"the wyrd of wired" is a telling of the story of Wired magazine, largely through the eyes of a young employee, me. The events are factually based, and cover roughly summer 1994, when I started working, up until may 1998, when the magazine was finally sold. Both through it's own language, and the response of the press at large, Wired has been elected as a preeminent voice of cyberculture. They pronounce things (they view as being) of critical import to the world at large, and care little for naysayers or the little people. The magazine is fluorescent, and so are many of the personalities involved. A telling of the Wired story should emulate the scale of events; accordingly, I have used the old english "epic poem" form, as typified by Beowulf.|
18 may 1998
history of the english language
"the wyrd of wired" / lit("wyrd" = fate in old english)
What comprises an epic? Events, tone, issues; Beowulf deals with kings, death, loyalty, wisdom and strength, and all are explored in a reverent tone writ large. Beowulf's epicness is a matter of scale, and context. In the context of post-roman Denmark, kings, beasts and death were major issues, wisdom and strength major virtues; throw all these into an oral rhythmic extended poem with elevated language and you've got epic.tone, characterization, events;
So for the modern equivalent, the subjects of the poem do not kill, because kings themselves seldom take up sword directly today, and violent death is not present in the lives of persons as much as it is on TV. Much of our epic stuff has a place of presence, from whence it is constantly put before us: media. This media word is run by men (mostly) with passions and failings and skills and bold claims, much like the kings of Beowulf's time.
So here we have a song about the songmakers, or at least the songsellers.
matching the scale of Beowulf:
The beginning is a clear reference to Beowulf, as it starts with a tale of a king's legacy. The difference is immediately apparent, as the king, Caligula, is a far more foul king than Shild, who is described in Beowulf as a man who "Lived to be rich and much honored."(line 8) By contrast, in "the wyrd of wired", "never has a king been so sick and sadistic" (line 5) - the tone is set; this new epic is starting from a place of some moral abandonment.
In Beowulf, there is a tension (articulated to a greater extent in John Gardner's Grendel) between the world of men and the world of nature. The beasts from beyond attack humanity and so the heroes are people that can walk tall in both realms, earning the respect of their fellow humans, and forcing the monsters to respect them as well. In "the wyrd of wired" we have two protagonists (heroes? see below) who work in other worlds and clash at Wired. The first we meet is Louis Rossetto, co-founder and Editor-In-Chief at Wired, who knows firsthand the distended pornographic world of Caligula. The fate of the original production of Caligula and Wired magazine are similar in that each is sold to someone with more money and less original vision. The other main character, the boy from underground, illustrates the values of each of Wired and Swarthmore by drawing out their arguments and putting them in conflict with each other through himself.
In Beowulf, fate and honour operate when man meets monster. In "the wyrd of wired", values are articulated when men meet media projects.
The richly embroidered lineage in the Beowulf tale is here echoed as a series of interconnected media barons, and media workers. Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione takes over making Caligula, and Wired publisher Louis Rossetto is on the scene. Louis later convenes a magazine, drawing in Jonathan Steuer, Howard Rheingold, and Julie Petersen, who in turn draws in the boy from underground.
Besides the world of media, there is Swarthmore with its social conscience. That ethic, as articulated by Joe Razza, serves to make apparent the shallow branding ideals of Wired, much as the baseless bragging of Unferth serves to make Beowulf appear more noble. Characters epitomize ethics, and as they act and speak from their perspectives, they are heroes (or aligned with the heroic forces in the epic) or they are lower than heroes.
Characters in "the wyrd of wired" speak with extended eloquence, similar to every speaking character in Beowulf. The hillside guard begging the identity of Beowulf, Queen Welthow serving the troops and saluting Beowulf, when these folk speak they do so at length, and full of their role in furthering the story. The same high minded discourse has been applied here; when Julie Petersen answers the phone about a job request it is a unreflective and unnatural eloquence that is her speech, an epic tone: "I have seen this web as you have and / from your work i can see you love it as I / do" (lines 135-7).
The epic tone is one of events writ large. Often speaking an action in place of narration, the characters place that action and their speech in the context of the story. So at once there is the action, and the statement, and the awareness of the values and the significance thereof. Both Louis's endspeech and Joe's early exhortation are charged with accusative superlatives. Louis: "Come hither, into my office / that you might know of my anger, / how you have betrayed us, and the greatest / opportunity of your life. You who have tasted / of our success have chosen to spill ill will / over the wires" (lines 276-281) and Joe: "You who would perform social service! / What is it to help people?" (lines 70-1).
Also epic is the legacy nomenclature of characters in the book: "Beowulf, Edgetho's brave son" (line 1999) or "Hrothgar, protector of the Danes" (line 456), repeated regularly throughout as the characters appear. Characters in "the wyrd of wired" bear similar titling: "Louis Rossetto, wearing sneakers with long hair," (line 32) and "Joe Razza, a speaker of challenging virtue" (line 69). These titles have less to do with family and tribe, and more to do with individuality. Reputation in Beowulf stemmed from context, in "the wyrd of wired" characters are notable for their quirks or project based relationships; things less tangible and permanent.
This is particularly the case with the primary protagonist, "this boy, who did not yet have a name," (line 77/8) who later becomes "the boy named now from the underground" (line 198); playing with his subtitling was a useful way to denote identity in flux. Declaring and appropriately hyping a hero-subject was a primary difficulty in creating this work. I wanted to write an epic about the web, or digital media some, and that's a tale I can best tell, or shape, from my own perspective, especially as the narrative revolved around the articulation and exploration of values. Using myself as the appropriate epic hero left a bad taste in my mouth, so it was easier to use myself and apply some humility by leaving me nameless until late in the game. Eventually, the boy with no name becomes "from underground," part of the name of my site, which makes the lead character something tangible based in me but yet a part of the internet, and attached by name to an unglamorous physical location.
As a participant in these actions I was nowhere near as bold and brave as Beowulf was; the situation was nowhere near as black and white (using me, or Louis, as a hero is pretty much an insult to heroes). Perhaps there's something to making things black and white, for epic's sake, but part of the modern-ness of the piece is the nuancing, the relativity and relatedness of the issues and people explored and explained within.
The scale here in "the wyrd of wired" is not death - there are no San Franciscans laying dead with their blood covering the walls (perhaps only slain pixels and bits, and they die pretty quietly). Granted that life and death are not at stake, this work requires imbuing subtler things with similar intensity. But the differences remain: the domain of the work is not so much a geographic location (there is no Herot), the leaders portrayed do not command so much physical resources as they do text, information, media, entertainment. Still they must confront demons and values. Still they pass their legacies on to other media-folks better and worse qualified than they. Still there is infighting.
Ultimately, like Beowulf, this work too considers and reinforces values appropriate to the place and time. In this case the values are less about valour and more about understanding relatedness. But again, ultimately, like Beowulf, nothing will save you from the grave, or bankruptcy: not the right values, or brave deeds, or considerate treatment; but with those you might earn the respect of the right peers. And you may have a tale written about you.
Written, as this tale was, which further differentiates it from Beowulf. There was no harp involved in the composition of this epic, and the orality is more a means of rhythm correction than a basis for word choice and placement. As this tale was composed as text and not initially sung, I paid attention to the meter of syllables and rhythm by reading the text out loud. In addition, I stuck close to the modern english translation of Beowulf by using no less than six and no more than ten words per line, and trying to average somewhere around nine. Wilson Kello explained the syllable and rhyme of Beowulf and iambic pentameter to me, granted limitations of time and brain power, I decided to concentrate instead on theme and content more than form. So, I counted words, and tried to find some appropriate pacing.
In addition I peppered the work with archaic words and objects (raiment, bards, daggers, songs, flagons, mead, hither), and some slightly obtuse wordings: "they that lived with the Internet in their bedrooms / before such things were for sale" (lines 236-7) and " Fate interceeded there, that he should / have seen no dorm, nor dining hall / but rather dwell three days with Joe Razza" (lines 66-68).
The use of old and new words or concepts in tension is stylistically modern, and kinda funny. In line 276, Louis calls to the boy, "Come hither, into my office" - hither being an old word, and office being a modern space; the two sharing the same line is striking. In lines 265-268, old style feast talk is juxtaposed with ironic deadpan:
"Plates of steaming delicaciesThe contrast here illustrates the pointed disparity in employee treatment, references the original Beowulf template, and grounds the work in a humourous modern sensibility.
and flagons of the finest brew were offered
the most high, while the cheaper members of
the family were left two drink tickets at Bimbos"
Also more modern than ancient is the intertextuality: quotes from a 1993 Louis Rossetto speech on the early days at Electric Word are used, breaking the meter, and the line "bitter words will work in a hot-tempered / brain;" ("the wyrd of wired": lines 273-4) is lifted seamlessly from Beowulf, lines 2057-8. (both of these are marked by a font shift)
Some of the sections are more mirrorings than textual poachings: besides the king-oriented introduction, there's these portions:
|Beowulf||"the wyrd of wired"|
...they set their broad|
Battle-hardened shields in rows
Along the wall, then stretched themselves
On Herot's benches. Their armor rang;
Their ash-wood spears stood in a line
Gray-tipped and straight: the Geats' war-gear
Were honored weapons.
In a south of Market building they stretched themselves|
on doors for tables and cheap rolling chairs;
their phones rang; their new Macintoshes sat online
under hot pink ethernet cable blazing overhead;
decorated and fast enough, the Hotwired gear were honed toys.
the living when they drive away death by themselves!
Fate favours magazines when they|
drive the news themselves!
These moments mark a work heavily influenced by Beowulf, but perhaps the epic tone is somewhat lacking, in part due to the abbreviated length ("the wyrd of wired" being around 300 lines, and Beowulf being 3182). What "the wyrd of wired" may have been missing most was a monster. In Beowulf there are two worlds, the world of Herot, and the world of the swamps; the world of human kingdoms and the world where Grendel and Grendel's mother rule things. In "the wyrd of wired", without a literal enemy, two opposing worlds are defined less by geography and more by virtue. It might be as though you took the humanism afforded Grendel by John Gardner and mixed it with Beowulf itself to craft a tale of humans versus human monsters - so there is Louis full of his mission, intoxicated by branding, losing himself in the face of a young follower. He fights the employee, (and unseen in this text, he fights the Securities and Exchange Commission, the media, and investors) - enemies that he has created, and that are really no more evil than him. The employee/follower, the boy, befriends and finds himself alienated from Louis, and in turn takes up with less capitalist forces in the work. So in that way, the struggles in "the wyrd of wired" reflect more the Danish infighting aspects of Beowulf, and the inevitable competitive problems within a community there observed.bibliography:
Burton Raffel, Beowulf, New American Library, New York, 1963
John Gardner, Grendel, Vintage Books, New York, 1989
Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula : the corruption of power, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990
PierNico Solinas (and Louis Rossetto, ghostwriter), The Ultimate Porno, publisher and date unknown
Warren St. John, "The Big Loser Is Louis Rossetto, Who Lost His Love to Conde Nast," The New York Observer, 5/18/98, page 1
Michael Wolff, "Louis the Un-Wired," The Industry Standard, May 18, 1998
Jack Boulware, "MONDO 1995," SF Weekly, October 11, 1995 (Volume 14, #35)
Louis Rossetto, speech at "Doors of Perception" conference, Netherlands, 1993
conversation with Howard Rheingold about Electric Word, May 1998:
ew about machine translationpersonal notes on meeting with Louis Rossetto, December 14, 1994
i mean, isn't that weird.
kevin kelly discovered it when he was at whole earth review
zinelike - not great paper, not colour
a magazine but low rent
i can't remember much about it except
this is weird
a magazine about machine translation
conversation with Wilson Kello about rhyme and meter, May 1998