Looking back on boom-era WIRED magazines, part 1

16 Sep

In the aftermath of our basement flood last month, we cleaned out all of the storage boxes we rarely opened in six years of living in this house.  Some of my boxes had been unopened much longer and I was surprised to find a pile of WIRED magazines from 1996-1999, still in excellent condition. One with a scratch and sniff cover is still in the mailing plastic.


Since I’ve got a bit of a cold today, I thought it might be interesting to open one like a time capsule and see what I found.*  I started with the issue from November 1996 with Burning Man on the cover.  At the time this issue came out, I was working for an Internet start-up and freelancing as a website manager/editor; WIRED was crucial to me for stay current. It helped me decide what skills to pick up next and what jargon to spout. Here’s some of what I found inside today:

  • before the Table of Contents: four glossy, poster-like pages promoting a story about Suck with the words, “The Web Dream is what smart kids across America are dreaming. Here’s a cheap and easy-to-use medium that lets anyone seize the attention of the planet… It’ll hardly cost a dime. and you might get rich. Fuck waiting in line for your turn. Piss in the milk of the oligarchy. Take the money… then run like hell.”  How I loved Suck. It was dead less than five years after this issue. But the text nails the attitude of those of us who were hustling to go from hopeless slackers to new media luminaries, and it’s still the attitude of those who seek fame in the latest digital media, be it YouTube or Twitter or Vine and beyond.
  • pg 42: a blurb about companies fighting to take control of the computer desktop, with push technology like PointCast featured. It sounded cool then, but nobody really wanted it.  Now? Windows 8 has an interface that pulls in stories and content from sites and categories you choose. With apps, widgets, and notification settings, we can get a lot of of content pushed to our mobile devices. I think Facebook has become the information desktop for a wide swath of users, aggregating content that is interesting to them or their friends.
  • pg 45: I’ve been glossing over all the outdated PC ads, but this Toshiba Infinia ad proudly announces that their Pentium PC has “a huge 3.0GB hard drive”.
  • pg 46: a blurb about AOL being sued by the NBA for posting scores of basketball games in progress. The argument was that the scores were intellectual property that television stations paid large amounts of money to license, while AOL claimed that reporting the scores was journalism.  It may seem natural to ask or type a few keywords to check scores now, but that was one of many things that had to be fought out.
  • pg 47: a blurb about WebTV. Putting web content on the TV screen is still a relevant consideration — I use my Chromecast every few days — but creating an interface and controls for the web on TV never really worked.  Using the keyboard at some hotels that still offer LodgeNet is a painful reminder of the WebTV furor.
  • pg. 48: analysis of the hardware of the brand-new Nintendo 64.
  • pg. 64: in the Fetish column (gear for early adopters, basically), a glowing promotion for the Motorola StarTac cellular phone, retailing for $1000-2000.
  • pg 68: an ad for a webcam that could broadcast in color.
  • pgs 119-120: an ad for the first Resident Evil game
  • pg 160: a short essay about web memorial sites, guessing how these will become more common in the future. Ironically, the one memorial site mentioned in the piece is currently offline.
  • pg 195: the cover article by Bruce Sterling about Burning Man, which was then in its 11th year.  I’ve just seen a documentary about Burning Man and read about this year’s celebration, and it’s incredible to compare how tiny it was in 1996.
  • pg 218: in a blurb about the new DirecPC service, which offered “up to a sizzling 400 Kbps”, the writer is ecstatic about downloading a 1.5 Mb file in under a minute. Just for comparison, I’m getting 18.71 Mbps over my home WiFi right now. If I did the math correctly, that’s almost 47 times as fast as the top speed that made him giddy.

Overall, sure, it was dated, but not too bad. It was far more upbeat about how the Internet would change politics and the economic future than how things really turned out, but it was an optimistic time. Thank goodness that storage sizes and prices and Internet connectivity improved at the rate they did.

* Yep, this is a filler post, and I’ll probably do a few more for days when I’m too busy or sick.  Not the most informative or thought-provoking, but maybe some nostalgia or giggles and a last life for the magazines before they hit the recycling bin.

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Posted by on September 16, 2014 in Side Topics


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