I’m not sure where to begin with Small Pieces Loosely Joined.
Maybe with my regrets. My biggest regret is that it took me so long pick it up and read it. And I had no excuse, Beltzner had been trying to get me to read it for months. I now understand why.
Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture took me into new territory by introducing me to the dangers and important issues confronting our emerging online world. In contrast, Small Pieces Loosely Joined did the opposite, it was a homecoming, a book that explained to me things I intuitively knew or felt, but in a manner that expanded my understanding and appreciation. It’s as though the author, David Weinberger, took me on a tour of my own home, a place I knew intimately, and explained to me its history, the reason and method of its construction, its impact on my life and its significance to my community. Suddenly, the meaning of a thing I use and live in everyday was expanded in ways that were consistent with what I already knew, but didn’t. Wienberger accomplishes all this, but in talking about the internet.
Weinberger achieves this by outlining how our sense of time, space, knowledge and matter is shaped by the online experience. Initially, the book could be mistaken as a more sophisticated Wikinomics, but as each concept builds on the other, the book becomes an increasingly philosophical and thoughtful treatise. Indeed, unlike Wikinomics, which anyone can scream through like a normal business book, Small Pieces took longer to read than anticipated because I wanted (and needed) to slow down and play with its ideas.
Indeed, you can see how so many ideas connect with this book. From The Naked Corporation (Weinberger’s discusses how our desire for authenticity drives form on the internet), to The Wisdom of Crowds to The Long Tail, this book is essential reading to those interesting in understanding of our emerging new world, one overlaid with an internet. Even I was caught in the vortex. For example, I recently wrote a post on the emerging trust economy (all while pitching in my two cents on Keen). I knew the ideas weren’t completely novel, but there was Weinberger, filling in the holes of my thoughts, outlining why we keep going back to the internet even though it is filled with so much disinformation (unlike FOX, CNN, or CBS or any corporate brochures that preceded the internet). Weinberger recognizes that:
…we don’t process information the way philosophers or computer programmers expect us to. We don’t use a systematic set of steps for evaluating what should be believed. Instead, we do on the web we do in the real world: we listen to the context, allow ourselves to be guided by details that we think embody the whole, and decide how much of what this person says were going to believe.
It’s not perfect. But then, neither are we.
But even without all that perfection, we still managed to create this amazing thing called the internet. This is singularly significant accomplishment and one Weinberger believes we must celebrate. And he’s right. At almost no time in history have we built something that is, and can become still more, broad and representative. And it is important that we remember the values that made it possible. A culture of freedom.
…consider how we would’ve gone about building the Web had we deliberately set out to do so. Generating the billions of pages on the web, all interlinked, would have required a mobilization on the order of world war. Because complexity requires management, we would have planned it, budgeted it, managed it,… and we would have failed miserably… We’d have editors pouring through those pages, authenticating them, vetting them for scandalous and pornographic material, classifying them, and obtaining signoff and permissions to avoid the inevitable lawsuits. Yet we — all of us — have built the global web without a single person with a business card that says “manager, WWW.”
Our biggest joint undertaking as a species is working out splendidly, but not only because we forgot to apply the theory that has guided us ever since determines were built. Whether we’ve thought about it explicitly or not, we all tacitly recognize — it’s part of the Web’s common sense — that what’s on the Web was put there without permission. We know that we can go where we want on the web without permission. The sense of freedom on the web is palpable. The web is profoundly permission free and management free, and we all know it.
More recently, Weinberger has emerged as a champion of the internet, probably most famously for taking on Andrew Keen in a now famous debate whose transcript can be read on the WSJ. His book explains the knowledge and understanding that allows Weinberger to be optimistic in the face of people like Keen. Indeed this book serves as a map to what has become Weinberger’s larger thesis – that the internet is not just a human project, but a humanizing project.
The Web is a social place. It is built page by page by people alone in groups of that other people can read those pages. It is an expression of points of view is diversion as human beings. In almost every case, what’s written is either explicitly or implicitly a view of how the world looks; the Web is a multimillion-part refraction of the world. Most of all, at the center of the web is human passion. We build each page because we care about something, whether we are telling other shoppers that a Maytag wasn’t as reliable as the ads promise, giving tips on how to build a faster racer for a soap box derby, arguing that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax, or even ripping off strangers.
What we see when we look into the internet is ourselves.
Increasingly, understanding humanity will require understanding the internet, and Weinberger’s book is a good departure point for that education.