Another Wired founder was Kevin Kelly, who came to Silicon Valley utopianism by way of Whole Earth Catalog DIY, and whom I called to ask to look back on what he helped cheerlead into ubiquity. What he said he and his fellow futurists didn’t foresee was how the Internet would be overrun by user-generated content and the principle that everything should be free. And then he added, “My youngest son is 16, and when he was 10 or 11, he asked, ‘How did you get on the Internet without computers?’ He kind of understood how computers might not exist—he could picture that—but he couldn’t imagine the Internet not being there. That was impossible to imagine.” It’s not that easy for me, either, and I was there, calling the reference desk at the library.
Second, 1993 marked the inauguration of Bill Clinton and the arrival of neoliberalism and globalization—and the subjugation of every single political principle, liberal and otherwise, to the growth imperative. Clinton signed NAFTA, helping shepherd in globalization and hurry along America’s deindustrialization, and began the bubblelicious process of deregulating Wall Street. There were a few rumbles on the left, but they were the rumbles of a dying rearguard, afraid of what became known as the ownership economy. But neoliberalism was the agreed-upon consensus—and not all that far from the one that elected Rudy Giuliani mayor of New York. (The New Museum now sits on the Bowery, of course, which in 1993 was still Skid Row.) Clinton promised a Cabinet that “looked like America,” but as Thomas Frank, then the editor of the disgusted leftist DIY journal The Baffler and not yet the sage of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, put it to me when I called him to talk about 1993, “They looked on the surface like America, but they didn’t express America. They acted like Wall Street.”
Which brings up the third thing the New Museum plausibly argues really exploded that year—multiculturalism and identity politics. This Gioni & Co. do mostly by showcasing actual art—especially from the 1993 Whitney Biennial, a hugely controversial show devoted to work by mostly unknown artists and largely on the subjects of gender politics, sex, race, and AIDS. The clothing company Benetton, which had so masterfully made multiculturalism a “progressive” marketing strategy (“The United Colors of Benetton”), had produced, the year before, a billboard advertisement around a photograph of a man dying of AIDS. Something had surely changed in the years since President Reagan wouldn’t acknowledge the disease and Mayor Koch wouldn’t adequately address it if you could sell some T-shirts by selling AIDS awareness. Or combine, as we all do today, our self-defining higher consciousness with our conscientious consumption choices.
That anxiety, as I remember it, was the concern of the day. Much of The Baffler’s disgust was fueled by the disappearance of the distinctions between the subcultural and the mainstream, the looming co-optation of everything. A new magazine that year was Might, Dave Eggers’s so-earnest-it-was-insolent predecessor to McSweeney’s and The Believer. At the time, I was, like most of my friends, convinced that the great promise of our generation lay in refusal. Itchy, amniotic heroin was the drug of choice at that time, and one of my closest friends in college even had the word LOSER tattooed across his chest: The “o” was his nipple. All that seems to me now, living in a world that has come to so uncomplicatedly venerate the entrepreneurial spirit—winners and disrupters and ted talkers who worry about “scaleability” and who want to make the maximum possible impact on the world—impossibly archaic. But back then everyone was so anxious about “selling out” and preserving the purity of whatever it is that we were or had or didn’t want to be that we couldn’t even see what we actually were trying to do was be successful while still holding on to contempt for the idea of success.
And even then, the word sellout was already losing its meaning: Countercultural gestures had already become things people were willing to pay for. Kurt Cobain agonized so catchily about co-optation that, in 1992, Nirvana bumped Michael Jackson off the top of the charts. When the band appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, its singer wore a T-shirt that read CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK. But if that was a heartfelt complaint—and it’s hard to tell how much it was irony and how much self-inoculation—it was a complaint giving its last gasp. In 1993, Jane Pratt, then 30, the founding editor of the “alternative” teen magazine Sassy, was quoted wondering if the fashion-world baby-boomers she saw at Pearl Jam concerts “were there to get ideas, rip them off, and sell them back.” But she had already signed on as host of a Fox daytime talk show; and her competitors were pumping ratings by hosting a rotating cast of New York’s Club Kids.
Suddenly, success had stopped being something to be angsty about: Multiculturalism and identity politics insisted that everyone’s voice was worth hearing, and why would anyone on the margins complain when invited to partake of the piping-hot center of the culture? To complain made you seem like a member of the pathetically bland, imperiled mainstream. And, by 1993, anyone with any intuition could see that put you on the wrong side of history.