Is Change Good? An Interview with Former Wired Magazine Publisher Louis Rossetto


The change has become so complex that it can only be perceived incompletely and then only fleetingly in the quicksilver shimmering pulse of electrons across the consciousness of the hive mind.


Louis Rossetto, former Publisher of Wired magazine, and Erik Spiekermann have a successful Kickstarter project — a novel and “a revolution in book printing” titled Change Is Good. According to their Kickstarter site, “Every generation has its creation myth. This is the creation myth of the Digital Generation. A novel about the Digital Revolution, written by Louis Rossetto, co-founder of Wired.” It also promises “A masterpiece of the printer’s art —published by design legend Erik Spiekermann and printed on his own classic Heidelberg letterpress… The proof of concept for a revolution in letterpress printing: Post Digital Printing.” And the thing that really caught my eye (thanks to Eve) is the claim of Post Digital Printing that marries the advances of modern typography & design with the quality & artisanship of letterpress. I liked that they were marrying this artisanal approach to the “edgy” Wired mythology. Erik is even making a customized ink from scratch. 

“What,” you ask? Louis Rossetto, father of Wired, on the MONDO website? Sure. I’ve had my criticisms of Wired over the years, but Louis and his partner Jane Metcalfe (who has her own new project, Neo.Life) have remained friends and they’ve always got some cool stuff going on. Hell, even their chocolates are good.

Kickstarter page

Read On!


Why a novel?

LR: With fiction, you can often tell more truth than non-fiction.

When you say change is good, some change isn’t good… or hasn’t been good in the past. What change are you talking about and why is it good?

LR: “Change is good” is what we used to say all the time in the face of the resistance all of us used to get from the status quo. We joked that the only story the New York Times would write about the Digital Revolution was “Internet, Threat or Menace.” It was also a way to keep the disruption moving. If you overthought it, you might falter, or you might miss it. It was a big wave. Had to stay on top. Or if you don’t like that metaphor, there was always Stewart’s: You were either part of the steamroller, or you were part of the road.” But whether change is really good — that’s a question the book tries to address.

I’m intrigued by the classical craftsperson-like choice to use specialized ink and letterpress. Please ell us more about what you guys are doing with that. Is this a mix of the archaic and the novel? 

LR: Erik, I’m sure would have his own — and better — answers.

As for me, my father was a mechanical engineer, worked at Merghenthaler Linotype making hot metal machines — the first breakthrough in letterpress back in the late nineteenth century. Even though he ended his career building computers into his heavy machinery, he was really an atoms guy. How I grew up. Then I became a writer, editor, media guy, web adventurer — my life became increasingly ephemeral, from atoms to bits (pace Nicholas). And then after Wired, I helped start a chocolate company, and suddenly I was confronted with the hard world of atoms again. Chocolate may be based on formulas and scientific abstractions, but when you’re making it, it’s nothing but big machinery, bags of beans, supply chains based on fucking steamships that straddle the globe, and ultimately farmers who are planting, harvesting, and fermenting beans. All to make a slab of atoms that you can only really experience by putting on your tongue.

In other words, I was again immersed in sensuality. And ultimately, that’s what print and paper are about. Screens might have resolution higher than paper at this point, but the experience of using them is not the same. Screens emit, paper reflects — catches the light, which changes as you hold it, changes color depending on the time of day, the source of light. Paper engages more senses — touch, it’s smooth or rough or slick, it’s thin or thick. It smells — the inks, the paper, the glue all have their own subtle yet distinctive odors. Print has a visible past and future, not just a present like the screen; with paper, you can see and feel what you’ve read, what’s to come. I guess you can also hear paper. It rustles or rips. Probably the only thing you don’t do is taste it.

One of the reasons I loved Wired, the magazine, was we tried to push what we could do with print. The press we printed on, we were lucky, was a brand spanking new, state-of-the-art Heidelberg six color press. We were literally the first clients to print on it. Offset is normally four color, CMYK. Six colors means you have two more ink towers you can play with. That’s partially why Wired looked the way it did — we put fluorescents or metallics or double hits of blacks on those extra two towers, and the mag would have colors literally no other magazine was using. We were also on the leading edge of digital production. We used a $100K Kodak proofer at the printer that could not only show us what our pages would look like, but actually replicate the dot gain we would get from the screens we were using on press. So we really knew what a page would look like as we were designing it. We were among the first to go direct-to-plate.

Letterpress has made an artisan revival, because it delivers on the premise of print and paper… the letters being pressed ever so slightly into the paper, creating a well which catches the light, making the page subliminally alive as you move it.

And then John Plunkett was not just a demon art director, he knew printing cold. I’ve told the story before. On our first press check, on this brand new press, with a team who had probably 100 years of experience among them, John listened as the lead pressman explained the first sheet to him, told him that all specs were nominal. The pressman had spent hours adjusting the press, he examined dozens of sample sheets, and finally he handed one to John that he pronounced precisely to spec. John looked at it and said, “I want more ink on the paper.” The pressman was taken aback, but indulged John and ran another sheet with more ink. John looked at it, and told him he wanted still more ink. The pressman argued that the sheet was already beyond spec, but John insisted. The pressman relented, made adjustments which he thought were ridiculous, and ran another sheet. John looked at this sheet and told the pressman that there still wasn’t enough ink on the paper. He told the pressman, I want you to turn the ink all the way up until it just smears on the paper, then dial it back until it just stops smearing. Now the pressman is visibly unhappy, argues, but finally does as he’s told. Out came the sheet. The ink was super thick. John was happy. That became the Wired standard. Wired didn’t look different or better because it was printed with six colors, it looked the way it did because of all of the above, and John’s knowledge and dedication to pushing the tech as hard as it allowed, and then some.

Which brings us to Change is Good. I thought about releasing it to Kindle like The Martian. But then I love print. And my buddy Erik is not only a fantastic designer, he’s returned to where he started his career, being a printer. And he’s been developing technology to push letterpress.

Letterpress has made an artisan revival, because it delivers on the premise of print and paper — the experience is just superior to offset for text books. Unlike offset which is kind of gray and the type is a little blurry, letterpress prints sharp and black. And then there’s the added, magical bonus of the letters being pressed ever so slightly into the paper, creating a well which catches the light, making the page subliminally alive as you move it.

The problem with letterpress for commercial book printing was that it didn’t keep up with the digital revolution, and all those powerful computer design tools. Where you could go direct from screen to offset plate, there was no equivalent for letterpress. You had to go through a photo intermediary, which introduced distortion and noise.

We are evolution’s agents, and we are making and testing mutations on an accelerated basis as we network ourselves and our sensors and our machines together. 

Erik decided to make a laser cutter that would allow you to go direct from screen to letterpress plate. Having the opportunity to have my book designed by Erik, and be the guinea pig for his new technology that was going to revolutionize high quality book printing, I jumped at the opportunity to again push the tech as far as it could, to deliver the best possible reading experience, like we did at Wired in a different context. And ironically, the press that we’re printing on, and that Erik owns, was made by Heidelberg, the same company that made the press that printed Wired. Except Erik’s was new in 1953. How fucking cool.

Any regrets about Wired’s typhoon? (In the first issue, Louis wrote, “The Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon.”)

LR: Oh jeez. We are evolution’s agents, and we are making and testing mutations on an accelerated basis as we network ourselves and our sensors and our machines together. Some mutations survive, some don’t. The ones that survive may still cause humans (and the universe) problems because they are disruptive. Some are not only disruptive but wildly beneficial — at least they appear that way, at least at first. But can we ever really know what’s good or bad for us in the long run? All we can do is try to shape the flow as best we can with good intention. Regrets about what’s happening? Always. Excited about what’s happening? Immensely. Through it all, I remain a critical optimist. Change is good. Change is hard. Change is good? Change is…

What, in your estimation, worked from ’90s technoculture and what didn’t work?

The driving spirit of the ’90s for me was revolutionary optimism. The urge to question and remake everything. And the bravery to fully commit, accept the risk, and actually make change in the face of skepticism and resistance. It was the end of history. The future was totally malleable. Everyone could participate. And we didn’t have to wait for subcontractors in Washington or the bureaucracy to make it happen, we could do it directly, ourselves. There were no haves and have nots — there were only haves and have laters, leading edge and trailing edge, with everyone on the same wing. And you had to be an optimist. To paraphrase Chomsky, if you aren’t an optimist, if you don’t think the world will be better for you and your children, you won’t step up and take responsibility for making it happen. That optimism made for experimentation, and risk taking, and pushing through resistance, and building new reality at an astonishing pace, so that a new world sprang up around us that we certainly don’t understand, and may never, the change has become so complex that it can only be perceived incompletely and then only fleetingly in the quicksilver shimmering pulse of electrons across the consciousness of the hive mind.

This is an example of that thinking from an interstitial we created at Wired TV.

What didn’t work? Well, you can’t really outrun human nature. Took billions of years to form, and it ain’t changing in a nanosecond. And I suppose the other thing is the core of that revolution got the deeper meaning, but they created a fire that burned so bright that it attracted the wannabes. And then the fire needed more and more fuel. The wannabes were the bankers, b-plan hucksters, the cultural hangers on, and the exploiters; and the fuel was money. Ultimately, nothing lasts forever, no matter how optimistic you are, and the revolution ended up consuming itself. You breathe in, you breathe out, there are cycles to life, even to a revolution that was changing everything. Maybe especially.

Why 1998? of all the years in the ‘90s

LR: 1998 marked the moment the utopianism of the early Digital Revolution succumbed to the orgy of the Dotcom bubble. Because that was the moment the valuation metrics for internet companies became untethered from reality. Before January 1998, internet companies were valued at 12 times trailing revenues. After January, it became forty times forward revenue. Trailing means recorded. Forward means projected — made up. That, and the Fed loosening the spigots in anticipation of the anticipated Y2K apocalypse, just unleashed torrents of white hot money that washed over the sector, whipping everyone’s head around. Starting in January 1998, the market went vertical, rising from 2200 to 5000 in March 2000, when the bubble finally burst.

I wanted to examine what that moment was like for people on the ground South of Market SF, the epicenter of the revolution. The moral challenges, the personal conflicts, the battles among competing economic and social interests, the fever that was taking hold, what was coming, what was being left behind. Because at that tipping point, it was unclear how the whole thing was going to turn out.

Any thoughts about Wired magazine and website today? Anything you would be doing differently?

LR: Not going there. It’s like trying to live your kids’ lives. They’re grown up now, it’s theirs. Except to say that we were obviously right in 1994 when we launched Hotwired and said the future of Wired was the web.

Since this is MONDO 2000, I have to ask… lots of people have compared what you guys did to what we did. What’s your take?

LR: People are always looking for controversy, even where there isn’t any. Wired and MONDO were like two separate planets, in different orbits. At least that’s how it appeared to Jane and me. And yet, there are the misconceptions you allude to, which reached up to and included that we were a CIA front. So, maybe it’s worth taking this opportunity to finally put the misconceptions to rest. To do that, a stroll down memory lane…

Jane and I had been ex-patriots for ten years when we returned to America in 1991. We’d been living in Amsterdam and Paris and Switzerland. While we were there, we actually had no idea that we would ever come back to America. Europe had become our home. I got my Italian passport, I was an EU citizen and a Dutch resident. The world was in ferment where we were, what was happening in America was far away.

We were in Amsterdam when Milkyway and Paradiso had their first house dealers, and marijuana and hash were being decriminalized. We were there for the birth of rave culture and E, which started and flourished in England and Holland, before spreading to America. We were there for the anarchist/squatter movement, the occupations and the battles with the police in the streets. I was in Afghanistan reporting on the mooj war against the Soviets firsthand just when the Americans introduced Stingers, which led to the defeat of the Communists. I was in Berlin the weekend the Wall came down. We were there when they signed the Schengen agreement that brought down the EU’s internal borders. Actually, it wasn’t even the EU at the time, it was the EC. It became the EU while we were there.

Paradiso, Amsterdam

We started our bi-monthly Language Technology (published by a Dutch translation company) when the only desktop publishing program was ReadySetGo! For LT, I went around to labs, and universities, and companies in Euroland and the US and was an eyewitness to the impact of the personal computing revolution and how networks were being installed, and how both were impacting business, education, politics etc. We were there when Philips introduced the CD-ROM. It was during Language Technology that Jane and I started to work on the business plan for Wired. Except at the time (1986, 7 years before Wired’s launch), it was called Millennium — because it was supposed to be about the major disruptions attendant with the end of the Millennium (and we didn’t know about the film magazine with the same name).

Language Technology was ultimately sold to a Dutch media company, which let Jane and me gradually retool and rename it Electric Word. Kevin Kelly reviewed it for his Whole Earth and called it “The least boring computer magazine in the world.” At the Dutch media company, I was launch editor-in-chief of their new, funky, lifestyle magazine. Then the media company went down, and Jane and I escaped to try to find a buyer for Electric Word, using the Millennium business plan. We actually reached an agreement with John Evans in the board room of Newscorp in London at the end of 1990. Murdoch was going to fund it. And then a couple of days later, Murdoch’s Australian bankers pulled his leash, and all new projects were stopped.

At which point, we realized this was not going to happen in Euroland, not least because there really was no common market, just a lot of independent, country-based marketing departments who would be hard to corral into a Euro-wide ad buy. So we rewrote the business plan again, Jane retired the Millennium title and renamed it Wired, and we packed all our stuff from our ten years in Europe into 30 cardboard boxes, raised a little money from our Dutch software entrepreneur buddy Eckart Wintzen, and repatriated back to the US.

Point is, when we returned to America to make Wired, our entire world outlook had been shaped by a decade immersed in disruption — as seen from Europe. We met Tim Leary when he came through Amsterdam on his second incarnation as a tech guru. We met Barlow at a Dutch tech guy Luc Sala party, because Sala had the hots for Jane. I think maybe I’d seen Reality Hackers, but it was one drop in a firehose blast of fringe and mainstream, mostly Euro mags that I was consuming for Electric Word and my Dutch lifestyle magazine, including The Face, Actuel (where we stole the Idées Fortes section of Wired from), Charlie Hebdo, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Panorama, Geo, Metal Hurlant, Car, Photo (in short, all the mags carried at Athenaeum on the Spui) as well as a slew of international business, lifestyle, and tech publications and newsletters. Language Technology/Electric Word had been its own exploration — I worked with some of the best Dutch graphic artists, including Max Kisman. I played with the magazine form. This was the cover of the last issue I published, our 20th. That’s Ricky Wurman, from a photo I shot at TED 2, and then processed through the copy of Photoshop 1.0 I carried back from its world introduction by Russell Brown at the February 1990 TED conference. (Notice the “Invest in this Magazine” cheek in the bottom right.]


The most important thing I carried back to the US from the LT/Electric Word experience was my discovery of the people of the companies and labs of the tech world — it was discovering those people that opened my eyes to them being the most powerful people on the planet, and wanting to write about and for them.

So we came to America with a fully blown idea of what we wanted to do, including a detailed editorial program and a 50 page business plan. Right after we arrived in New York in the spring of 1991, Jane and I got together with John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr, and over three days and nights in Neil Selkirk’s Chelsea studio, we cut up books and magazines and camped out in 24-hour color copy shops, to produce our Manifesto for a New Magazine, our statement of what we wanted to do.

Manifesto for a New Magazine
click on image to see all 8 pages


The whole thing was wildly ambitious and naive. Or maybe it was wildly ambitious because we were naive. We had been out of the country for 10 years. We had no business contacts in the US, no bank accounts, no credit cards, we couldn’t even rent an apartment. And yet we were intent on starting a national magazine that the business plan said was supposed to have circulation of half a million in five years — from scratch. It was supposed to be a magazine about technology that wasn’t about feeds and speeds, for a target market no one recognized, that would include advertising that was both lifestyle and tech, a combination that the publishers we tried to raise money from in New York thought was just stupid. Luckily, we didn’t know what we couldn’t do.

I wanted to start Wired in Boulder, Colorado, but Jane nixed that, she had gone to college in Boulder, been there done that. So if it wasn’t Boulder, it had to be the Bay area, and on our trip driving across the country to get there, we met a guy who became a dear friend, and he said we could stay at his house, he was living with his girlfriend and it was empty. Turned out to be in Berkeley. It was only after we got to Berkeley in June of 1991 that we realized that literally up the street from where we were staying was the MONDO house. Not that that meant anything to us. I never visited.

Because, again, MONDO and the Wired concept that was in our editorial and business plans seemed to be planets in completely different orbits. MONDO seemed resolutely focused on the emerging techno culture. And Wired’s mission was insanely more open-ended: to write about the people, companies, and ideas driving the Digital Revolution — kind of what we had already been doing with Language Technology, uniting people across the silos of disparate industries. That included covering culture, but it mostly was about politics, and business, and money, and tech — and the people who were making and using digital technology to change the world. That editorial program and 50 page business plan that we arrived in America with — it’s what we implemented, pretty much single-mindedly.

Phew. That’s a long way to say that looking for controversy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to find it. My take.

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