Media Circus: Under the Covers

The techno-mag Wired subjects digital culture to searching analysis and discovers that its readers own a lot of gadgets!

Published December 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Competitors for the title of spookiest magazine on the planet had better get cracking if they intend to catch up with Wired, which, judging by its December issue, aims not merely to win the category but to retire it. Increasingly, Wired has moved from being a mere gear guide and minstrel to the techlords to a sort of religious text, an early-Christian-era screed in which apostles play out internecine struggles by spinning ecstatic visions that allegorically portray their enemies as harlots and seven-horned dragons. Nicholas Negroponte's column, which nowadays all but comes with the Kool-Aid packet attached, is the easiest example, but the contributors to the "Idies Fortes" and "Electrosphere" sections offer plenty of New Agey hoo-hah too: "Digital gods are distributed deities, verbs and modifiers rather than nouns," reads the essaylet "Digital Revelation" by "professional speaker and business consultant" Richard Thieme (one can only imagine how many laid-off secretaries you could buy back for the price of that piece of Rasputiniana).

But like any good religion, Wired is not content to wait for the next world to gain dominion, and with this issue it puts its political libertarianism up front. The cover story, by Jon Katz, hypes the results of a survey on the political orientation of heavy technology users, or Digital Citizens (here and below, all pretentious capitalization is Wired's). In an April 1997 "Netizen" column, Katz painted the disaffected guys with modems who stuffed his e-mailbox during the 1996 campaign as the Thomas Paines of a coming rationalist "postpolitical" revolution, and the premise so flattered Wired's eternal conviction that shilling high-priced gadgetry is doing the Lord's work that it joined with Merrill Lynch Forum to test the thesis.

The study divides Americans between the Connected and the Unconnected, as distinguished -- solely -- by whether the subjects use e-mail, desktop and laptop computers, cellular phones and beepers. Because of this curiously Marxist system of identifying a political constituency on the basis of how much stuff it owns, the Wired survey actually amounts to a pulse-taking of middle- to upper-class white-collar professionals.

And guess what! They're different from the poor! They have almost unqualified faith in the free-market system, for instance; they feel in control of change; they wouldn't mind seeing Social Security overhauled; they believe their children will have a better future. All safe statements if you, like most Connected Americans, earn $30,000 to $79,999 a year (12 percent earn more), yet -- despite the study's protestations that "to dismiss Digital Citizens ... is to dismiss the future" -- it says exactly squat about the social implications of technology. Educated, moneyed elites use the tools appropriate to their times: You might replace the survey's five crucial technologies with, say, "a Land Cruiser, a humidor and a decent microbrew in the fridge" and get the same results (though by emphasizing cell phones and beepers you get the bonus of including drug dealers, who presumably likewise share Wired's antipathy for intrusive government).

To be fair, Katz acknowledges problems with the survey's categories (which he did not help devise). But he's either too loyal a soldier or too besotted with his original article's trendspotting pretentions to admit that the study sabotages itself. Instead he panders to this well-equipped supervoter with the same sort of platitudes that he claims Digital Citizens reject from Clinton and Gore: "I envision a new style of politics ... a world in which the future is embraced, not dreaded." And it's a shame. The idea of subjecting a cultural critic's ruminations to empirical study is commendable (who wouldn't want to see Maureen Dowd vs. Deep Blue?), but the way Wired has gone about this one gives the lie to its overall political approach, which is to take the whining of businesspeople who want government's hands off their goodies, be they pretax profits or encryption technologies, and dress it up as McLuhanesque futurism.

The strategy here is obvious: Plug your readership as the soccer moms of the next election cycle and watch the media and politicos come crawling. But in the end the study proves nothing but the power of catch-phrase merchantry. The Digital Citizen is but an example on steroids of the numerous Wired coinages -- "the attention economy," "digital gods" --that simply scream to be cut and pasted into book proposals. Call these phrase hucksters "the Blurboisie." (Please! I've got a mortgage to pay! It's a "Media Virus" for 1998!)

In contrast, Robert Kaplan's "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" in the December Atlantic Monthly argues that neither history nor current events guarantee that the future will be one big T3 line to universal empowerment. Democracies thrive because of strong middle classes, not the opposite, he says, and the political future for much of the world could be closer to the tiger economies' -- pro-business policies, token democratic mechanisms and equal-opportunity caning. This for many of the same reasons that have Wired turning cartwheels: technological changes and economic globalization that will render today's government structures impotent. "The more appliances that middle-class existence requires," Kaplan argues, "the more influence their producers have over the texture of our lives."

Where Katz proposes that Digital Citizens are "like the brave philosophers of the 18th century," Kaplan also sees shades of the Enlightenment in America's future -- but a Federalist one, in which private interests assume governmental functions and the government becomes an "umpire" safeguarding private property rather than personal freedoms. Kaplan's take on American pop culture does betray the kind of old-guard snootiness that Katz rightly criticizes -- "Of course, it is because people find so little in themselves that they fill their world with celebrities," Kaplan sniffs -- but if his view of Americans as slack-jawed, extreme-fighting-watching sheep is simplistic, it's not half as irresponsible as Wired's deus ex machina cheerleading.

But give Wired credit for trying to explore the cultural import of the gewgaws it hawks; the proliferation of gadget mags that have followed it -- including special offerings from the likes of Forbes, U.S. News and Parade (!) that anticipate the holidays -- simply throw up pages of debtware whose price is its own justification. The premiere issue of Ziff-Davis' Equip (Winter 1997) announces "Wipe that drool off your chin," which more or less amounts to its statement of principles. No technology is too iffy to earn a "treat yourself!" plug from Equip, and even the buyer's guide rankings generously dispense 8s, 9s and 10s like an unreconstructed Soviet gymnastics judge. Verge (Winter 1997), with its profiles of Jeri "Seven of Nine" Ryan and AOL sex chat goddess Lynn Snowden, takes a probably redundant position as the men's guide to tech toys, but it, at least, is willing to suggest heresies like waiting to buy a digital TV set until the technology is actually in use. Maybe it's true that our digital gods are verbs and modifiers. "Buy" and "Now" come to mind.


Speaking of Wired's legacy, if the cultural-criticism Webzine Suck were to fall victim, as rumored, to Wired's financial troubles, it would be a classic example of snowballing public expectations determining results: Flaming out in its prime is simply what an entity like this is supposed to do -- ` la Might or "Buffalo Bill" -- setting up years of wistful revisionist mourning by people who never looked at the thing in the first place. The alternative, after all, is gradual decline and a series of "Suck's ______ Vacation" movies with Chevy Chase, or, if he's dead by then, David Spade. Legitimate or not, the deathwatch has inspired perhaps the funniest Filler column ever, and the site is manifesting one of the surest signs of both success and hoariness, the spinoff. Suck contributor Tim Cavanaugh, for example, is single-handedly (and one would assume near-sleeplessly) rivaling Suck's parody and spitwad-throwing in his daily The Simpleton, now in its third month.

It's increasingly common to deride this sort of writing as an ultradefensive dodge, but one wonders how adolescent, gutless and hip-unto-death Suck's critics would find, oh, Oscar Wilde, then. (Granted, Suck's contributors may not have the sexual-oppression thing working for them, but send them to bust rocks with their soft little hands for a couple of years and see if they wouldn't give you "The Ballad of Reading Gaol.") It may not be hip or cutting-edge to say this, but if smug urban in-jokes and crack-smoking Canadian rabbits have gone out of style, well, call me old-fashioned, sonny.


Even in these days of plummeting crime rates and bipartisan sweeps of the homeless, you had to suspect that today's urban "Friends" manquis have long been nurturing Plan Bs in which they trigger the eject seat and parachute with their stock options and condo profits into Small Town, USA, in time to get Junior into a safe public school that someone else has subsidized for decades. According to Time's cover this week, increasing numbers are packing up the modem and the FedEx mailers and moving to God's country. And if what they find doesn't always match up to their Greenmarket-inspired dreams of a bucolic communitarian millennium, well, God damn it, they're going to make it that way. The article's several profiles recount how various emigris have expanded grocery-store selections, challenged school boards, driven up prices (and perhaps crime rates) and otherwise run roughshod over the cultures they putatively have moved to embrace. If the story's premise is not entirely substantiated -- is the rural influx the result of a return to simplicity or perhaps rather a combination of retirements and employer-forced relocations? -- it is nonetheless the sort of trend piece I'm a sucker for: a conversation-starter that pushes all the right hidden-fear and culture-clash buttons and forces you to read through to the end, even if only to see how much you disagree.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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