Small Pieces Loosely Joined:
{a unified theory of the web}

David Weinberger

Perseus Books 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
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".

September 2002

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Related reviews:
- David Weinberger - The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual
- books about the Internet
- books about philosophy
%T Small Pieces Loosely Joined
%S {a unified theory of the web}
%A Weinberger, David
%I Perseus Books
%D 2002
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN 0738205435
%P xii,223pp