Technology Parodies Itself
Fri., Nov. 15, 1996
But parody we must. The online age is the age of parody -- first, because the Web is such a handy medium for it, and second, because parody, like cybermania, is the special province of the young, male, and emotionally stunted. That's not to presume that Tom Connor and Jim Downey are geeks. But they did take the time to produce two (quite funny) lampoons of super-domesticity, Is Martha Stewart Living? and Martha Stewart's Better Than You at Entertaining. After those, a foray into tech hype might at least be purgative. Ergo, Connor's and Downey's latest lampoon, re>Wired, was released October 1 from HarperPerennial.
re>Wired has the Wired look down cold, or hot, in all its bilious hurl-green and hot-pink glory. And it hits Wired's defining editorial points. There's drooling gadget lust (for "Air Einsteins -- the first ion-driven athletic shoes"). There's cybermacho, as in "Digital Outlaws, Part VII" by R.U. Sysiphus: "He's got an attitude, he wears leather briefs, he's wanted by many governments and most women. And you thought hackers were losers!" There are outlandish corporate intrigues, such as Bill Gates "instituting a hostile takeover of Ben & Jerry's," which he will give to Seattle "as a present" to atone for the times his overwired house accidentally shut off all the respirators in the local intensive care unit and gave 8,000 neighbors the same number as a phone sex line in Beirut.
And there is, inevitably, an overload of Gates baiting; re>Wired's weakest item is its cover piece, "Bill Gates' Guide to Picking Up NetChicks," which wallows in years-old geek clichés. Better is "The Coolest Chat Rooms," your guide to "#Meatweavers" ("I guess I got into it because of the pork. It works very well for living room accessories") and the "Zen Chat Garden" ("Enjoy the silent flicker of the cursor on the pure whiteness of the screen"). Better still, the "re>Wired Brain Trust Symposium" featuring "Benjamin Blancoponte, Digital Being," "Stewart Burnt, organic cybernaut," and "John Barry Barleycorn, Wyoming psychedelic Republican." (If those names don't ring funny, your diet's deficient in futuristic blather.) Best of all is "Future Design," a four-page addition ad absurdum of Wired graphic style that sums up all the hubris of the original. We have seen the future, but damned if we can figure out what it says.
If Wired marked cyber-sensibility's conquest of print, than re>Wired is print's revenge, a guffaw hurled back in the future's face. But it's taken three years to arrive and costs a forbidding $12.50. Meanwhile, the Web has moved ahead; cyberparody, in particular Wired parody, is already a genre there. On a sketchy level, there's Haywired (http://www.geocities.com), How Tired (http://www.howtired.com), and Wasted, "The Magazine for Blind Worship of Geekdom" (http://www.dts.apple.com/mystuff.temple). UnderWired (http://www.covesoft.com/underwired) is a more concerted effort with a beguiling copyright disclaimer: "Lighten up, guys. This is a parody. A satire . ... It's fun, fer cryin' out loud. If I wanted to rip off a design, I'd pick something I could read."
As a target, Wired has a special status; even Weird Al Yankovic has his own on-line Wired-cover parody (W.E.I.R.D., natch, at http://www.scottibros.com), complete with "linkovics." But Wired is far from the only target; even the hype-heavy search engine Yahoo!! comes in for lampoon as "Yecch!!" (http://www.smartlink.net/~yeeeoww/ yecch).
And if, as any smart target will always claim, parody is the sincerest form of flattery, then the producers of Slate, Microsoft's on-line political magazine, should feel even more flattered now than at their much-touted start-up. In just two months, they've already been lashed by at least two on-line parodies. The newer of the two, Mike Rosoff's Stall (www.3cf.com/stall), is a freewheeling, half-baked job with a candor one can only wish were catching: "Consider, then opt out. To get the most out of Stall: Download it, print it, then lose it in a stack of papers. Like the Web, Stall is for talking about, not for reading." Other high points: "Political Thought: It may not be `just for morons' anymore,' by Jack Kemp and Carrot Top," and "Klaus Kinsky" subbing for Slate editor Michael Kinsley.
But the full-tilt parody is Stale, a sometimes-uncanny and inspired, if uneven, rendering of the whole Slate package. Its creators clearly misspent their youths in close reading of The New Republic, The Atlantic, and the other print magazines whence Slate emerged. Who else would attempt an endless parody of a Nicholas Lemann article on minority groups, which finishes with a lame reprise of an old National Lampoon riff on the "Dutch peril." Likewise feeble is a Slate "Diary" feature as written by the perfect stereotypical diary keeper -- a teenage girl. Phat!!!
But Stale has plenty of sharp moments. Its version of Slate's "In Other Magazines" digest handily skewers The New Yorker, the Tweedledee and Dumber newsweeklies, and by implication Slate, for taking them seriously: "Time opens with a selection of humorous quotations from newsmakers ...while Newsweek reports on some funny things that newsmakers have said in the past week." Stale's "Scribblennium" version of a Stamaty cartoon, with Kinsley as Gulliver pinned down by real on-line magazines, is deft. Likewise its version of the opening colloquoy "Is Microsoft Evil?" with which Slate showed its independence. In the Stale version, Satan, Hitler, Charles Manson, and Evel Knievel join Microsoft executive veep "Steve Belial" at the table. Says Belial: "Satan, I must clarify your statement regarding an alleged deal between yourself and Mr. Gates. Various agencies have looked into this time and again and each time, without fail, they have stopped looking before they found anything."
All this could be done as well in print, but not as quickly or cheaply. Parody, like terrorism, is a weapon of the weak, and cyberspace is its pipe bomb. And hypertext offers referential opportunities that in-print satirists could never dream of. "Check Out a Lame Parody of Stall," reads one Stall legend. Clicking on it takes you to the original Slate.
Eric Scigliano is a Senior Editor at the Seattle Weekly, the newsweekly from which this article was reprinted.