Small Pieces, Big Thoughts

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.

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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.

About the book:
For more information:
Andrew Hinton an Internet obsessive since 1989, is a senior information architect at The Vanguard Group in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Posted in Book Reviews, Reviews | 7 Comments »

7 Comments

  • mantruc

    August 13, 2002 at 11:47 am

    Thanks Andrew for the review. I’m running to buy the book.

    I’ve always been fascinated by this same subject (did my thesis studying how the Internet changed the lives of their users), and I agree on most of the ideas you’ve described: I really belive this web will help us change the way we relate, and I’m also a strong beliver thet the real power ot this web is communicating people.

  • Andrew Hinton

    August 26, 2002 at 7:25 am

    Thanks. And sorry for taking forever to comment back!
    It is indeed a terrific book. And deceptively friendly, because its ideas are extremely challenging.

    As a reminder, I wanted to mention again that a bunch of stuff I was thinking about on this book didn’t make it into the review, but I posted it at my own blog here:http://www.memekitchen.com/mtarchive/000016.html.

    I think, excepting my message here, that this review has generated a record low of comments on any article at Boxes and Arrows. Do I get a prize?

  • John Paul Fullerton

    August 28, 2002 at 11:37 am

    Andrew, thank you for the excellent review.

    Commenting about the theme of permission–I thought Tim Berners-Lee said that permission-free participation in the WWW simplified its building.

  • Andrew Hinton

    September 12, 2002 at 7:52 am

    Sorry for the belated response… my computer has been wandering the land of the dead for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve resuscitated it just long enough to squeeze a few breaths out of its zombielike carcass.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if TB-L said that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I imagine it was one of his presuppositions upon hacking together the www. Being able to link to other people’s research & publication without having to go through a stifling hierarchy was definitely on his mind.

    I think Weinberger takes this a little further, connecting it to bigger existential questions of what it means to be human and a social creature. But the sentiments on permission are very similar.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Andrei Herasimchuk

    December 25, 2003 at 10:14 pm

    Please say it isn’t true… that spammers are now trolling blogs and auto-adding comments and posting to blogs…

    The end of the world is nigh.

  • frank_piper

    December 26, 2003 at 1:38 pm

    Shame on you Mr. Spammer. And just before Christmas… this wasn’t very nice from you. Here at B[and]A the whole site and the people are both so cool… I never understood what’s the use of abusing others with such junk.

    :-(…

    Merry Christmas to the fellow readers anyway!

  • christina

    December 28, 2003 at 8:31 am

    sadly it’s true: spammers are trolling blogs and MT is particularly susceptible. I’ve just deleted the one above. We’ll be looking into solutions, for now we use MT-blacklist.
    http://www.jayallen.org/projects/mt-blacklist/
    But even then it’s hard to keep up– i worry about the future of blog-comments.

Sorry, comments are closed.