SEEKING FUTURES; PROFIT ISSUES

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The biggest impression left by the newsstand this week is that Brand 2000 is near the height of its marketing appeal. In a couple of days, it will begin taking on the stench of decay, but right now practically everyone is selling a piece of it.

Easily more than two dozen magazines have emblazoned the big oh-oh on their covers. A handful have incorporated it into their names, and a couple shout out "Sex 2000," as if something momentous is about to change. For a bunch of them, it's the formulaic "best (fill in blank) for (current year plus one)," but others take the big-picture approach to the future.

Wired goes all out with broad assessments of what's to come (see last week's Literary Life), and Technology Review makes a couple of stops in the same neighborhood, but of course that's where it lives.

This month, a hot topic in the MIT-published review is nanotechnology. Columnist G. Pascal Zachary decries what he sees as hype around the notion that individual molecules can be harnessed to act in concert, thereby replacing digital computing. To him, it's a "Big Lie." About 20 pages later, TR adds to the hype, in its sober, MIT way, in an article about nanomedicine, in which "minuscule `smart bombs' [may one day] find cancer cells, kill them with the help of lasers, and report the kills."

The past, not the future, is the subject of M. Mitchell Waldrop's "Computing's Johnny Appleseed." It recalls J.C.R. Licklider, the forgotten MIT mind who "laid the foundations for time-sharing, point- and-click interfaces, graphics and the Internet - virtually all of modern computing."

And then, back to the future, there's Shift (January-February), a newcomer from Toronto with an attitude and some interesting offerings, including a plant that grows plastic, and the implications for sex of "incredibly lifelike artificial flesh."

Shift's big focus begins with the assumption that the future has arrived, and the editors want to know what happened to it. "Where are the robotic maids [the most famous one, Rosie of `The Jetsons,' is on the cover] and flying cars? Who stole the future?" the lead headline asks.

It's a reasonable time to ask the question, since many visions were pointed toward now, but Richard Longley's response is more rumination than answer. He reminds us that it is "the journey, not the arrival, that matters," and concludes: "We will continue to shape the future - not necessarily the future we want or the future we expect, but the future that will just happen."

Also in Shift is a brief profile of Dave Eggers, the Boston-born Next Big Star of the Internet. (That he also garners mention in Yahoo! Internet Life's "100 Best Sites for 2000" seems to bolster the suggestion that his celebrity is on the boil.) Eggers is the brain, and spirit, behind Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, an "ingenious and quirky (if obscure) literary journal," and its Internet counterpart, Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency (http:// www.mcsweeneys.net).

Eggers edited at Esquire for a while, until he became stifled by the mundanity of it all, and judging from Internet Tendency, mundanity is to Eggers the most unpardonable sin. The site has no links, no ads, no artifice. Its stories, says writer Laurie Sandell, "appear indiscriminately and change without notice," a tendency that seems to delight the "post everything" crowd: It registers 3,000 hits a day. Eggers's vision: "It will never have a point, it will never make a dime, and that's what makes it fun."

Back in the magazine mainstream, the quest for profit, and the boundaries that quest seems to be trampling, are the targets of "Self-Serving Synergy," Tim Dickinson's offering in Mother Jones (January-February). He identifies five new magazines - Momentum (Mercedes-Benz), Joe (Starbucks), Unlimited ("presented by Marlboro"), Space (Ikea), and Sony Style (guess) - whose publishers are not so much publishers as they are commercial entities seeking to extend their brand imprint. Dickinson makes his case with an amusing chart, and it's most telling when it points out the questionable ethics evident in each magazine.

If all such magazines came clearly marked as corporate shills - at least Sony is upfront about it - that would deal with the most obvious problem such magazines present, that they erode the credibility of all publications. But of course they'd never do that; they're trying to pass. And besides, there is no black-and-white here; even brand-driven house organs often mix in interesting, untainted articles.

The aforementioned Yahoo! Internet Life clearly is trading off the success of the Internet portal, yet it is quick to proclaim its editorial independence, saying that the cyber and print entities are linked only through a "licensing partnership." So suppose that's so. What about the readers who miss that small-type declaration? When they get to the Top 100 list and find three different Yahoo! sites, what are they supposed to think?

Even for those of us who did see the disclaimer, the stains of cynicism and doubt are inescapable and seem all but certain to flourish as the future unfolds.