Putting an Exclamation Point on the Dot-Com Age
The Buffalo News
Sunday, August 3, 2003
By KEVIN PURDY
Wired - A Romance
By Gary Wolf
282 pages, $24.95
To those armchair analysts whose specialty is hindsight (and there
are plenty nowadays), the dot-com boom of the last decade resembled
nothing so much as a fluke, a sham, a lie perpetuated by millions of
random acts of senseless investment.
But for the true believers (and there were just as many back then), the
technologies emerging at the time were so profound they were almost
spiritual: daring investors were "angels," arguments over software were
"religious disputes," and for the Internet companies giving their product
away for free, promises of a future revenue plan caused an almost
Enter shaggy visionary Louis Rossetto, his tireless companion Jane
Metcalfe, and their magazine Wired, which for a brief period -- 1993 to
1997, to be precise -- lead the choir in the song of a Digital Revolution
that Rossetto believed was "whipping through our lives like a Bengali
Gary Wolf, a former Wired editor, sets out not to chronicle the
now-familiar tale of a technology start-up outgrowing the bounds of
reality, but to tell "the story of its story." He succeeds mightily at
capturing the college-dorm atmosphere of Wired's San Francisco offices and
the characters more colorful than even its groundbreaking pages, but in
telling the "romance," he falters with an over-stuffed third act.
Wolf's hero is of the atypical variety that flourished in the period. A
former Libertarian cover-boy and homeless global wanderer, Rossetto
believed so fiercely in the power of the revolution that he attempted to
sell his half-magazine, half-Internet-catalyst to investors as "a new type
of global media company that sells branded content with attitude," in a
prospectus with fluorescent ink and a gatefold cover.
Rossetto and his constantly morphing company attracted the same
vanguard they served, the outcast geeks and individualistic executives who
regularly ended up on magazine covers. Take Carl Steadman, the 19-year-old
programmer for whom the first issue of Wired was akin to a ticket out of
"A rural youth of extreme intelligence is almost certain to be unhappy.
Among other deprivations there is nobody to talk to. Carl Steadman's
rustication was extreme; ditto his misery. If there were 356 residents of
Dent, Minnesota, aside from Carl, then to 355 of them, at least, the
short, thin, wispy-haired, round-headed teenager inspired either
indifference or irritation."
As Wired grows (mostly on paper) on the backs of such characters,
Wolf's prose and pacing are concise and deft. But the manic growth of the
Web division HotWired and fallout of a disastrous Initial Public Offering
attempt bring in a flood of new investors, back-stabbers and last-minute
decisions that would set any manager's head spinning, let alone a
Wolf's insider perspective gives all the fascinating e-mails, phone
calls and mumbled asides one could expect, but the thrill dulls a bit as
Wired approaches its IPO, the Royal Ball of the tech boom's Cinderella
stories. Michael Lewis' profile of Jim Clark in "The New New Thing" and
Michael Wolff's biting "Burn Rate" both provide tighter suspense as mounds
of public cash loom.
Wired wasn't like any of the companies it covered, however, and the
story of the libertarian wanderer and his magazine-as-firestarter is a
fascinating one. Reading it now, after the dot-com bubble has been
thoroughly deflated, is an invigorating exercise in alternative recent
Kevin Purdy is a News financial reporter.