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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Why Jann Wenner Let WIRED Start the 'Rolling Stone' of Tech

Hey, folks. Everyone agrees that sabotage killed the Nord Stream pipeline. But no one knows who did it. Paging Hercule Poirot.

The Plain View

The first WIRED story ran in Rolling Stone in 1972, 20 years before the magazine launched. “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people,” it began. The writer was Stewart Brand, and a young Annie Leibovitz captured images of Stanford AI hackers (the vernacular then was “computer bums”) playing what some consider the first video game, Spacewar.

I call it a WIRED story because it captures the spirit with which this publication would later cover tech. And that article might have opened a door for Rolling Stone, which had successfully added politics, culture, and whatever Hunter S. Thompson was to its groundbreaking music coverage. Why not get ahead of the impending computer revolution?

But Rolling Stone’s cofounder and editor in chief Jann Wenner wasn’t interested in following up. It would be 10 years before the magazine did another story about hackers (with my byline). Even as tech became a huge topic in society and journalism, Rolling Stone didn’t embrace it. “I didn’t care for computing machines,” Wenner writes in his new memoir, entitled, naturally, Like a Rolling Stone.

I caught up with Wenner this week to discuss the book. I enjoyed it, especially his account of the early days of his publication. I had been a fan since the fifth issue, which came out in February 1968 and had the cover line “Pigpen to Meet Pope?” Through my college years I grabbed the then-tabloid from my mailbox every two weeks, immediately devouring the contents. Back then, music was the driving force in culture, and I dreamt of being a rock critic. But by the time I began writing for Rolling Stone in the 1980s, I was off the rock beat. And while writing stories for the publication I idolized, I stumbled into the tech world, a story I considered more vital.

Wenner told me that before our interview he’d reread my Rolling Stone coverage of the 1982 US Festival, a Woodstock-scale rock fest thrown by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak. During that weekend, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia gave me an unforgettable quote: “I think of technology as the new drug.” But Wenner, who describes his own prodigious use of pharmaceuticals in his book, resisted the idea that technology was as interesting a cultural phenomenon as the things that thrilled people in the ’60s. “I didn’t see that aspect that a few of you did,” he says. “I was never a math or science guy at school. So I didn’t have the underlying technological interest.”

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Rock idols, movie stars, and presidential candidates who quoted Bob Dylan—not tech giants—were Rolling Stone’s stock in trade. Wenner knew Steve Jobs and noted some similarities—when they met in the early 1980s they were both long-haired Dylan aficionados who had disrupted their fields—but the two never really hit it off. “We had a conventional occupational disagreement about the future of print,” Wenner says. “He turned out to be right.”

I have my own story about Jobs and Wenner. When I interviewed Apple’s cofounder about the upcoming Macintosh computer for Rolling Stone, Jobs told me he’d been lobbying to put the Mac team on the cover, a demand Wenner rejected. “Jann is making a mistake!” Jobs said to me. When I brought this up to Wenner this week, the autobiographer said, “God I wish I had remembered that—I’d have put it in the book!” (One of the Norman Seeff pictures taken for my 1984 story eventually did become a Rolling Stone cover, 27 years later, when Jobs died.)

Wenner’s view of technology these days is colored by his rage about how the net has killed the traditional magazine business model. In his book, he talks of the internet as “a vampire with several hundred million untethered tentacles, the ubiquitous iPhone.” He wants it regulated. “I think the internet players literally stole all the intellectual property of the magazine journalism world, without compensation of any kind,” he says. “They repackaged it, gave it away free to consumers and sold it to advertisers at cheaper rates. It was cold-blooded, it was sterile, and it was devastating. We were left on the floor dead.”

On the other hand, he loves streaming. “Music is everywhere,” he says. “I listen to it on my Sonos system, anything, anytime. Unbelievably great.”

Despite his reservations about the internet age, Wenner concedes that starting a tech magazine might not have been the worst idea. But the combination of his lack of interest in the subject and his company’s full roster of other titles ruled against it. “I guess I didn’t have the bandwidth or the time or the interest at the time. We had started Outside,” he says. “I really didn't feel we could put out another magazine. I wish we had done it.”

Wenner did have his chance to play a role in a startup tech publication, though. He told me that WIRED cofounders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe once approached him about being a minority owner in what they often referred to as the Rolling Stone of tech. Wenner flew back to his hometown of San Francisco and visited the WIRED offices, just a block away from Rolling Stone’s former headquarters. “It looked exactly the same—everything except for the computers,” he says. But he passed, in part because he felt there might be a clash in philosophy. Instead of concentrating just on journalism, Wenner thought WIRED should be more of a product-centric magazine, like the Ziff-Davis publication PC Magazine. “I felt that more advertising would come with it,” he says. (Metcalfe confirms the visit. “He commented on how tall everyone was and that people in his office were short,” she says.)

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So Wenner didn’t play. WIRED indeed became the Rolling Stone of tech, without Wenner. But don’t worry about the original—it’s still going. Wenner sold 51 percent of his company to Penske Media in 2017, and the remaining shares two years later. His son Gus is now CEO of the institution Wenner cofounded. Also, Rolling Stone has a new editor in chief: Noah Shachtman. He used to work at … wait for it … WIRED.

Time Travel

The first technology story I ever wrote appeared in Rolling Stone in April 1982. It was called “Hackers in Paradise.” Back then, when you wrote about technology you had to really spell things out. I’d just learned all that stuff myself! I did get one thing right—hackers were going to be a super important factor in our future. Forty years later, I’m still writing about them. Thanks for the opportunity, Jann.

To understand what hackers really do when they sit at terminals until rough stubble emerges from their chins, you must understand something about high-level computer programming. You must also set aside suspicions that computers are vile, impersonal manipulators of numbers, and enemies of individuality. To hackers, programming is the mental equivalent of supersonic test piloting, and the computer is a bottomless font of spirituality …

Just as the early astronauts achieved legendary status, there is a hacker elite whose wizardry has set them apart as digital daredevils. Don Woods [cocreator of the iconic game Adventure] is acknowledged to have the Right Stuff. With long, stringy black hair and a bearish grin, he looks somewhat older than his 29 years. He works at Xerox and wears a dark GAMES T-shirt that contrasts with his almost chalk-covered skin. Pinned next to the Xerox employee badge on his shirt is a button that reads QUESTION AUTHORITY.

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Ask Me One Thing

Mike asks, “How do you think consumerism will be altered by the metaverse? Will physical goods lose all appeal if virtual living becomes the norm?”

Thanks for asking, Mike. I think there’s a good chance that sellers will get high prices for virtual goods. People spend hundreds of dollars to snare real clothes and handbags simply because of brand status. They line up for limited-edition sneakers that cost a week’s salary. So why wouldn’t they pay similar premiums for branded digital goods? If you have middle school in the Metaverse, you’ll see kids being mocked for not buying the cool clothes—and they will hector their parents to pay high prices for attire festooned with the proper logo. Those few bits will make some licensors rich. Fortunately, the truly hip will seek out the open source version of rummage-sale garb that makes the label-hungry crowd look gauche.

But physical goods won’t go away. Sooner or later we’ve got to get out of the house, and people will judge us just as harshly for the clothes that cover our actual bodies. So we’ll pay for both.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

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