Dave Weinberger brings new focus to how we see the Internet in “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”
“Small Pieces Loosely Joined” is touted on the cover as “A Unified Theory of the Web.”“The Web couldn’t have been built if everyone had to ask permission first.”
—David Weinberger But its author, David Weinberger, knows better. And he says as much in the book. It’s a unified theory, but not the kind you sum up in a tidy little equation. It’s unified in its single-mindedness to see the Internet with a certain lens, and to understand how the paradigms are shifting under our feet like tectonic plates, imperceptibly perhaps, but enough to change the fabric of the world we live in.
Dave Weinberger gets around. His earlier careers have included being a philosophy professor, a consultant, and a marketing executive. He has a regular commentary broadcast on NPR; he co-wrote the hugely popular book The Cluetrain Manifesto, and he has articles and speaking engagements all over the place. His surreptitiously published ‘zine known as JOHO (the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization) is widely read and quoted by loads of neterati. And he recently joined the denizens of Blogistan with his own weblog at JOHO the Blog. (For the nitty gritty on DW’s life and times, check his Bio page.)
If you’ve read Cluetrain (and if you haven’t, shame on you!), you’re familiar with Weinberger’s sardonic wit and talent for boiling challenging ideas down into pithy metaphors. There’s plenty of that on display here. But as a departure from Cluetrain, the book is less focused on the practicalities of business, and is more a treatise on how the Internet and all massively shared internetworked environments (for the book, conflated to the common term “the Web”) are changing us as social beings.
As for whether or not to read Small Pieces, I’ll cut to the chase: if you think you’re an architect of anything vaguely Internet-related, you should read this book.
There are a number of reasons why “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” is significant for information architects and experience designers of all stripes: it helps us understand how the Web is about more than just information retrieval and ecommerce. It reminds us why most of us got excited about the Web in the first place and tries to renew hope about its value in our lives.
Along the way, the book draws from influences as diverse as Heidegger, theology, and quantum physics to make convincing arguments about the nature of reality on the Web, as well as the nature of knowledge, time, and community. Of course, nobody could expect an encyclopedic treatment of these issues in just under 200 pages. And although Small Pieces makes a valiant effort, its purpose isn’t to bring all these ideas full circle. It’s a spark to reignite a long dormant conversation about what’s really important about the Web.
+ + +
Weinberger starts out by acknowledging the current malaise we seem to feel about the Internet, but he assures us that “the hype about the Web hasn’t been unwarranted, only misdirected.” (p. xii) He wants us to reposition ourselves, clear our heads of preconceptions, and take a new look at the Web, saying “Suppose—just suppose—that the Web is a new world that we’re just beginning to inhabit.” (p. 8)
But trying to describe the Web in accurate language turns out to be quite a challenge. For one thing, it throws all our metaphors out of whack. For another, it is chock full of paradoxes that confuse everything we’ve learned about the world since we emerged as a species.
For example, the Web is perceived as having space, yet it doesn’t have any. It allows people to interact as massive groups, yet each participant retains a fine degree of control over their individuality. It is perhaps the greatest engineering marvel on a massive scale the world has seen, but it has happened with no centralized management or control.
Weinberger explains how the metaphors of “document” and “building” become conflated (or even mutated) into a single concept on the Web, saying “with normal documents, we read them, file them, throw them out, or send them to someone else. We do not go to them. We don’t visit them. Web documents are different. They’re places on the Web. … They’re there. With this phrase, space—or something like it—has entered the picture.” (p. 39) But this space isn’t measured by inches or miles. “On the Web, nearness is created by interest.” (p. 49) In this place, the closest distance between two points is measured by relevance.
Weinberger promotes the idea that the Web’s value doesn’t come so much from being a huge database of facts and figures as from being an unprecedented environment of collective human experience. The distinction is between conversation and reference: what compels us to really sink ourselves into the Web isn’t the data but the “sound of voices.” (p. 143)
In a very fundamental way, “the Web is a social place” (p. 166) where we can be “part of the largest public ever assembled and still maintain our individual faces.” (p. 177) This environment has written language as its DNA, and its pages are “social acts, written with others in mind.” (p. 165)
The words we find on the Web are the fabric of a new kind of world. While language has always been the stuff of world-making, from Gilgamesh to Tolkien, what’s different this time is that the Web is so massively and simultaneously experienced—by 300 million people and climbing.
And it is the peculiar, flawed, rough-hewn authenticity of human voices that make this new place so palpable. Weinberger has a whole chapter on Perfection for this reason. “Imperfection is our shibboleth on the Web, the sign by which we know we’re talking with another human being.” (p. 94) It is organized out of chaos, and splendidly unmanaged. Weinberger cheekily points out, “The Web couldn’t have been built if everyone had to ask permission first.” (p. 53) The imperfection of the Web is its great merit, a symptom of its authenticity and humanity.
Another paradox arises from the kind of humanity we experience on the Web. It is both massively public and highly individualized. It teaches what it might mean to “replace the faceless masses with face-ful masses.” (p. 100) The Web has begun to change how we think of being public and having fame.
Being public has changed in part because of the new way people experience one another online, and because that experience is tied so closely with words and conversations. “Although elements of real-world conversations appear in threaded discussions, there is nothing quite like threaded discussions in the real world.” (p. 110) Because the Web allows for the persistence of conversation threads beyond the moment of their utterance, and because it allows for people to transcend the limitations of their physical social surroundings, one person can have a loyal following as an expert or particularly brilliant and witty commentator on a remote, esoteric topic. Forever twisting Warhol’s quip beyond all recognition, Weinberger says, “On the Web, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” (p. 104)
For that matter, someone with a rare disease can have meaningful community with others who share their ailment, no matter how geographically distant. Ethnic minorities in distant countries (who are lucky enough to have Web access) can commiserate and communicate about their lives. Families can feel more immediately connected than the occasional paper letter allows. These are all things that didn’t exist before this global network arrived, and they have become so taken for granted that we miss the phenomenal changes that have resulted. One change, Weinberger argues, is that the Web has actually returned us to a more community-based way of relating to one another.
Weinberger isn’t much on rugged individualism. His point: It is in its ability to connect us to and with others (both connections between people and hyperlinks between information, one being essentially an outward manifestation of the other) that the Web is valuable to us. Individuals are of course necessary for this to happen, but “Groups are the heart of the Web.” (p. 105) Weinberger blames everyone from Descartes to Sartre for getting us into our solipsistic funk (“To a solipsist, the Web is the most irrelevant contraption ever invented.” (p. 182)), and credits the Web with being a source of hope for getting us out again. He believes we are “at our best when we acknowledge our deep attachment to the others of our world.” (p. 182)
In our jobs as designers of shared information environments, should we keep in mind that the Web has a moral dimension? After all, what we are designing and creating are places for people to live, work, and play together. Even the most mundane standalone business application can have resounding implications for how an organization’s employees interact with one another and their customers. Think of how much more powerful its effects can be when it’s a networked application that connects those people’s ideas, decisions, and daily work so profoundly.
True, some of Weinberger’s statements of sweeping optimism seem, at first glance, naïve. But Weinberger grounds his sentiment in some fairly rigorous rationale. To be honest, the book isn’t a hard-core philosophical dissertation, but that’s a good thing. Small Pieces isn’t for tweed-encrusted academics—it’s for the somewhat educated masses. This book is like its subject, the Web. It’s an amalgam of ideas and obsessions, observations and perceptions that the author is releasing upon the public, hoping others will take these ideas and run with them. Whether Weinberger is right or wrong is beside the point (and I’d guess he would agree). The point is that these ideas not be ignored, and that we consider them in our lives and work; that we continue the conversation.
|Andrew Hinton an Internet obsessive since 1989, is a senior information architect at The Vanguard Group in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.