rewired: a brief (and opinionated) net history
In 20th century America, most distinct cultural eras have had their own magazine; a place in which the young and hip could express the insights and hopes particular to the time, singing hosanna for the new and pronouncing anathema on the old. The 20s, for example, had Smart Set. The 50s had Life. The 80s had Spy.
In the 90s, we had Wired. With its utopian faith in the transformative power of new computing technology and its contemptuous mistrust of government, Wired both reflected and fueled the libertarian-tinged cyber-enthusiasm that marked the mid-90s.
But like its predecessors, Wired proved to be so tightly bound to its particular milieu that it could not survive its passing. Smart Set died in 1930, Life in 1972 (though later resurrected in reduced form), Spy in 1994, and now Wired, its basic ideology seeming quainter and more irrelevant by the day, is itself on the ropes.
In rewired, David Hudson provides an idiosyncratic look at the milieu that gave birth to Wired, and at why that milieu is now passing away. Though Hudson praises Wired as "indispensable" and "the only periodical with the guts and the savvy to tackle the issues central to [computer-driven social change]," he also disagrees strenuously with its libertarian and utopian philosophies, and he devotes much of rewired to presenting and critiquing the foundations of the Wired ideology.
In particular, Hudson criticizes the resurgent Social Darwinism he finds in Wired; a resurgence made possible by the relatively young and wealthy audience of the magazine. The average Wired reader is not likely to be troubled by an assertion that anyone who isn't succeeding doesn't deserve to succeed, and that social welfare is a waste of money.
On a lighter note, Hudson pokes fun at Wired's pretense that it is leading a global revolution. Hudson shows how the Wired philosophy is provincial to the conditions of Silicon Valley, and that Wired management and members of the European computer culture have a relationship marked by a considerable degree of mutual puzzlement and contempt.
Hudson writes not just about Wired, but also about Internet culture as a whole. Like many other prominent Net culture mavens, Hudson combines articulate writing with unseemly self-absorption to produce essays that are often witty, insightful, and provocative, yet also creepily solipsistic. (To his credit, Hudson does address the inflated sense of self-importance of so many columnists in the "new media," but Hudson himself often lacks perspective: for example, in what real world is new media writer Paulina Borsook "immensely popular"?) Hudson effectively argues that the key to the popularity of the Internet is not content, but interactivity -- people log on to meet other people much more often than they log on to read articles or do research.
One other point to note about rewired is its aesthetic quality. Hudson is an artist, and he brings that sensibility to the design and typography of his book, which are remarkably well done. (Hudson's experience in the art world is also obvious during his knowledgeable discussions about how hype helped create the World Wide Web as we know it.)
What David Hudson gives us in rewired is a casual, chatty look at the history, present, and future of both the Internet and its fading champion, Wired. His insights into the libertarian influence on both are incisive and valuable, and his judgment about the fate of the ephemeral Wired seems apt: "as curiosity about the Net and its culture wears off and all those wow colors wear thin, only the ugly part is left."
Review posted 4 September 1998