When, Exactly, Did Politics Become a Tech Story?

Thousands of demonstrators protested against the ultra-liberalism of the WTO.

For WIRED’s October issue, David Karpf read every issue of the magazine, in chronological order. He’ll be writing a series about the patterns and insights he found in 25 years of stories about the future.

When politics professors like myself tell the story of the internet, there are a few touchstone events. The biggest is the Battle of Seattle, the vibrant, vocal antiglobalization protest convened at the city’s convention center in 1999. It was a bit of a shock, reading through the WIRED archive, to realize that the magazine never mentioned these massive protests.

WIRED, like most of the tech industry, had a selective view of politics: Economic globalization and digital networking were interlocking forces for good. It reveled in the potential of both, and shrugged off the critics.

So when, a dozen years before Occupy Wall Street, the antiglobalization movement used digital tools to organize an enormous protest march against a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the event didn’t seem like a tech story. Marchers effectively shut down the city, leaving officials surprised and unprepared for the scale of political resistance they faced. The action launched a massive movement that included IndyMedia, an alternative network that challenged the mainstream media, back when blogging was still called “web logging.” For two years, the antiglobalization movement was practically synonymous with digital activism.

Present-day WIRED would have covered these protests. But ’90s WIRED was completely silent on the topic. The reason why is a good reminder that, as the digital revolution becomes a story of the present rather than the future, technology writing has undergone a seismic reinvention—and emerged with a duty to operate as a guide rather than a prophet to this confusing time.

It’s easy to forget, but the internet enthusiasm of the 1990s came alongside a second revolution—the fall of communism and the rise of economic globalization. The Cold War was finally over and the world was becoming networked into a single global marketplace. The internet seemed destined to become the critical infrastructure for making this collective globalization a reality. WIRED spent the late ’90s interviewing “prophets of boom” who boasted about the market’s unstoppable upward trajectory. From this perspective, the antiglobalization movement wasn’t the future of politics, it was a bunch of noisy luddites fighting against the new era of promise and prosperity.

Another surprising absence: The magazine managed to ignore MoveOn.org for six years. MoveOn began as a giant digital petition, calling on Congress to “censure Bill Clinton and move on” from the Lewinsky scandal in 1998. MoveOn later played a major role in organizing anti–Iraq War protest events. WIRED ignored those massive protests too.

The irony of this oversight is that MoveOn was cofounded by two successful technologists, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades. Boyd and Blades had run Berkeley Systems for a decade, and were responsible for iconic ’90s tech memorabilia like the “flying toasters” screensaver and the digital trivia game You Don’t Know Jack. They sold their company in 1997 and founded MoveOn a year later.

Berkeley Systems had been a regular WIRED advertiser, and the very first issue of WIRED featured a brief review of the “neo-nerd chic” Flying Toaster necktie, on sale from Berkeley Systems for $17.95. MoveOn wasn’t just some digital petition website. MoveOn was started by technologists looped into the WIRED scene who were pioneering a new style of digital political activism.

That’s not to say early WIRED never covered the future of politics. Yet stories adhered pretty closely to two main themes: speculation on how networked computing might someday change politics and criticism of…

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