Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Great Wired Conspiracy For World Domination

by Joab Jackson

What is the connection between the consulting firm Global Business Network and "Wired" magazine and why do they want to predict your future? There is much overlap between "Wired's" masthead and GBN's membership. GBN members are frequently both subjects and authors of "Wired" articles, and the two share an agenda, an information-based, libertarian economy. Is "Wired" manipulating its readers to support a future than wouldn't benefit anyone but the multinational corporations that GBN caters to?

I asked Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly by e-mail if he'd comment on what influence the Global Business Network, or GBN, has over his magazine. Why have so many members of GBN, a modest-sized Emeryville, California-based corporate-consultation think tank, appeared in the magazine? It's a loaded question, I admit. And, reasonably enough, Kelly -- himself a GBNer -- declined to comment, noting, "Denials only feed conspiracy theories."

GBN membership is by invitation only and those not sufficiently visionary enough to be invited into GBN can pay a yearly $35,000 subscription fee
Conspiracy theories? Who said anything about conspiracy theories? Like the one floated by Mark Stahlman in his rant in the Web zine ReWired, "The English Ideology and Wired Magazine, which denounced the glossy as a propaganda tool for the elite five percent who will be the "new Information Age rulers"? Or the one implied by Time magazine's rather calmer report on how several of GBN's partners are stockholders in Wired Ventures, Ltd.? Yes, we have no conspiracies here.

The question became especially pertinent given Wired's July cover story, "The Long Boom," a giddy economic and political forecast of the next 25 years written by GBN Chairman Peter Schwartz, along with Wired features editor Peter Leyden.

What is GBN? Some sort of cyberstonecutters guild, to which admittance can be gained only by secret handshake? Not exactly. But individual membership is by invitation only. This cabal of 104 is sprinkled with members of the Western Hemisphere's most forward-minded intelligentsia -- from economist W. Brian Arthur to sci-fi writer William Gibson. Those not sufficiently visionary enough to be invited into GBN can pay a yearly $35,000 subscription fee to become an "organizational member" which includes such bennies as participation in the GBN "worldview" activites, meetings, the bookclub, and access to consulting services.

"All of these services are designed to explore emerging issues, trends, and tools; to expose ourselves to new (often unorthodox) ideas and perspectives; to think collaboratively about the future of the business environment; and to promote networking among our members," The GBN Website reads. Well, what some call networking, others call logrolling. It's a clubby comradeship GBN and Wired share. Nine of the 71 people on Wired's editorial masthead are GBN members, and at least three other members have penned articles. Not surprisingly, features on GBN members frequently appear in the magazine; three-Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, and Sherry Turkle-have made the cover. There was even an article about the GBN itself in Wired, written by GBN member Joel Garreau.

To GBN's defense, both it and the magazine deal in similar topics -- the coming of the information age. And, as GBN spokesperson Nancy Murphy points out to me by e-mail, both organizations are based in the same area. "Yes there is some overlap in our network and the Wired masthead," she writes. "But that isn't too surprising given our location in the Bay area and some long-term friendships ... It's not surprising when Kevin Kelly... attends GBN functions, he meets lots of other members of the GBN network and develops his own relationship with them -- in fact that's what networks are all about!"

What Americans have largely missed about this self-proclaimed "magazine of the digital society," some British folks picked up quite clearly
The GBN was formed in 1987 by Stewart Brand as management consulting firm. Today, this think tank amasses $8 million a year by holding seminars teaching multinational corporations to understand, prepare and adapt to the possibilities the future. The future is no idle concern for these companies. The era of the global information economy looms, and nobody's sure how it'll shift power of people, their governments, or business.

Yet Wired is unfazed by such uncertainty; in "The Long Boom," Schwartz and Leyden dare us to envision an obscenely prosperous world economy in which new technologies bring massive productivity increases while new markets break open in China, Russia, and countless Third World countries. Here's the rub: Schwartz maintains this happy scenario is possible only if world leaders adhere to "open systems," both politically and financially. Yet equating completely free markets with politically open societies is deceptive. While most agree that politically open societies (such as democracies) are preferable to closed ones (such as Communist regimes and military dictatorships), the superiority of a totally unregulated free markets is far from uncontested. For instance, George Soros argued in the February Atlantic Monthly that open markets and open societies are anathema because the former reduce every value held by a culture to its monetary worth (The Capitalist Threat").

As their aim is not to write a balanced article, but rather just sketch out one possible future, Schwartz and Leyden's vision steamrolls over this as well as other potential pitfalls: the widening income gap between rich and poor, rape of the environment, hyperinflation. Certainly the multinationals GBN caters to could thrive in such a world, but would everyone else? Would anyone else? While most Americans view a technology-driven open markets as a natural phenomena, it is anything but -- it is an ideology, one to which other countries might not care to subscribe.

British reporter Ian Betteridge's critique of "The Long Boom" in ReWired ("The New Victoriana") indicts Schwartz and Leyden for pushing technological imperialism: "Yes, the dear old U.S.A. . . . must lead the way into this techno utopia, guiding those backward folks in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere." What Americans have largely missed about this self-proclaimed "magazine of the digital society," some British folks picked up quite clearly. Earlier this year, the U.K. edition of Wired folded after two hard years. The British Web zine Tired has long criticized that mag's "Californian libertarian conspiracy." "They tried to tell us how to think, so we told them to fuck off," a British hacker told The Guardian in another story about the edition's death.

It's worth noting that, before coming to GBN, Schwartz developed his future-divining chops doing global political analysis at Royal Dutch/Shell Group. Shell, you might recall, has been accused by the Sierra Club of propping up a despotic Nigerian government to keep cheap oil flowing from that country. A coincidence perhaps, but it raises questions about what advice GBN is really imparting -- how to manage in a churlish global economy, or how to manipulate it? And, what with all this networking going on, how does this visionary thinking filter down to Wired?

Those convinced that Wired is manipulating its readers should study the rTsumT of GBN cofounder Stewart Brand. Prior to GBN, Brand launched the Whole Earth Catalogue, at which Kevin Kelly worked and later used as an inspiration for Wired (Kelly also edited Brand's Coeveolution Quarterly). In his book The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, Brand describes how he was greatly influenced by Massachusetts Institute of Technology communications professor Ithiel de Sola Pool. However, Brand neglects to mention that Pool did extensive U.S. government sponsored studies during the 1950s on psychological warfare -- the art of using media to strategically undermine values. It might all add up to less than zero, but as conspiracy theories go, you gotta admit, this one's pretty intriguing.

This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore City Paper

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Albion Monitor October 13, 1997 (

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