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Date: Fri, 7 Feb 1997 10:51:42 +0000
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From: "Dan O'Brien" <> (by way of Phil Gyford)
Subject: Wired UK (long)
Status: RO

This bounced to me, as it was too long - it'll get through to y'all now...

                        Wired UK : What nearly happened.

                          A little Haddock fairy tale.

                                    - * -

           "I think," I said to John Battelle, editor of Wired US,
                        "I think this is our fault."*

                                     - * -

In November of 1994, I caught a flight to San Francisco with the Guardian's
Tony Ageh, the designer Rik Gadsby, and the most terrifyingly efficient man
I'd ever seen in my life. His name was Ian Stewart. He was one of the
venture capitalists responsible for financing Wired in the US. While we
waited for the flight, he arranged us all Executive Club cards so we'd
never have to wait for another flight again. On the aeroplane, he reeled
off the best places to dine in San Francisco, largely in inflected
Japanese. He booked us into the most sumptuous hotel I could imagine, and
then invited us to an 8.00 am "working breakfast" at his hotel, which was
even grander. He spoke faster than Azeem on Speed, and twitched, as though
he was hearing stock market reports being read out by a voice inside his
head. Perhaps he was; it was impossible to tell. I had no guidelines: he
was the first Wired person I had met.

As it was, most of his tourist advice was wasted on me. I spent most of my
San Fran nights in my room, staring like a refugee at the cable TV. I was
not efficient. I was a slacker. Two months before I had been on the dole,
as I had been for three years, moonlighting in a broken-down stand-up show
about my BBS experiences. Then a man came up to me one night and asked me
what MPEG did. I explained, and he in turn explained that his name was Tony
Ageh and that he worked for the Guardian and he wanted to change the
political system in this country  and utilising new technology seemed to be
a good way of achieving this and he might be launching a UK version of
Wired and would I like a job?

And I said - and memory blurs whether these were my actual words at the
time -  if this gives me a chance to go to San Francisco and watch Talk
Soup and E! News and Mystery Science Theatre 3000 drunk at 3am in a black
and pink decorated bedroom and get paid for it, why the hell not?

I was taken along, because I was the only editorial person they had to show
the Wired US team. I'm thinking "this Ian Stewart guy commutes to his
London job from Switzerland, he got funding for Wired - the best fucking
magazine on the planet, he is the extropian ubermensch, and *he's* just
their money man. What are *they* going to be like?"

He turns to me and says, 'I'm sure Louis will be very interested in what
you have to say'.

And I'm thinking: Now I am going to have to fake this efficiency thing,
very, very seriously.

Nice try. Two days later, I lost my passport.

                                     - * -

In the hope that it will somehow protect me from my fellow Haddocker's
undying hatred for what I did back then, some historical perspective: this
was 1994. Delphi had just been bought by Murdoch. HotWired was a month or
so old. The Electronic Telegraph was there, just about. Most people when
asked had not heard of Bill Gates. We didn't know it, but these were
prehistoric times: the crypto-Mosaic era.

So, I'm sitting in Louis Rosetto's brand new giant office in SOMA with
Louis, Kevin Kelly, Jane Metcalfe, and John Plunkett (Wired's designer).
Kelly asks me what the UK scene is like. And, I'm thinking "well, it's Cix,
and it's demon.local, but I fucking hate them because they're brain-damaged
jabbering fools who think it's the height of sophistication to express
their crippled emotional needs in terms of Blackadder quotes and I'm fucked
if I'm giving this to them". (You know what I mean.)

So I said, 'I think the UK has to grow its own scene - I think people are
waiting for something like this to happen there. But it will be similar -
there is a global coincidence of desires for this'. God, I was proud of
that ad-libbed phrase: a global coincidence of desires.

Kevin Kelly was really kind - I only ever met him again a couple of times.
He didn't seem to spend much time at Wired. He just popped in occasionally
with a new sparkling idea: a self-editing Negroponte. Jane Metcalfe was
chatty, and explained about how they'd employed so many new people, and how
amazing it was that so many of them were Scorpios(?), and hugged me and
hoped that I was well. Plunkett was a smiling happy man of whom, for some
reason, people were apprehensive.

Not as apprehensive, I have to say, as they were of Louis.

I was scared of Louis from the moment he entered the room. And as he
glanced around at us, it was clear the start that he had rumbled me too.

I was not, his long stare seemed to indicate, nor would I ever be as long
as I lived, one of the Wired.

                                     - * -

After that meeting, I had a one-to-one with John Battelle, the editor of
Wired US. Battelle is a pumped-iron, testosterone-bristled Hemingway of a
geek. Que efficient! He asked me how Wired UK was going to run. It was at
this point that I, if it was I, made the "decision", if it was a decision,
that I think fucked Wired UK from the start.

I said, "Well, obviously, we'll create some of our own content, take the
best of your articles, and wrap them into one magazine".

Up until then, there were two possible ways Wired UK could have gone. We
could have done it all ourselves, designed it from scratch, written it from
an utterly new perspective. Or we could be an imitation of the US version,
dominated by the American content, ruled by Plunkett's look and feel, less
pages, less ads, same price: locked into the global Wired brand.

It would be ridiculously egotistical to think that I was responsible, but I
do keep thinking that I doomed Wired UK with that sentence. Tony Ageh, when
I asked him much later, said that even if we had have pushed for a
completely novel magazine back then, they would never have accepted a Wired
independent from the brand. Well, I don't know. Maybe we'd have had a
chance had we fought for it then. Later, we fought back, and much later,
Hari and the team were granted some independence, but it was too late. And
what could we have given them back then? Dave Winder? MacUser designers?
WebMedia (Forget it Steve, you knew you were blagging it back then)?

I'm not making excuses: I just don't know what I should have said.

We moved on. I acted efficient. It was no use. A few days later, Louis came
up to me. He looked at me for about thirty seconds, then said 'I think you
dropped this'. He'd found my passport. He smiled a little, but didn't seem
to think it was that funny, and I had no way of showing that I was

                                     - * -

If I try to remember when Wired UK really turned into Hell '95, it was when
the art director left.  The art director was Rik, employee #2. Everyone in
design loved Rik. Was he a good designer? Fuck knows. I never got a chance
to see what he would do. Were their other designers they could get in? If
there were, they could never find them. World-famous people would stalk
into the office, look at what Plunkett wanted, and walk out again. No-one
seemed to be able to work with Wired. So we had five or so junior
designers, whose sole job was to follow Plunkett's instructions to the
letter. My abiding memory of Wired US's relationship with the design team
was when Tara Herman, a Wired US employee, went up to one of them and said
'Louis wants you to design a no-smoking sign for the office'. Designers and
smoking were synonomous at Wired UK. Oh, no, they did not want to be Wired.
Wired sacked their friend. Wired were the 'fucking Americans'.

And what about editorial? Well, editorial quickly got caught in the war. It
was fairly clear from the start that we were going to need help from the
US; when things got rough, about the only sanction the US could pull on the
magazine was to deny us that assistance.

Often we had no idea what they were doing. And we couldn't do anything
different to fill the space, because they were scared we'd fuck it up.
Understandably scared. The vacuum of British happenings - the lack of a
scene, the absence of that coincidence of desires at the very start of '95
- meant some very odd things got caught in the mix. Robin Hunt, the news
editor, was as interested in the media as things Wired. John Browning, the
editor, wanted lots of Economistic articles. Rob Leedham, the features
editor, loved consumer stuff and little else. Dave Green kept his head
down. And I continued to be highly inefficient. Coming up with enough ideas
to fill a Wired UK is hard; harder if you never leave the office because of
the office politics. And impossible, if you begin to forget, as I did, what
it was all for. I came up with about one decent idea every month or so. I
wrote a piece on Menwith Hill; I co-wrote a piece on Demo Coders; I
commissioned a piece on the Scientologists; I wrote an article about 3D and
the influence of Elite on the UK. I'm proud of them all, but it wasn't
nearly enough.

I left Wired UK mentally long before I got sacked.  By that point, I was
sleeping about four hours a day. I was living in shit; my flat had fallen
apart during my absence. I'd usually get in about 4am; it was more
convienient to sleep in the office. I shook a lot of time. I'd cry most
days. I hated issue 1.01, and really pleaded that it be postponed. It was a
farce of what could be done. The Brit side insisted it go ahead. I felt
sick every time I saw it on a billboard, on a newstand.

Louis came into the office that week and told us that 'It was the best
issue of Wired he had ever seen'.

Up until then, I hated myself for not being wired enough to do this thing.

When I heard him say that, I thought, you might be Wired, but you're full
of shit too, and I hated him then, almost as much as the people I worked
with hated him.

And by that time, they really, really hated him.

Tony resigned around the time that Rik got pushed. To be honest, I can't
remember the details. I can remember a long, long evening when I and I
think Robin and Stevan Keane tried to work on the magazine while yells and
shouts came from the other office. Tony walked  out, tears clearly in his
eyes. Louis, and I think Jane came after, shaken.

After that, it got nasty. They were utterly mad times. The offices got
burgled, and Tara was held at knifepoint, alone in the building. I stayed
up with her, and had to explain to Louis that Brits were now trying to kill
his staff. A mad guy someone had commissioned to do something on Burma or
Indonesia or somewhere came into the office and ranted that people were
tracing his modem. I walked him outside, and he showed me the parked cars
that were following him. Wired US launched a law suit against the Guardian,
and thus tried to stop production of its own magazine. Robin Hunt,
chain-smoking and as paranoid of Wired US as the mad guy was of the CIA,
practically wrote an issue on his own (that's the famous 'missing issue').

Eventually, the Guardian ceded control to the Americans. The Americans -
and who wouldn't forgive them? - sacked everyone. They tried to keep on one
of the advertising staff and Dave. The ad guy, who'd watched his two
friends lose jobs that they'd taken at a fraction of their usual salaries,
said fuck you. Dave stayed on for a few issues, then wandered off on his
own course. They even sacked efficient Ian Stewart - he's now working with
Douglas Adams and Digital Village. I kicked around at the Guardian for a
while, helping, inefficiently, to set up the New Media Lab. Then I went to
Edinburgh. By that time, Tony was leaving the Guardian to go to Virgin Net,
and after doing the Spin for the BBC, I joined him.

And I really, really, tried to forget.

                                    - * -

            Tony sat next to us on the bench in South Park after a
            private meeting called by Louis. He was in a strange kind
            of shock - the sort of shock I've seen described on the Net
            by others who have had a private meeting with Louis.
                "He just said, Let's divide the world between us.
                 You can have the East, and I'll take the West."

                                 -  *  -

San Francisco is such an optimistic town, and, while Wired itself is
actually a pretty mundane place to visit, its very ordinariness filled me,
briefly, with the belief that Wired UK was possible. I loved meeting these
people, loved the culture they sought to represent. It was only on the
flight back that I got worried.

On that flight, I got into a blazing row with Tony Ageh; the only row that
I've ever had with him. Tony isn't efficient. He's not really wired. But
he's a very charismatic man, and I'd say a visionary too; he's easily a
match for Louis in that.

We were talking about something that Louis had said, something that made
Tony uncomfortable. Louis had talked about Wired being for 'the digerati' -
'guys who'd been teased at school for being geeks, and who are now earning
millions while their schoolmates flip burgers'. Wired UK, Tony insisted,
was going to be for everyone - even the burgerflippers. I stuck to the
Louis line. I said, these people are defining the future - you've got to
write a magazine for them. So why, said, Tony, can't everyone define the
future? Isn't that what it's really about - everyone at last, defining
their own future? Can't this magazine help create a place where everyone
can take these tools and use them for themselves?

What Louis is doing, he said, smacks of revenge - of comeuppance. He's
turning a global change into a vengeance tale. And so it went on, me
insisting the value of representing the thoughts of the wired, Tony
claiming that the function of any magazine he produced was to distribute
power as widely and irretrievably as possible. We almost literally came to
blows, rocking and pushing on the plane even though we were only an armrest
away. The argument was never resolved; eventually we fell asleep, awkward
and furious.

Hours later, I woke up. We were above the Arctic, and through the frosted
porthole, I watched the Northern Lights, something I had dreamed of seeing
since I was a child. I didn't wake Tony. I made him miss it all.

                                     - * -

Wired UK's original editor, Stevan Keane, once spoke of the visible effect
the Wired collapse was having on me. He said it was like watching an only
child caught in an ugly divorce. I still don't know which one of them was
right - Tony or Louis. I just learnt that the views I hold, when
personalised, are surprisingly incompatible.

But, even through all my fucked-upness - which continues, as you can no
doubt see, to the present day - I still held and hold two things to be
self-evident: that there *is* a global coincidence of desires, and that the
UK needs to grow its own variation on that coincidence. I really hope that
the short life of Wired UK contributed to that growth, even if my part of
it was small compared to the rest of Haddock. At least knowing that makes
my Hell '95 worthwhile. And I also think - and I hope this is some
recompense to everyone at Wired UK now, who must be going through a hell of
their own - before that growth was complete, Wired UK needed to die.

                                   - * -

* - The quote at the beginning of this piece is the only contribution to
Wired US I ever made. I said it at a Wired editorial meeting we sat in on.
Someone (I think Constance Hale) asked why the Canadians were so different
to the Americans - in this case, their ambivalence to unfettered freedom of
speech. I said it was our fault, thinking about the British influence on
Canadian culture - how that ambivalence was one of the differences I noted
between the UK and the US. And I was thinking about the Loyalists - over a
hundred thousand Americans who, after the War of Independence had been
lost, were exiled by the young nation.

Portrayed as wealthy snobbish traitors by the patriot Americans, they were
actually a wide cross-section of society who had chosen not to live in the
US. Chief amongst their reasons was the prejudice shown them - Loyalists
were denied voting privileges, to buy or transfer land, or bequeath
property. Much of their land was confiscated by the new Republic; a few
were tarred and feathered, hanged, drawn and quartered. And so they sailed
off to the rocky grounds of Nova Scotia and the remains of Canada, to tiny
unfertile parcels of land bequeathed to them by the King. Britain didn't
care for them, America despised them: they were called by historians 'a
people without a country'. Most of them ended up there in Canada,
influencing that country for generations.

They didn't just travel to Canada, though. Five thousand travelled to the
Bahamas - mostly black slaves. They received their freedom in 1807, and
went on to build a new kind of independent state, neither American nor
British - described now, by both, as a paradise, of sorts.

(if you forward this, let me know who you forward it to. i imagine i have
most of my facts completely arse-backwards, and i'd like to pass on any
corrections. thanks -d.)