With ninety-five theses that redefined online markets and their prospective web consumers, The Cluetrain Manifesto (Perseus Books, 2000) dropped a virtual bomb on the virtual world. David Weinberger was one of its four authors. Therein he stated, “The web is viral. It infects everything it touches and, because it is an airborne virus, it infects some things it doesn’t. The web has become the new corporate infrastructure, in the form of intranets, turning massive corporate hierarchical systems into collections of many small pieces loosely joining themselves unpredictably.” With his new book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined (Perseus Books, 2002), Weinberger expounds on this idea. With insight and authority, he claims — among other things — that the web hasn’t been hyped enough.
Roy Christopher: Can you give our readers a brief overview of your new book Small Pieces Loosely Joined?
David Weinberger: Small Pieces tries to get at why the internet has sent such a charge through our culture. After all, from one point of view, it’s just a hunk of wires and silicon. Where does the exuberant part of “irrational exuberance” come from? The book treats the web the way we treat something like democracy; when we want to understand democracy, we look at how it affected a set of interrelated ideas, such as law, authority, citizenship, equality, and liberty. Likewise, Small Pieces looks at how the web is affecting the building-block concepts of the real world, including morality, time, space, perfection, knowledge, self, groups, and even matter.
RC: The subtitle of this book (“A Unified Theory of the Web”) is decidedly misleading. Can you explain your use of this phrase?
DW: I liked the play between the dishevelment of the title and the tidiness of the subtitle. Either taken by itself is misleading, but the two together I hope are not: The book does attempt to say some coherent things about the effect of the web’s chaos on our day-to-day self-understanding.
RC: In the face of the boom and bust of web business, as well as the litany of online scandals (and the media coverage thereof), some might laugh at your claim that the web hasn’t been hyped enough. How would you defend this idea?
DW: The book says that the web has absolutely been overhyped for the wrong reasons and not hyped enough for the right reasons. The notion that it’s going to make everyone a millionaire is and always was ridiculous. But the web ultimately isn’t about business. It’s about human connection. Humans are nothing without connection. Change the way we are together, and you change who we are. That’s what hasn’t been hyped enough.
RC: You maintain that our attraction to the web is directly proportional to our feeling of alienation as a culture. What do you feel is causing this alienation in the first place?
DW: What isn’t? You could answer this question from every field of human study, from economics to psychology to politics. In the book, I look at it in terms of the concepts we use for understanding ourselves and our world. We have, in the West, 2,500 years of thought about time, space, and self that for lots of reasons has accepted dualism — the idea that there are two worlds, one mental and one physical, and we have to figure out how the mental could ever get an accurate representation of the physical. Further, we assume that the physical world is the “real” world. These ideas are the root of a lot of the alienation that Small Pieces discusses.
RC: You draw on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger in your writing. Do you feel he’s the most applicable, or are there any other philosophers whose work you feel would help us to understand what’s going on with the web’s infiltration into our culture?
DW: Heidegger is especially important to the book because of two of his insights. First, his way of exposing the failure of dualism is rooted in a clear-eyed and simple view of experience, not in theory. We’re on the web not because we care about some philosophical theory, but because of the quality of the experience. It’s fun. Second, he constantly goes back to time as at the root of our understanding of the world. The web, as a virtual world, can’t be understood through matter, so time becomes more important — time and connection.
RC: The Cluetrain Manifesto seems like a book for “the average workaday type” disguised as a business/marketing book. Is this a fair assessment?
DW: Definitely. We wrote it as a manifesto because manifestos hearten one’s comrades. And I feel safe in speaking for my three co-authors when I say that we viewed Cluetrain as a way of talking about the effect of the web by taking business as our sustained example. But the same sorts of things are happening to just about every social institution.
RC: Cluetrain claims that the web changes everything about business, where other self-proclaimed “experts” maintain that it changes nothing. What do you say to would-be detractors?
DW: Pistols at dawn! The web is challenging just about everything about business, from its business models to its ideas about what competition means. For example, businesses have defined themselves over the past century based on control over information, and they have used the selective release of information as the main way they control their markets, employees, partners, and competitors. On the web, however, customers turn out to be the best source of information. Further, employees go home and have no compunction about going out on the web and talking straight, forgetting there’s supposed to be a wall there. This gets at the very definition of a business.
RC: Do you have any other projects that I missed that you’d like to bring up here?
DW: Just: Give us this day our daily weblog! There are a couple of revolutions happening right now in the weblogging world. Social writing and idea development — true joint authorship in a truly distributed way. The development of highly voiced centers of knowledge that will twist the org chart around new axes. Grassroots person-to-person journalism that substitutes multiple viewpoints for the pretense of objectivity.
We’re only at the beginning of the web journey.