Take Five with Louis Rossetto ’71

Rossetto 2

Louis Rossetto ’71 with his daughter, Zoe Rossetto Metcalfe ’21

Louis Rossetto ’71, BUS’73’s novel Change is Good launched on Kickstarter on August 14. Subtitled “A Story about the Heroic Era of the Internet,” it’s a week in the lives of six Gen Xers at the epicenter of the Digital Revolution in San Francisco at the moment in 1998 when their utopianism is turning into the orgy of the Dotcom Bubble. Rossetto is uniquely qualified to tell this story — he helped write the creation myth of our Digital Era when he co-founded Wired magazine in 1993 with his life partner, Jane Metcalfe. During his five years directing Wired, it won the National Magazine Awards for General Excellence twice and was AdWeek’s “Hottest Magazine of the Year.” Wired also pioneered commercial web media, launching Hotwired, the first website with original content, and Fortune 500 advertising. Hotwired actually invented the banner ad. Since Wired, Rossetto has pursued a variety of obsessions, from angel investing to real estate to helping start and run the high-end chocolate company TCHO.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I remember being a vaguely anxious, curious kid from the suburbs of Long Island who had no idea what it meant to go to college, what I wanted from the experience or where it might lead me. In other words, I knew nothing about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. In other words, I fit right in.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived on the eighth floor of Carman. I remember on the first day discussing the scar on my elbow with my new roommate Rick. He showed me the scar on his hand and both of us suddenly realized we’d been operated on by the same surgeon. I’d spent a year rehabbing after his surgery had inexplicably left my hand paralyzed. Rick had sued him for malpractice. Maybe I should have sued him too.

I remember waiting for Carman’s slow elevators. There was a guy on my floor with a bullwhip. He’d crack his whip to shred the flyers on the bulletin board by the elevator. Whhaackk! I ended up using the stairs to go to class.

I remember my daily lunch — sliced roast beef on a French roll with lettuce and Russian dressing from Mama Joy’s. Every single day.

I remember sitting at my desk staring numbly at my calculus textbook for hours on end. I came into Columbia interested in STEM, but the course made me hate calculus. I never went to class. Indeed, it was because of calculus that I developed the anxiety nightmare that shadowed me for years: I go to class, only to discover I had walked into a test I didn’t know about.

I remember dividing my days into two 12-hour periods — eight hours awake, four hours sleeping — in other words, sleeping 6–10 a.m., going to class until 6 p.m., crashing for four hours, then doing homework 10 p.m.–6 a.m. Disorienting. But not as much as the night the police marched through the Gates on College Walk in orderly, seemingly unending ranks to end the building occupations.

I was on campus gawking, cheering and jeering. I saw some kid being dragged by his feet down the steps of Low Library by the police, the back of his head bouncing off each step. I remember being chased into the streets, then hunted by police on horses (they bite!) until dawn, before I could climb over the gate at Livingston (now Wallach) and get to my room in Carman. I remember being awakened by bright sunshine and loud music on the plaza in front of Ferris Booth, then discovering the Grateful Dead playing a concert for the night’s dazed survivors. Then the semester was shut down, which saved me. Students could elect to take the grades they’d scored so far, or go pass/fail if their grades weren’t so hot. That calculus class that I would have failed since I never showed up? I could take a test; pass it and pass the semester. So I went to the original Barnes and Noble store on East 18th Street, bought a used copy of the most popular NYU calculus textbook, scored some speed, learned a year of calculus in three days and aced the test. Funny what you remember. (Not much calculus).

What class do you most remember and why?

I loved Andrew Sarris ’51, GSAS’98’s film class. Sarris was the film critic for The Village Voice, and the bad-boy advocate for the auteur theory of film criticism. Every Thursday evening, he screened a classic Hollywood movie in a small theater in the basement of Butler. In my memory, the ancient auditorium was so dim and musty it was black and white; even the rumpled Sarris was black and white, as if he stepped off the screen of the black and white movies he was showing. He’d introduce these films with erudite and sharply funny commentary, full of off-topic asides and snipes at his archnemesis, Pauline Kael.

Yet he made me realize that these assembly-line Hollywood movies were as important as the Euro art films that got all the critical attention. And the films were just wonderful, a treat to see on a big screen, — and included The Front Page, Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero, The Women and its ensemble cast of exclusively female actors and Howard Hawks’ Bringing up Baby, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. This was Hepburn’s first comedic role, and Grant played against type as a bumbling, tongue-tied, about-to-be-married professor. He was putting together a dinosaur at a museum when visiting socialite Hepburn takes a fancy to him, her dog steals the dino’s intercostal clavicle and they embark on the quintessential madcap comedy. I still laugh out loud every time I see it, and I’ve shown it countless times to friends and family. Sarris also screened To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The movie made such a strong impression on me that I used a picture of Bacall and her famous line about lips on the cover of the magazines I was editing almost 20 years later, Language Technology.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I enjoyed the shooting range in the basement of Ferris Booth. Yes, believe it or not, there was a shooting club at Columbia. Cool as that range was, that wasn’t my favorite place. The tunnels were cool too, and I enjoyed exploring that world where the heating and utilities ran between buildings. The first night of the 1968 occupation, who turned out the lights in Hamilton? But that wasn’t my favorite place, either. Neither was another place I hung around, the computing center next to Uris. Imagine a world where computers aren’t so ubiquitous that you have a supercomputer on your wrist — instead there was just one computer so big and expensive it needed its own underground bunker to protect it, was serviced by a priesthood who kept the riffraff from even touching it and that the only the way you could use it was to punch cards, deliver them to the priest and wait until the next day to see where the fault in your code was and why your program didn’t run. Cool, but again, not my favorite. No, my favorite place was the epitome of analog data: the stacks in Butler. I loved the old book smell, the muffled silence, the strangely intimate coziness. I loved to climb the narrow stairs that wouldn’t be out of place on a submarine, wander around the low-ceiling floors snapping on the lights to see the rows, pick a shelf at random and then sit on the surprisingly clean floor discovering the most amazing original stuff. I could spend hours in that womb of knowledge reading old journals about life in Chicago in the 1880s, or original copies of Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty or the diplomatic correspondence surrounding Italy’s entry in WWII.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

My time at Columbia was this kaleidoscope of new experience, supercharged by cultural upheaval, political provocations that spiraled out of control and terminated two of my eight semesters and the overhanging threat of a grinding war that threatened to grab you off the street and send you to a far-off jungle to kill or be a statistic on the evening news — if you lost your student deferment. The times were so intense that a fellow student and two other Weathermen accidentally blew themselves up while making bombs in a townhouse on West 11th Street, off Fifth Avenue. I guess what I’m saying is that the College experience I would do over is the one I never had: I would step through the Gates onto College Walk in the crisp, fall autumn of normal times, knowing what I know now about how special those hopeful, unhurried years of youth really are, and spend all my energy indulging my curiosity, discovering knowledge and people I would not have access to ever again. And basically ignore the rest of the world, because it will intrude soon enough.