Date: Thu, 1 May 1997 07:27:43 +0200Date: Sun, 2 Mar 1997
From: Geert Lovink

A Push Media Critique:
On the rebirth strategies of Wired magazine

Geert Lovink

The March 1997 issue of Wired (5.03) has an unusual cover. No digirati this time. Just a big blue hand on a red background, designed like a warning signal, saying ‘PUSH!’. It tries to hold us. Or is it pushing something into our face? The slogan says: ‘We interrupt this magazine for a special bulletin -’ The breaking news is about ‘the radical future of media beyond the Web.’ The article is written by ‘the editors of Wired’. Will they declare a state of emergency for cyberspace?

Why should Wired have to interrupt itself? It is not CNN. Just because of some new audio and video software that is hitting the market? Is the ‘shock of the new’ indeed so overwhelming that it forced the editors to write a common statement about the rise of so-called ‘push media’? There must be something else going on. Wired seems to be in crisis and needs to reinvent itself. Due to the commercialization of the net, big publishing houses, cable giants, telecoms and software companies have moved in, and are now pushing the web into the direction of old-style broadcasting technologies. Wired calls this the ‘Revenge of TV’ (with a ?). But this is only the logical consequence of its own strategy. For years, Wired has been reporting euphorically about the coming symbiosis of TV and the Net as the ultimate killer app. At this moment, webbroswers are being surrounded by other applications. The WaitWaitWait is about to lose its hegemonic position. The static, book-based idea of ‘web pages’ will be taken over by much more dynamic audio and video. If the net is to become a mass medium, then it has to merge with the film, TV, cable etc. industry. And if the market says so, it has to happen. That is what the ideology of the free market says. So sit down and watch the next paradigm shift going by on your screen.

Still, we can read a certain discontent, even betrayal, in this odd document. We have to wake up from the dream called The Web. Suddenly, HTML is described as the language of an ‘archive medium. Archive as in stacks of old books in a library.’ That’s different from what we have heard before. ‘The Web is a wonderful library, but a library nonetheless.’ This is a smash in the face of all the followers, net slaves, useful web-idiots and other digital fellow travelers that have spoilt all their energy and devotion into... building a library. This was not what they promised us.

Wired’s own destiny is closely connected to the rise (and fall?) of the World Wide Web. This magazine (founded in 92) is not about the old internet, nor does it deal with hacker issues. It eventually became big because of the commercial interest in the WWW (and multi-media). ‘Kiss your browser goodbye’ could therefore easily be read as an indication that Wired itself ‘is about to croak’, or at least needs to go through a tough phase of rebirth rituals (downsizing, restructuring, sell out, take over, etc.). There are several indications for this, which are all publicly known. The German edition was canceled, than it failed (twice) to go to Wall Street. Now, Wired TV seems to produce programs but is not (yet) able to broadcast them. The UK-edition ceased to exist March 1st. And for the first time we heard rumours about an internal fight between the techno-libertarian management and some critical and progressive individuals.

The Wired enterprise must have been in big need for a new ideology (or ‘vision’) and tries to find it in the catch phrase ‘push media’. But this pushing does not fit exactly within the previous ideology. Just read what George Gilder is writing about television and why it ought to decline. Economically, the web is still tiny in comparison to, for example, advertisement revenues of television. This was one of the reasons why Wired could not grow any longer. The profit of the magazine had reached its limit. The company was forced to diversify and became a small media-conglomerate. Besides the magazine, Hotwired and the book publishing division Hard Wired, there is now surprisingly ‘Wired TV’ as well. This may sound like Lenin’s dialectics: one step forward, two steps back. But only with a television division, Wired Inc. might be able to make the next quantum leap. For this it needed to go to the stock market. Venture capital alone was not enough to ensure the financing of all these different ventures. At least that’s what I think, and I am not a Wired watcher.

At this point, the Wired Story stumbles, hesitates and comes up with a curious manifesto that above all reflects the uncertainty about the future of the magazine. For net critics, it might be amusing to see how Wired is being overruled by true media capitalism. But we have to be honest: these are all questions that we will all have to face, sooner of later. For example: can we preserve some of the old net values and standards, encourage technical and social innovation and public access, without falling back into the patterns of mass media and the existing culture industry? It might be ironic to see Wired struggling, but ‘Wired bashing’ can only have positive results if we use it as a mirror, not just see it as an imaginary enemy. Even in times of trouble there is the real, existing ‘Desire to be Wired’.

Wired wants to ‘move seamlessly between media you steer (interactive) and media that steer you (passive)’. These push media ‘work with existing media’ and create an ‘emerging universe of networked media’. We have to read between the lines here. It simply means that the Web will have to give up the ideological hegemony it had in the last three years as the ‘medium to end all media.’ The Web is just one channel, amongst many others. ‘The Web is one,’ as Wired puts it now. A fairly realistic point of view, but not fitting into the original net religion that Wired visionaries have been preaching. The Web had to replace all other media and integrate them, that was the idea, or as the ‘special bulletin’ still states: ‘As everything gets wired, media of all kinds are moving to the decentralized matrix known as the Net.’ In reality, it is going the other way. The net is moving toward the centralized business known as the Broadcast Media. ‘What is about to disappear is the defining role of the old Web.’ Irritated and somehow disappointed, the editors have to admit that ‘the traditional forms - broadcast, print’ - show few signs of vanishing.’ How unfair, they should have disappeared by now. What went wrong?

The fault also lies in the netizens themselves. ‘The subterranean instincts of couch potatoes rise again!’ In secret, many continued watching TV. The editors thought it was time to face this bitter reality. ‘True, there’s a little couch potato in all of us. The human desire to sit back and be told a completely ridiculous story is as dependable as the plot of a soap.’ Unfortunately, only a few of us have been able to get away from the ‘45 years of addiction to passive media. Only a handful of us turn out to be up for the vigorous activity of reaching out to engage the world. Bummer.’

In order not to lose its role as the Pravda of Silicon Valley, Wired must take the lead and incorporate the latest developments. But this time, their enthusiasm does not sound very exciting. ‘The new networked media borrow ideas from television, but the new media landscape will look nothing like TV as we know it. And indeed, it will transform TV in the process.’ What is missing here is a clear economic analysis. Television is not just a screen or an interface. The introduction of (some sort of) interactivity is most of all a money/profit question, decided by a few companies, in an ongoing war on standards.

Cybernauts, netheads, websurfers, wake up. The boredom will be over soon. ‘Push media are always on, mobile, customizable’. These total media arrive automatically and ‘always assume you are available.’ It is begging for your attention. It will therefor be important to know how to switch them off. The Push Manifesto is indeed warning us for possible misuse, like government regulation of networked push media and privacy violations (‘it finds you rather than you finding it’). Neither old, nor new (in the sense of utopian), push media are rapidly ‘closing the gaps between existing media, towards one seamless media continuum.’ The totality of the ‘unification’ seems to worry the editors. ‘All we can say is, Let a thousand media types bloom. Soon.’ But this presumes a deeper knowledge of both new and old realities, for example television.

‘Each cycle of extend/unify notches up the ratchet of media complexity. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, in interactive media as in biological media.’ This must be Kevin Kelly speaking. We are getting to a conclusion. He has seen it all and stays calm, like all techno-darwinist. For Kelly it is just a stage Wired and all of us have to go through: ‘All media recapitulate the evolution of former media. So on-line media have evolved from smoke signals (email) to books and magazines (the Web). We are now about to arrive at television (push media).’ It is touching to read how careful and naive the Special Bulletin is trying to describe the zapping behavior of the viewer. It is obviously a topic Wired had not yet written about. Perhaps it is time for them (and us) to get to know the 45-years-old theories of mass communication, the (cultural) studies on the behavior of the viewer, the specific history of this technology and the economic (monopolistic) forces that are dominating this branch. So, stop speculating about ‘push media’ and visit your library first.