Putting an Exclamation Point on the Dot-Com Age

The Buffalo News
Sunday, August 3, 2003


Wired - A Romance
By Gary Wolf
Random house
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 messianic fervor.

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 typhoon."

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 irrelevancy:

"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 reader's.

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 history.

Kevin Purdy is a News financial reporter.