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Unspun 

Wednesday, Dec 4 1996
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The Nov. 24 New York Times Magazine devoted its entire issue (from William Safire at the front struggling manfully not to smirk at the assignment, to novelist Lois Gould's simpering endpaper) to "Heroine Worship." The choices were all too predictable, and the essays sent us into a snooze. What was striking, though, was the way the advertisers refused to bite.

It was chock-full of the standard plugs aimed at wealthy white males (Ralph Lauren suits, Lincoln Town Cars, something called Hunting World silk ties) or passive-feminine fashion victims (Estee Lauder and Guerlain perfumes, a Samsung notebook computer -- being toted by a skinny model like it was an oversize purse, Calvin Klein undies, wrinkle creams, pearls from Tiffany, and, of course, Cartier wedding rings).

The only ads that made any reference to the "Heroine" theme were an ugly black-and-white "salute" to the Times from New Woman magazine and a promo from Lifetime Television synergistically plugging a TV special that night, titled -- what else? -- The Age of the Female Icon. Sounds like female heroes are a hard sell.

Tangled Up in Wired
He who lives by the hype, dies by the hype. But in the sudden rush to sully Wired and its corporate siblings, something more than the usual hypocrisy has been at play.

The pundits' newly acquired skepticism about Wired Ventures and co-founder Louis Rossetto is draped in the righteous mantle of business analysis. (They might have picked up our own Gordon Young's cold-eyed look at Wired's bottom lines more than four months ago, "System Crashing," July 10.) But a closer read suggests Rossetto and crew's libertarian politics -- and not their financials -- is what really sticks in the craw of the freshly self-appointed thought police of the digital kingdom.

Rossetto's hardly a sympathetic figure, given his insatiable headline hunger and incessant horn-blowing. Those traits, however, didn't stop the press from enthusiastically embracing him and his creations for the first three years they were on the scene. Wired and the participants in the on-line world it celebrates haven't changed. What's different is that outside commentators of the unreconstructed liberal variety have started listening to the message more closely. And they don't like the anti-statism that they're hearing.

The libertarian tilt of "new-style media" (as Rossetto giddily puts it) can be found in the most unlikely places. Look at the weekly pre-election polls conducted by that historic bastion of liberalism, Mother Jones, on its Mojo.com Website. The top presidential vote-getter -- consistently in the mid-30s, and ahead of Green Party shrinking-standard-bearer Ralph Nader and No. 3 Bill Clinton -- was Libertarian Harry Browne. And it was no fluke. He was the winner week after week. Nor was the field terribly fragmented. The highest three accounted for roughly three-quarters of the votes cast.

Of course, the Libertarian line is near its shallowest in the feckless version Rossetto amuses himself with. But its popularity on the Net is impossible to ignore, and that has traditional liberals, who want so badly to embrace the new "democratic" medium, in a lather.

Now Wired is paying the price. "Many in the media ... have become less-than-enamored of Wired's oft-repeated disdain for 'old-style' politics," writes David Kline in November's Upside magazine, which tracks venture capital in Silicon Valley. The rest of the media's new antipathy, he argues, was an ingredient in the recent failure of Wired Ventures' second IPO. Kline's denunciation was showcased in Ex media columnist David Armstrong's Nov. 24 column.

"Kline ... has frequently challenged Wired executives ... about the company's ... hot-eyed libertarian politics," Armstrong writes. He also quotes Kline, who used to write a column for Wired and is still listed as a contributor: "I've told them, 'Look, the smugness and one-dimensional nature of the line you're pushing is starting to alienate your core readers.' "

(Alienating readers is a bit of a red herring since, amid all the anti-Wired reporting, nobody has suggested that the magazine's circulation is slipping.)

Another recent sounding of the alarms over Rossetto and his sinister politics was a poisoning-of-the-Web story by Michael Hudson in the Nov. 6 Bay Guardian, titled "Digital Dark Ages."

Hudson quotes a passel of media types from the "old-style politics" cohort, including an English technology analyst, Richard Barbrook, who grew "alarmed," Hudson reports, that "his friends and associates ... had been sucking up the latest intellectual fad from America" with each issue of Wired.

Barbrook was horrified to discover that his statist European pals, firm believers in national health care and a high degree of government economic regulation, were being won over to the notion of a free market in cyberspace as a result of reading Rossetto's Libertarian-besotted mag.

Rossetto unapologetically argues that change has its "costs," to the annoyance of Hudson, who ended his story with a call to regulate digital commerce to protect "the losers." Who those "losers" are, though, is far from certain. True, it could be argued that the digitalization of commerce has allowed some jobs to be outsourced to lower-wage locations, or even eliminated altogether. But that's only a partial picture. Jobs exist today thanks to that same digitalization that weren't even imagined five years ago. And it's also arguable that it has helped lower barriers to employment, since practical cyberskills are more highly valued than paper achievements.

Dystopic scenarios like the one being peddled by the anti-Wired posse have a history of missing happier, albeit unintentional, consequences of technological change. An earlier, less sweeping, digital revolution cracked some eggs -- in the form of Industrial Age craft and labor unions -- on the way to a more populist, some might even say progressive, omelet.

Consider the electronic typesetting machine. Once it became readily available, about a quarter-century ago, anyone with the cash or the credit line to buy or lease one and pay the printing bills could produce a newspaper. Over the years, thousands of unionized typesetters and linotype operators lost their jobs, but in the meantime a new medium was born: the alternative press.

Don't Buy It
If Bay Area retail sales figures from last weekend are any indication, the fifth annual Planetary Buy Nothing Day was less than a smashing success. It's just as well. Your local economy, your local government's ability to pay for public services, and maybe even your civic and social conscience will be better off for having overlooked this 24-hour interlude of anti-consumption, promoted by the Vancouver-based Media Foundation. The foundation, whose quarterly magazine, Adbusters, is devoted to subverting the multibillion-dollar North American advertising industry, had hoped to turn the day after Thanksgiving, one of the biggest buying days of the year, into a retail bust.

But NBC, ABC, and CBS declined to air the Buy Nothing Day TV spot (the nerve of those networks). Weeping First Amendment crocodile tears, the ever-resourceful MF wasted no time in firing off conveniently quotable press releases, which led to major play in the print media. (You don't suppose that's what they had in mind all along, do you?)

Far be it from us to knock a good sendup of Madison Avenue. But when clever satire turns to yuppiecentric sanctimony about the evils of consumerism, we figure it's time for a little remedial economics education. The retail trade sector supplies one of every six jobs in the Bay Area. Twenty-four percent of San Francisco's annual revenue is derived from retail sales taxes, the second-largest revenue source for the city, which, like every other locality in California, has come to rely more and more heavily on the sales tax because 1978's Proposition 13 effectively eliminates property taxes as a way to fund local services.

Maybe the Canadian do-gooders understood all that and figured their Buy Nothing scheme was a subversive blow against a nutty fiscal system. But if the revolution is going to sacrifice Macy's clerks on the altar of Small Planet snobbery, must it do without any wit or imagination? True subversion would have been to encourage massive buying this holiday season and to promote a Return It All Day on Dec. 26.

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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Phyllis Orrick

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