Wired: The book

Wired: The Book: By Andrew Leonard. A former Wired insider lands contract to tell the magazine's rise-and-fall saga.

Published August 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Gary Wolf started taking notes the very first day he began working at Wired magazine as a self-described "utility player" brought in to take care of various odd-job editing and writing duties. Throughout his tenure, as he rose from magazine writer to executive editor at HotWired, he would hear a good line and scribble it down, former colleagues remember. That he might some day write a book about his experiences, say those colleagues, was no secret.

It's now a reality. Wolf acknowledged on Wednesday that he signed a contract with Random House "two or three weeks ago" to write the story of Wired for an advance that is in the "neighborhood" of $110,000. No title has yet been chosen for the book, he says. But one e-mail message circulating among current Wired staffers labeled it "Bengali Typhoon: The Rise and Fall of the Wired Empire."

In the first issue of Wired, founder Louis Rossetto declared that "the Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon." The description proved more apt than Rossetto might have appreciated. Today, the once-mighty Wired Ventures, which aspired to publish magazines, books and online content, produce television and deliver Internet services, looks itself as if it has been ravaged by a typhoon, with pieces strewn like wreckage across the media landscape. Wired magazine was sold to Condi Nast in May, and the fate of Wired's online properties -- chiefly the search site Hotbot and the Wired News site -- remains uncertain.

No small amount of ill will, both within the company and without, accompanied the stunning rise and equally precipitous fall of Wired -- which is one reason that many Wired observers are licking their chops over what they hope will be a scathing account of how Wired's hubris brought doom to its founders and their followers.

But Wolf -- who says that when he left Wired last December it was "under fairly good circumstances, I was certainly very worn out, but not very bitter" -- shies away from any suggestion that his book might be meant as an act of revenge.

For Wolf, the story of Wired is no simple Greek tragedy; it's not about a "guy who wants to get rich and fucks it up." Nor is it a venture-capital morality play, in the manner of Michael Wolff's "Burn Rate."

"That's exactly what it isn't," says Wolf. "It's the story of an idea -- and that idea is called Wired. It's not a story of the search for money, but about how a very small group of people saw something coming, how they invented the name for it and sort of the common understanding of it, how they became hugely successful through their prescience -- and then what that success did to them and to the company they started. You can't really understand what happened at Wired in the last two years unless you understand it in the context of a huge success. Otherwise it just doesn't make any sense."

To tell that story, says Wolf, he needs to go "way back in time" -- all the way back to the mid-1980s, when Rossetto and his partner, Jane Metcalfe, were small-time publishers in Amsterdam, and the idea that digital technology might soon transform global society was extremely "nonobvious." In that sense, Wolf says, he's not so much focusing on one magazine as he is continuing the story of the entire computer revolution -- as, for example, writer Steven Levy did for an earlier era in his classic "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution."

"If I could do for Wired what Steven Levy did for the personal computer with 'Hackers,'" says Wolf, "I'd be extremely happy."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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