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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Welcome to the New WIRED

In the next few decades, virtually every financial, social, and governmental institution in the world is going to be radically upended by one small but enormously powerful invention: the blockchain.

Do you believe that? Or are you one of those people who think the blockchain and crypto boom is just a massive, decade-long fraud—the bastard child of the Dutch tulip bubble, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and the wackier reaches of the libertarian internet? More likely, you—like me—are at neither of these extremes. Rather, you’re longing for someone to just show you how to think about the issue intelligently and with nuance instead of always falling into the binary trap.

Binaries have been on my mind a lot since I took over the editor’s chair at WIRED last March. That’s because we’re at what feels like an inflection point in the recent history of technology, when various binaries that have long been taken for granted are being called into question.

When WIRED was founded in 1993, it was the bible of techno-utopianism. We chronicled and championed inventions that we thought would remake the world; all they needed was to be unleashed. Our covers featured the brilliant, renegade, visionary—and mostly wealthy, white, and male—geeks who were shaping the future, reshaping human nature, and making everyone’s life more efficient and fun. They were more daring, more creative, richer and cooler than you; in fact, they already lived in the future. By reading WIRED, we hinted, you could join them there!

If that optimism was binary 0, since then the mood has switched to binary 1. Today, a great deal of media coverage focuses on the damage wrought by a tech industry run amok. It’s given us Tahrir Square, but also Xinjiang; the blogosphere, but also the manosphere; the boundless opportunities of the Long Tail, but also the unremitting precariousness of the gig economy; mRNA vaccines, but also Crispr babies. WIRED hasn’t shied away from covering these problems. But they’ve forced us—and me in particular, as an incoming editor—to ponder the question: What does it mean to be WIRED, a publication born to celebrate technology, in an age when tech is often demonized?

To me, the answer begins with rejecting the binary. Both the optimist and pessimist views of tech miss the point. The lesson of the last 30-odd years is not that we were wrong to think tech could make the world a better place. Rather, it’s that we were wrong to think tech itself was the solution—and that we’d now be equally wrong to treat tech as the problem. It’s not only possible, but normal, for a technology to do both good and harm at the same time. A hype cycle that makes quick billionaires and leaves a trail of failed companies in its wake may also lay the groundwork for a lasting structural shift (exhibit A: the first dotcom bust). An online platform that creates community and has helped citizens oust dictators (Facebook) can also trap people in conformism and groupthink and become a tool for oppression. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, an intelligent person should be able to hold opposed ideas in their mind simultaneously and still function.

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Yet debates about tech, like those about politics or social issues, still seem to always collapse into either/or. Blockchain is either the most radical invention of the century or a worthless shell game. The metaverse is either the next incarnation of the internet or just an ingeniously vague label for a bunch of overhyped things that will mostly fail. Personalized medicine will revolutionize health care or just widen its inequalities. Facebook has either destroyed democracy or revolutionized society. Every issue is divisive and tribal. And it’s generally framed as a judgment on the tech itself—“this tech is bad” vs. “this tech is good”—instead of looking at the underlying economic, social, and personal forces that actually determine what that tech will do.

There’s been even more of this kind of binary, tech-centered thinking as we claw our way out of the pandemic. Some optimists claim we’re on the cusp of a “Roaring 2020s” in which mRNA and Crispr will revolutionize disease treatment, AI and quantum computers will exponentially speed up materials science and drug discovery, and advances in battery chemistry will make electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage (and maybe even flying taxis) go mainstream. If you want to see a gloomy future, on the other hand, there’s no shortage of causes: Digital surveillance is out of control, the carbon footprint of cryptocurrency mining and large AI models is expanding, the US–China tech arms race is accelerating, the gig-work precariat is swelling, and the internet itself is balkanizing.

This tug-of-war between optimism and pessimism is the reason why I said this feels like an inflection point in the history of tech. But even that term, “inflection point,” falls into the binary trap, because it presumes that things will get either worse or better from here. It is, yet again, a false dichotomy. This kind of thinking helps nobody make sense of the future that’s coming. To do that—and to then push that future in the right direction—we need to reject this 0-or-1 logic.

Which brings me to the question of what WIRED is for.

Fundamentally, WIRED has always been about a question: What would it take to build a better future? We exist to inspire people who want to build that future. We do it not by going into Pollyannaish raptures about how great the future is going to be, nor dire jeremiads about how bad things could get, but by taking an evenhanded, clear-eyed look at what it would take to tackle the severe challenges the world faces. Our subject matter isn’t technology, per se: It’s those challenges—like climate change, health care, global security, the future of democracy, the future of the economy, and the dizzying speed of cultural change as our offline and online worlds mingle and remix. Technology plays a starring role in all of these issues, but what’s clearer today than ever is that it’s people who create change, both good and bad. You cannot explain the impacts of technology on the world without deeply understanding the motives, incentives, and limitations of the people who build and use it. And you cannot hope to change the world for the better unless you can learn from the achievements and the mistakes other people have made.

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So I think WIRED’s job is to tell stories about the world’s biggest problems, the role tech plays in them—whether for good or bad—and the people who are trying to solve them. These aren’t all feel-good stories by any means: there are villains as well as heroes, failures as well as successes. Our stance is neither optimism nor pessimism, but rather the belief that it's worth persisting even when things seem hopeless. (I call it “Greta Thunberg optimism.”) But whatever the story, you should find something to learn from it—and, ideally, the inspiration to make a positive difference yourself.

Of course, that’s not all we exist to do. WIRED has also always been a home for ambitious, farsighted ideas—sometimes prescient, sometimes wild, sometimes both at the same time. (Fitzgerald again!) We shouldn’t get carried away by hype; too many of our covers in the past promised that this or that invention would “change everything.” But we shouldn’t shy away from pushing the envelope either, stretching people’s minds and showing them possible futures that they might not otherwise dare to imagine. We’ll be critical but not cynical; skeptical but not defeatist. We won’t tell you what to think about the future, but how to think about it.

Finally, we exist to do the basic hard work of journalism—following the important news, explaining how to think about it, and holding power, particularly tech power, accountable.

Over the next few months, you should see our coverage starting to coalesce more clearly around those core global challenges—climate, health, and so on. Because these issues are indeed global, you should also start to see a more international range of stories: One of the less obvious but very big changes is that we are merging the US and UK editions of WIRED, previously two entirely separate publications, into a single site at WIRED.com. (If you’re a regular visitor to the site, you may have noticed that we recently launched a new homepage, designed to make it easier for us to showcase the work we’re most proud of and for you to find stories that interest you.) We’ll still publish two separate print editions, though they’ll share many stories. Our US and UK newsrooms are already working as one, and you’ll see all their journalism here on this site. With more writers making up a single team, we’ll be able to go deeper into some of these key areas.

Above all, we’ll continue to do what WIRED is best at—bringing you delightful, fascinating, weird, brilliantly told stories from all around the world of people taking on extraordinary problems. Our founder Louis Rossetto wrote that WIRED was where you would discover “the soul of our new society in wild metamorphosis.” The wild metamorphosis continues, and while its mechanisms may be technological, the soul behind them is deeply and unavoidably human. Where the human and the technological meet: That’s where WIRED lives, and it’s where we aim to take you, every day.

Note: I owe a big debt of gratitude to Tom Coates, who was pivotal in helping me think about the history of WIRED and see the opportunity for the role it can play today.

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