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nettime: _Wired_ Unplugged - Mark Dery

"_Wired_ Unplugged"[*]                 [Copyright Mark Dery 1996]

           _Wired_ is a Mighty Morphin PowerBook.  Despite

editor/publisher Louis Rossetto's insistence that his magazine is

still reassuringly Gutenbergian, printed on "non-glossy, recycled

papers," the reader can't escape the nagging suspicion that _Wired_

is actually the shape-shifting android from _Terminator 2_,

disguised as a magazine.[1]  Like the liquid metal T-1000, whose

"mimetic polyalloy" enables it to morph into "anything it samples

by physical contact," _Wired_ uses digital technology to "vacuum up

all references within the known history of mankind," according to

creative director John Plunkett, who in collaboration with his

partner Barbara Kuhr designed the magazine.       

     Equal parts corporate annual report and cyberdelic migraine,

Sharper Image catalogue and _The Medium is the Massage_, _Wired_ is

the limit case for postmodern technodazzle in graphic design,

pushing the eyestrain envelope to just this side of unreadability. 

(It falls to magazines with a younger, fringier demographic, like

_Ray Gun_ and _Poppin' Zits_, to shatter the legibility barrier

into postliterate fragments.)  Plunkett and Kuhr's design is meant

to communicate the sped-up, off-center whirl of late 20th century

culture, the cowabunga fun of surfing the Third Wave.            

     _Wired_'s logo and coverlines are printed in hot pink, orange,

and yellow fluorescent inks that simultaneously evoke neon

nightlife and the high-resolution color monitor.  The four-page

introductory spread invites comparison to movie titles and

cinematic montage: a quote from one of the issue's contributors

unfurls across checkerboards, supersaturated color fields, and

resonant images from our collective memory (Walter Cronkite, happy

shoppers, mushroom clouds).  

     Immediately after the contents pages comes "Electric Word," an

eight-page barrage of newsbriefs and product reports whose layout

crosses the hard-edged geometry of Bauhaus design with the

stroboscopic editing and in-your-face camerawork of MTV: images

inset in colored rectangles float over blocks of prose, headlines

chop articles in half, and a gossip column set in type so small and

light it can only be read with a jeweler's eyepiece slices

horizontally across the entire section.  "'Electric Word,'" says

Plunkett, is "where we've deliberately pushed as hard as we could

against the conventional linear presentation of information."  When

many readers talk about the magazine, he notes, they're really

talking about "Electric Word"; it is there that _Wired_'s aesthetic

attains its sci-fi apotheosis, erupting through the body of the

text like some chest-bursting Alien.

     Most of the feature articles that follow are presented in a

(relatively) straightforward manner, with about one notable

exception per issue: _Wired_ 1.1's notorious feature on the Otaku,

which ran sideways, with a sidebar running down the middle in a

purple stripe; William Gibson's cover story in 1.4, faintly visible

through hazy swaths of color and blown-up buzzwords; and, in the

same issue, my interview with Manuel De Landa and Mark Pauline,

drastically abridged to accommodate an eye-crossing spread laid out

like a checkerboard, with squares of prose hopscotching over

photos.  [Conflict-of-interest disclaimer: the media bias police

will see score-settling in the last example; most will take it for

what it is---a subjective view of deconstructionist magazine

design, from the perspective of the body (copy) on the operating


     Because _Wired_ is an unabashed commodity fetish that delights

in the play of images across its glossy surface, it invites the

throwaway critique that it is _nothing_ but surface.  This mistake

has been made before, in the denunciation of cyberpunk SF as

"literary MTV" (George Slusser), the dead end of postmodernism's

obsession with texture and quotation.  In _Wired_'s case as in

cyberpunk's, this reductionist write-off is too easy.  Langdon

Winner, a penetrating critic of technoculture, revealed an

uncharacteristic blind spot when he dismissed _Wired_ as vapid

technophilia, wrapped in seductive packaging.  "For those in the

middle of a cyborgasm," he wrote, in _Technology Review_, "there is

evidently little need to think."[2]  Reading Winner, one senses an

implied causality between _Wired_'s supposed vacuity and its

"surrealistic images in Day-Glo colors" and "jumbled mix of

typefaces."[3]  There is a hint of puritan censoriousness here, a

deep-rooted distrust of flamboyant display and Dionysian abandon

that makes strange bedfellows of moralists on the left and the

right.  Winner's charge that cyberzines such as _Wired_ are

"cyberpornography," "bombarding their readers with pure sensation

for sensation's sake," resonates sympathetically with conservative

calls for the exorcism of '60s libertinism.       

     On the contrary, I would argue that _Wired_, far from being

depthless, is dense with ideas.  Indeed, it has become a bully

pulpit for corporate futurists, laissez-faire evangelists, and

prophets of privatization.  In 1.5, the futurist Alvin Toffler

bemoans the fact that the shortsighted U.S. is airdropping food

rather than fax machines and camcorders in the former Yugoslavia,

and that Washington is concerned with ho-hum Second Wave issues

such as the decaying urban infrastructure when it should be paving

the Information Superhighway.  In 1.4, George Gilder, an apostle of

info-capitalism, reweaves the threadbare myth that in the near

future, when each of us commands the googlebytes of a

supercomputer, economic and political power will be magically

redistributed.  (This cherished article of cybercratic faith

underwrote Newt Gingrich's so-called "Let Them Eat Laptops"

speculation that perhaps the government should provide "the poorest

Americans" with laptops---after it has unburdened them of frivolous

entitlements such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children,

presumably.)  And in issue 1.3, Peter Drucker, the Moses of

management theory, reprises the corporate-friendly refrain that

since our post-industrial culture runs on information, the blue-

collar worker is obsolete---a joyful noise to managerial ears in an

age of outsourcing and downsizing, but bitter music to former

laborers, now consigned to the subsistence wage purgatory of the

service industry.  No matter, consoles Drucker disciple and

corporate futurologist Peter Schwartz: "massive

unemployment...became the fertile ground in which Silicon Valley


     In the silicon social Darwinism ostensibly popular with the

33-year-old, 81k-earning male who is _Wired_'s typical reader, the

evolutionary race goes to the wunderkind "small player" enshrined

in computer industry myth (Bill Gates, the two Steves who founded

Macintosh); the unskilled and the de-skilled masses are stampeded

in the mad rush to the millennium.  "Tofflerism-Gingrichism,"

asserts Hendrik Hertzberg in a recent _New Yorker_ essay, is not

unlike Marxism-Leninism in its "worship of technology," its "know-

it-all certainty," its "scientism," its "'revolutionary'

rapture."[5]  There is, he notes, a "similar exhilaration that

comes from being among the select few to whom the mysteries and the

meaning of history are vouchsafed...a similar patronizing contempt

for those who don't 'get it' and are therefore fated to be swept

into the dustbin of history."[6]

     It does not follow, however, that the party organ of

Tofflerism-Gingrichism recognizes a family resemblance on the Left. 

_Wired_ makes no pretense of ideological balance---Winner and other

left/liberal critics of smiley face free-market futurism get no

airtime in its pages---and its heady vision of a high-resolution,

broad-bandwidth future is dangerously myopic, blind to

environmental concerns, race relations, gender politics, and labor

issues.  But, misbegotten though many of them may be, there's no

dearth of ideas in _Wired_.  

     Moreover, though it sometimes drowns out _textual_ meaning,

_Wired_'s visual cacophony reverberates with meanings of its own. 

In fact, its design embodies its editorial ideology, prepping what 

Marshall McLuhan called Typographic Man for his millennial

metamorphosis into Homo Cyber, reconciling 21st century

cybercapitalism and countercultural rebellion.  Not for nothing is

McLuhan listed as "Patron Saint" on the magazine's masthead: in

_Wired_, the medium is the message.

     At the same time, _Wired_ inverts McLuhan's theory of "rear-

view mirrorism," which states that the content of each new medium

is the medium it superseded (early movies emulated stage plays, for

example).  By contrast, _Wired_'s "cyborgasmic" graphics are a

computer simulation of things to come; Plunkett and Kuhr wanted the

magazine to look "as though it had literally landed at your feet as

a messenger from the future."  

     But there are ironic quotes within quotes, here.  _Wired_ is

also always telegraphing its own putative obsolescence by harking

back to the Gutenberg Galaxy: its square spine, coated cover, matte

paper stock, book size, and Bodoni-esque Waldbaum serif typeface

(evocative, says Plunkett, of "the Renaissance, the first full

flowering of what printing presses could do") all say "book."  The

"messenger from the future" arrives wrapped in the legitimating

mantle of Gutenbergian authority.  

     Again, larger issues are reflected in the mirror finish of

_Wired_'s design.  Its aesthetic of overt manipulation---of

"overdesign"---is the graphic equivalent of the opening sentence in

Gibson's _Neuromancer_, "The sky above the port was the color of

television, tuned to a dead channel."  Abandon nature, all ye who

enter here: both Gibson's world and _Wired_'s remind us that

technology is transforming our environment into a profoundly

denatured, digitized---and, increasingly, corporate---place. 

"Electric Word"'s incredible shrinking articles and ever-expanding

images enact the much talked about televisualization of print

media---an especially alarming trend in the U.S., where literacy

rates are declining, growing numbers of cities are one-newspaper

towns, and two thirds of the citizenry claim to get "most of their

information" from television.[7]  Simultaneously, the deluge of

information that overwhelms the _Wired_ reader springs from the

received truth, in cyberculture, that we are the "Third Wave

people" imagined by Alvin Toffler, "at ease in the midst of [a]

bombardment of blips," accustomed to gulping "huge amounts of

information in short takes."[8]

     Ironically, _Wired_ dramatizes the extent to which our notions

of rationality and critical thinking are still configured by the

written word.  Metaphorically speaking, _reading_ _Wired_ causes

"simulator sickness"---the nausea experienced by cybernauts when

perceived movement, in a virtual reality, is not matched by a

corresponding disturbance in the inner ear.  Its articles require

readers even as its design yearns for inhabitants: _Wired_ is a

magazine that went to sleep and dreamed it was SimWorld.  Plunkett

and Kuhr's aesthetic approximates the sensation of bodily immersion

familiar from video games and techno-thrillers, where warp-speed,

gravity-defying flights through cyberspace, seen from a computer-

generated POV, offer gamers and moviegoers a taste of cyborg

vision.  Miming disembodied hyperkinesis, _Wired_ simulates a

simulation---the immersive virtuality promised by a recent NEC ad,

which declared, "Everything you know about multimedia is about to

change.  And fast.  Call it 'virtual reality' if you like, but

before long you'll actually be able to step into magazines...Images

and words will surround you.  You'll be able to control, even

touch, what you see."[9]  

     In the terminal worlds modeled in _Wired_ and the NEC ad, the

written word is vestigial---an evolutionary remnant of print

culture.  Intriguingly, Plunkett and Kuhr's attempt to cyborg the

obsolete body of the text or jettison it altogether parallels the

corporal politics of cyberculture at large, where the body is

surgically remade in the image of posthuman media fictions or

reimagined as dead "meat" to be transcended through neo-gnostic

technologies such the roboticist Hans Moravec's popular fantasy of

"downloading"---mapping our minds onto computer memory and thereby

rendering the flesh superfluous.  _Wired_'s deconstructionist

design completes the circuit begun by Mary Shelley's monster---the

original exquisite corpse, an anatomical cut-up who prefigured a

body of 20th century experiments in textual surgery, the best known

of them by William S. Burroughs, a disgruntled former medical

student whose corpus is in one sense a Ripper-esque assault on the

text, a logocidal attempt to "rub out the word."       

     Enacting the world-view of a postliterate, digitally

disembodied culture, _Wired_ begs the obvious, on every page: What

are all these the _words_ doing here, like some troublesome corpus

delicti that can't be disposed of?  As a millennial artifact,

_Wired_ impels us, unavoidably, toward questions of critical

significance: Can literary content be disembodied and reincarnated

in a post-linguistic, purely graphical form?  More profoundly, is

the centered, bounded self, which McLuhan argues was a product of

print culture, fated to liquefy into a polymorphous perversity like

the T-1000?  Reading _Wired_, we feel ourselves beginning to morph. 


                              - 30 -

     Mark Dery (markdery@well.com) is a cultural critic.  He edited

_Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture_ (Duke University Press,

1995) and wrote _Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the

Century_ (Grove Press, 1996; http://www.well.com/user/markdery/). 

His monograph, _Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in

the Empire of Signs_ is part of the Open Magazine pamphlet series.


[*] Copyright Mark Dery 1996; all rights reserved.  No part of this

essay may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any

means, without the prior written permission of the author, with the

exception of brief quotes in reviews, printout for personal use, or

nonprofit information exchange between interested parties.

[1] Louis Rossetto, "Get Wired (Monthly)," _Wired_ 1.5, November,

1993, p. 12.

[2] Langdon Winner, "Cyberpornography," _Technology Review_,

February/March, 1994, p. 70.

[3] Loc. cit.

[4] Peter Schwartz, "Post-Capitalist," _Wired_ 1.3, July/August

1993, p. 82.

[5] Hendrik Hertzberg, "Marxism: The Sequel," _The New Yorker_,

February 15, 1995, p. 7. 

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Bill McKibben, _The Age of Missing Information_ (New York:

Random House, 1992), p. 18.

[8] Alvin Toffler, _The Third Wave_ (New York: Bantam, 1981), p.


[9] Quoted by Jordan Crandall, "Fucking Screens: Notes Toward a

Diagram," an essay published and distributed on February 25, 1996,

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