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The Cyber-World We've Created

Magazine article Information Today

The Cyber-World We've Created

Article excerpt

Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web by David Weinberger

Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002 ISBN: 0-7382-0543-5 223 pages $25

"The Web is a world we've made for one another," states author David Weinberger. This is the premise for his insightful new book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. The Web, he says, allows us to depart from current "real-world" rules of space, time, matter, and morality, and live by the rules we have collectively created to suit our own human inclinations and passions. Just as modern democracy was born out of the inequalities of the 18th-century social order, Weinberger claims that the Web's redeeming attributes emerge as a response to the alienating characteristics of life today.

We're all aware of the many ways that the Web has unalterably changed key industries such as publishing, retailing, and education. It will soon have similar impacts on manufacturing, healthcare, and government. In Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Weinberger asks deeper questions: How has the Web affected human beings? What kinds of people are Web inhabitants becoming as a result of participating online? How can we better understand the principles on which the Web operates-principles that seem vaguely familiar and comfortable but don't jibe with real-world rules?

This might seem like an unusual approach to be taken by a former software and marketing executive who was also the co-author of a successful Internet marketing book, The Cluetrain Manifesto. However, readers won't be at all surprised to learn that Weinberger has a Ph.D. in philosophical studies from the University of Toronto and spent the early part of his career as a college philosophy professor.

This book is a work of philosophy and social commentary, not a technical manual. It's a subtle, indirect critique of our mainstream culture, which in many ways does not measure up to the one that's emerging online. The author likens our society's relationship to the real world to that of an unhappy couple who stick together instead of exercising the less socially acceptable alternative.

Weinberger presumes some familiarity with "life" on the Web-i.e., the experience of interchange with others that's an essential part of life for those who conduct a good portion of their working day or personal relationships online. The person who uses the Web as a database to look up a fact or to market Web-based information services has only experienced a part of its potential. It's the human part, the interaction among people, that embodies the portion on which Weinberger's book focuses.

The work's title is a virtual metaphor for a patchwork quilt. The author would like us to envision the Web as an object fashioned out of many tiny documents that are linked by threads: of conversations, hyperlinks, and time. Weinberger says that it's a new kind of "fl-thing" with no matter involved-a creation of human intelligence.

The book illuminates some of what we already take for granted online and documents it anew. The nature of fame, individuality, manners, authoritative knowledge, trust, decision making, listening, and relevancy on the Web are among the intriguing topics the author explores. In the process, he touches on a wide range of writings, from those of ancient philosophers to modem scientific thinkers.

Weinberger sees the Web as an instrument for familiarizing ourselves with other human beings and their interests. …

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