The Fall of Wired UK

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 February 1997

By pulling the plug on the United Kingdom version of its neon hi-tech monthly, Wired magazine has done more than cancel a publication. It has admitted yet another defeat in its campaign to equate the digital revolution with American-style right-wing libertarianism and to dominate discussions about futurism and cultural ideology with members of its own, highly-regarded posse.

A propaganda effort that has proved quite effective on both the business and hi-tech communities of the US, Wired’s Ventures’ strategy of coercion through a combination of hype and intimidation just didn’t work on England’s digital enthusiasts, who were already poised to resist what they see as rampant cultural imperialism from American media conglomerates. Making matters worse, Wired originally chose to team up with The Guardian of London which, though not radically leftist, employs writers and appeals to readers who might not be willing accept all the gifts of Western capitalism sight unseen. The resulting rift was never successfully healed.

But England’s rejection of Wired amounts to much more than a clash over economic policy; it is a rejection of a brand of media more coercive than it is informative. Much more practical than Americans in their approach to the Internet, the English computer users I spoke with told me they were looking for a magazine that explained how things work, why they were important, or what to look out for. “Wired used buzzwords and catch phrases that only insiders would understand,” one Londoner explained to me. “The magazine made it clear that there are insiders and outsiders.” Or, as a young British hacker emailed me on hearing the news, “They tried to tell us how to think, so we told them to fuck off.”

While the British Internet community might be a more skeptical, even paranoid audience than America’s proud “early adopters,” their perceptions of the agendas underlying Wired’s invasion of UK mediaspace are not entirely inaccurate. In fact, the increasingly common opinion in cafes and multimedia studios in the magazine’s own hometown of San Francisco is that Wired was never really more than an elaborate public relations strategy.

This loose association of editors and experts consisted largely of people who were either already or soon to become associated with another group, Global Business Network ˆ a first class menu of futurist business and technology advisors including Kevin Kelly, John Barlow, and, not surprisingly, many of the other digerati who have appeared on Wired magazine’s covers.

A common perception in Silicon Valley is that the other way to get on the cover of Wired is to hire the Wired’s editors or Global Business Network as your consultants. In effect, CEO’s who employ the magazine’s editor/consultants and then follow their advice believe they will be rewarded with glowing articles about their savvy media and technology strategies. More to the point, those who do business with Wired get nice covers. Nicholas Negroponte invested kindly and heavily in the magazine’s launch, and was rewarded with a glowing cover on the release of his book. Even Bill Gates got a cover (his second) when his MSNBC television network bought Wired’s short-lived television program.

Futurism has always been an act of will; those who give advice are naturally going to attempt to promote themselves as the exclusive purveyors of secreted wisdom. But when a magazine represents itself as journalism yet actually serves almost as the newsletter and promotional arm of a group of consultants with a particular agenda, something is amiss, and eventually its readers will catch on.

Perhaps Wired attempted to enact its plan just a bit too aggressively. Brilliant students of media coercion, the people who put Wired together are surely aware of the subtle effect of their complex layouts and oxymoronic insiders’ puns. They are employing the cut-and-paste techniques of folks from the Dadaists to William Burroughs, but to decidedly different ends. The experience of reading Wired is to be made confused: Watch out, the Internet is a scary place. Their bizarre juxtapositions of words and images is more than an artsy style; it is a proven programming technique. A method of persuasion.

Frankly, I like a lot of what Wired offers. It is one of the few magazines on the newsstand with long, thoughtful articles by some of today’s most interesting writers. Publisher Louis Rossetto is one of the smartest people in the world thinking about new media. However, when it becomes increasingly apparent that his magazine does not disclose its true cultural agenda or its relationships to its subjects, but rather manipulates its readers into a state of suggestible anxiety through cleverly exploited language and design, I am attempted to reject the entire publication, just as the UK did.

In a sense, Wired UK never really existed. It was an American publication with a particular agenda masquerading as a British effort. No doubt they will continue to distribute their ideas throughout England, but at least they’ll be doing so a bit more honestly: They’ll simply export the US edition of Wired, which is all they really meant to do in the first place.