandoned'. In the future, we're not talking about it being abandoned but being released to the world, for the world to work on and move to the next stage. Because of copying and sampling, art is the raw material for the next person that's going to make a narration of it, so that art becomes, in effect, a rumor. Or, the other alternative is, that you create art never as a product but as an algorithm, that is built to mutate, so that you never see the same piece of art twice. There's no way you can go back and see how it was originally at the beginning, because there was no beginning, there is no end, it's just keeps changing as a result of its own dynamic.

The third thing is that we really are involved in a massive change, and if we don't want to talk about epical change, think about changes of media. Changes where media have affected and changed our civilization, maybe not in the most profound ways, but even in the most mundane ways, but still in broad-scale ways. Think of now as 1920, when movies are migrating from hand-cranked nickelodeons to big screens, and we have a new mass culture develop. Or think of it as 1949, and there are one million television sets installed in the United States, and radio is still king, but there's a new world coming, and all these radio executives are running around, wondering, with fear and loathing, will I still have a job when television finally breaks. Well, it's 1949 now, it's 1920 now, and we are on the cusp of a new generation of media that's going to be changing again the cultural landscape in front of us. For all of us here, it's an opportunity as well. There aren't many times when you get to be a part of the birth of new media. I think this is one of them. I think one of the things that Wired and we all are about, is the opportunity that this presents to us as actors and designers of this future. And that we should all take pleasure and part in this new future that's coming.


updated 1993