Evangelizing the Everyday Web

Evangelizing the Everyday Web

2003-03-20
Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web
David Weinberger
238 pages; cloth, $25.00; paper, $16.50

Scott Rettberg appreciates Weinberg’s small pieces more than his ‘unified theory,’ while viewing the Internet not as an economic panacea but a communication medium woven into the fabric of contemporary culture.

In a move that calls to mind the marketing bluster of Internet-boom dot-coms, the subtitle of David Weinberger’s book promises something that the book itself doesn’t deliver. As the author himself says in the introduction, the idea that Web consists of many small pieces loosely joined begs more appropriate comparison to Ann Elk’s “Theory of the Brontosaurus” expounded in a Monty Python sketch (“All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end”) than it does to a unified field theory yearned for by physicists. No matter - if the observations of Web culture that NPR All Things Considered commentator, Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization editor, and longtime new economy cheerleader Weinberger presents here don’t quite add up to a theory, they do represent a refreshing turn away from the I-told-you-so accounts of the burnt-out flim-flam-economy that came hot on the heels of the swaggering and hyperinflated reinventing-the-universe rhetoric of the bubble years. Although Weinberger is clearly an optimistic utopian whose claims that the Internet has changed our relationship to space, time, matter, and each other outreach their grasp, his boosterism is not focused exclusively on the Web as an engine of economic progress, but instead on the network as a communication medium that is affecting quotidian life in the wired world.

As the global network loses the sheen of its newness and shakes off the hucksters who were out to make a quick billion or two, the kinds of observations that Weinberger makes here become more and more relevant. The Internet is not an economic panacea but a communication medium that has woven itself into the fabric of contemporary culture with unprecedented speed. Now that more libraries have Internet access than have the OED, now that mobile phones come with Web browsers installed, now that your grandmother is more likely to send you an e-mail than a batch of chocolate chip cookies, perhaps it’s time to start asking questions, not about how fat the Web will make our wallets, but about what the Web is doing to us as people, about how the World Wide Web is modifying in ways great and small our experience of the world. “The conversation I believe we need to have,” Weinberger writes in his preface, “is about what the Web is showing us about ourselves.”

Weinberger’s observations are packaged in eight chapters, titled: “A New World,” “Space,” “Time,” “Perfection,” “Togetherness,” “Knowledge,” “Matter,” and “Hope.” Within these chapters, the reader will find an odd mix of pop culture, philosophy, cultural study, and marketing-speak. Weinberger’s fragments tend to be more epigrammatic and anecdotal than systematic and analytical. Weinberger is part amateur philosopher, part amateur sociologist, part motivational speaker (his jacket bio reveals that the pundit makes part of his living by giving “talks around the world on what the Web is doing to business”). He clearly has a hyperlinked mind, which, within the span of a few pages, can leap from the case of Michael Ian Campbell, a teenager who terrified a girl from Columbine High School in a chat room by implying that he intended to “finish what begun” (sic), to the experience of shopping for quilts on e-Bay, to the story of Tom Alciere, a New Hampshire state legislator who was elected before anyone noticed that his homepage advocated that citizens “waste as many cops as possible before you die.” Weinberger prances deftly from anecdote to anecdote within the loose confines of each chapter’s topic.

The book’s assertion that “the Web is changing bedrock concepts such as space, time, perfection, social interaction, knowledge, matter, and morality” is often overstated - as when Weinberger closes the chapter “Togetherness” by proclaiming that the Web reinforces the idea that ” not only do we live in a shared world, but we like it that way ” (Weinberger’s italics), and that this idea could be the basis of building “a new destiny for your species.” While the examples Weinberger provides earlier in the chapter - of the way that e-mail lists transformed his experience of 9/11 and have made it easier for interested scholars to discuss Emily Dickinson, or how Amazon.com groups have enabled consumers to find recommendations of books, movies, and films from people “like them” - powerfully illustrate that the Web is enabling the formation of new kinds of interest-communities unbound by geographical limitations, it seems to me that those interest-communities haven’t made a great deal of progress on the destiny of our species. As is the case in many of the book’s chapters, Weinberger makes some interesting and relevant observations before spinning off into evangelistic hyperbole. Some of Weinberger’s conclusions - that the Web’s “brokenness” is part of the reason why it works so well, that the distractedness of Web users may simply represent “the Web’s enabling our interest to find its own rhythm” - ring true, while others - such as the notion that “the new world of the Web is thoroughly and inalienably ours” - leap yards over the top.

I would recommend reading Small Pieces Loosely Joined neither for its more ambitious pronouncements nor its occasionally awkward application of pre-Socratic and Continental philosophy to Web business models, but because it aggregates many stories of the small ways in which the Web is changing small pieces of our lives (at least on the side of the digital divide where Internet access is widespread), from the way we shop for cars to the way we practice politics. The book is more grist for the mill than it is unified theory. Pieces of the book seem like the beginnings of a theory–such as Weinberger’s apt conception of the Web as “place-tial” rather than “spatial” - but it doesn’t really matter that those pieces don’t cohere. Readers looking for a unified theory of the Web won’t find it here. The reading experience of Small Pieces Loosely Joined is more like spending an afternoon with a witty radio commentator who has spent a great deal of time collecting newspaper clippings recounting various oddities of Web experience, and who has begun to see patterns within those stories, than it is like digging into the work of a serious theorist. Small Pieces Loosely Joined is more the beginning of a conversation than a thorough explanation. The book is well written, a light and fast read. You may come away from the experience feeling that Weinberger’s views both of human nature and the power of technology tend towards the Pollyannaish, but you won’t feel that you’ve wasted your time.