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<nettime> Book Review - Small Pieces Loosely Joined
Danny Yee on Tue, 15 Oct 2002 11:43:42 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Book Review - Small Pieces Loosely Joined

 Small Pieces Loosely Joined
 - {a unified theory of the web}
 David Weinberger 
 Perseus Publishing 2002
 223 pages, notes, index
 A book review by Danny Yee

In _The Cluetrain Manifesto_ Weinberger and his co-authors looked at
how the Net is changing relationships between businesses and customers.
In _Small Pieces Loosely Joined_, he broadens his scope to the Net
more generally, to how it is changing not just our communications and
interactions but even aspects of our understanding and perception of
the world.  Running against the grain, he argues that the Web is "not
hyped enough".

The Web is spatial, made up of places, but without having a measure
or being a container.  (Weingberger manages to avoid the "cyberspace"
word.)  Web conversations are asynchronous, made up of loosely interwoven
threads between which we flit easily.  The Web is unmanaged, permanently
"under construction", and in that respect closer to human nature than
"the anal-perfectionism imposed on so much of our real-world lives".
The Web is a social space, much of it constructed by voluntary
aggregation at a scale where individuals remain distinct.  And the
Web has produced new kinds of knowledge and new kinds of authorities.
(This bald summary of the first two thirds of _Small Pieces_ does little
justice to Weinberger's explorations, but they are too discursive and
chatty to be easily compacted.)

Some people will find Weinberger's approach annoying.  He spends a fair
bit of time explaining background material -- how instant messaging works,
what a mailing list is, etc. -- and he makes some simplifications -- he
conflates the "Web" with "the Internet", for example, as is explained in
the first footnote.  He also presents ideas through largely anecdotal case
studies, with even technical material often explained through bio-sketches
of famous people -- want to understand what the Internet does?  let's go
ask network engineer Scott Bradner -- which gives _Small Pieces_ a kind of
"documentary" feel to it.  The approach is a far cry from academically
rigorous social psychology, but Weinberger's arguments mostly jell with
my intuitions and I have no doubt they could stand closer scrutiny.
And though there's little that's novel in _Small Pieces_, even the
"digerati" are likely to find a few provoking ideas in it -- I did --
and it's a uniquely readable and accessible survey of the topic.

In the final third of _Small Pieces_, however, I think Weinberger loses
the plot.  He attempts more than anyone should try to do in sixty
pages: an introduction to epistemology and the philosophy of mind,
along with a sweeping attack on what he calls "default philosophy",
in which he includes individualism, realism, and relativism as well as
functionalist theories of mind.  Some of this is just too shallow: for
example he says that many of the 28 replies accompanying Searle's original
Chinese Room paper "got Searle's point dead wrong", but otherwise ignores
criticisms of that paper, or of Searle.  And he ends up espousing a
kind of dualism, which is then used as a metaphor, with the relationship
between the Web and the underlying Internet described as "pineal-like"
after Descartes' favourite organ.  

Right or wrong, most of the philosophy Weinberger deploys is just
irrelevant to what he has to say about the Web or, where it might
be relevant, not followed up.  Andy Clark's emphasis on the role of
"external scaffolding" in our comprehension of the world, for example,
could have led to consideration of the differences between basic chat
and MUDs with an external fabric, or between archived and unarchived
mailing lists.  Still, if Weinberger inspires a few people to read
Clark's _Being There_ or Hofstadter and Dennett's _The Mind's I_ with
these excursions, that will be a worthy achievement.

Disclaimer: there is a certain circularity involved in my reviewing _Small
Pieces Loosely Joined_, since I am one of three people Weinberger uses
as examples of "web authorities".


%T	Small Pieces Loosely Joined
%S	{a unified theory of the web}
%A	Weinberger, David
%I	Perseus Books
%C	Cambridge, MA
%D	2002
%O	hardcover, notes, index
%G	ISBN 0-7382-0543-5
%P	xii,223pp
%W	http://www.smallpieces.com/
%K	Internet, philosophy

25 September 2002

        Copyright (c) 2002 Danny Yee       http://danny.oz.au/
        Danny Yee's Book Reviews      http://dannyreviews.com/

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