Phil Gyford


Wednesday 7 April 2004

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

I never expect much from net-related books, assuming I’ll have heard it all before elsewhere. But I was pleasantly surprised: packed full of interesting thoughts that have made even jaded me look at things differently.


xi Our social connections have been constrained by the real world - geography and atoms. The net is an artificial world which lets us see how much of our sociality is due to the nature of ourselves and not the nature of the real world.

A New World

12-13 People being fired for sending inappropriate email. Is email a letter or a conversation? Public or private?

21-22 In our culture we tend to believe that “Bad things aren’t part of ‘the deal’.” We expect fixes or compensation.

22 Hoover Dam as “emblematic example” of the power of traditional management.

23-5 In the real world we play by rules that limit surprises. We strive for perfection. We know how things are expected to work. The web changes concepts of space, time, perfection, social interaction, knowledge, matter and morality.


32 Lived space is full of affordances (eg, a chair affords us the possibility of sitting) and (Heidegger) the ready-to-hand.

35 The semantics of the web are spatial. We travel through it.

39 The web has created a strange mixture of documents and buildings. We go to them, we vandalise them. They’re there. We “go to stores”, not “read catalogues”.

44 We don’t mind travelling to things in the real world, because we have to (eg, supermarkets putting milk at back of store), but that doesn’t work online - we won’t travel/click far.

44 Real world space contains things within it. But web space is created by the things in it.

45 Distance online is created by links - some things convenient if lots of people link to it. One big site can’t crowd out others like it could in the real world.

50 The web has no outside. It has places but no space. Only literature and movies come close to this.

52 Everything on the web is made - no nature. Because it’s human-made it has a moral dimension.

54 Companies try to replicate real-world space - stickiness. Inconvenience.


60-2 Time is threaded online - chat room conversations; multiple IM windows at once; going back and forth to websites rather than queueing; etc.

66 Online our interests control us, not vice versa. Everything is there and we flit according to our whims. Online conversations are easily threaded and interrupted.

68 “Web, free of the drag of space and free of a permission-based social structure, unsticks our interests. The threads of our attention come unglued and are rejoined with a much the inner paste.”

68 The web has a persistence that enables threads to persist. “Carries its history with it.”

69 Time on the web is more like hand writing, rather than a threads disappearing past Now.


76 Berners-Lee: “The web will always be a little bit broken.”

71-94 Web is imperfect. It breaks. It’s varied. People say what they like.


101-104 On the web fame is local.

104 “Everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” Web fame is more intimate and personal.

105 But the web isn’t the famous and their fans - the web is about groups.

109 Groups online are free of geography and temporal restrictions. Can “meet” all the time.

112 IRL you’re either in a group or you’re not. Online you can also lurk. Different to turning up IRL and not saying anything.

112 NYT crossword forum - has a convention whereby people post answers in white text - select it to reveal answer.

115-7 Balancing needs of the individual to speak and the mass to make sense of so many speakers.

119 What makes us human isn’t sharing space, but sharing interests, groups, sociability.


126 The age of the web is correcting the age of computers.

128 People have assumed good decisions result from good input. But this is how we calculate not decide. A tough decision is often because we have too much info, often inconsistent. Making a decision involves deciding which info sources to value and making a coherent story. The story provides a context in which the inputs make sense. Therefore the causality was backwards: inputs don’t determine the decision; the decision determines which inputs will count as influences.

129 Quest for nature of knowledge began with Greeks. Plato: knowledge is “justified true belief”.

130 What is justification? Three phases:

130 Phase 1: Philosophy: Search for certainty. “I think, therefore I am.”

131 Phase 2: Science: “Describes a world based on evidence and free of personal biases.” This was dealt two blows: Watson’s The Double Helix portrayed scientists as “ambitious, competitive schemers”. Kuhn showed that what counts as a fact to a scientist depends on the current paradigm.

133-4 Phase 3: Computers: Kurzweil - we are software. One day our brains can be ported to more robust hardware. Hofstadter, A Conversation with Einstein’s Brain. Aims to convince us a book containing the state of Einstein’s brain is Einstein. Weinberger says it works the other way - the book obviously isn’t Einstein. It’s not conscious.

135 Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’.

136-7 We’re conscious because we’re a certain kind of organism or a certain kind of brain. Representing the state of a brain doesn’t create a thinking mind. Andrew Clark, Being There. Brain learns by making connections, not pure calculation (eg, catching a frisbee). For abstract and logical thinking we rely on ‘external scaffolding’, eg, paper and pen to do complex maths, shopping list to remember many items. ie, “Our knowledge itself is inseparable from the things of the world that we use to help us think and the body that enables us to use those things.” We are not just computers. We experience and we care.

141 On the web and IRL we use context to judge whether to believe something or not. We don’t just process information like a computer.

143 Relevancy is contextual. But we’re also drawn to things that we find entertaining / interesting / funny, even if less relevant.

145 The knowledge worth listening to comes from bodies.

[Great chapter, weak conclusion.]


166 “The web is a social place that we humans constructed voluntarily out of a passion to show how the world looks to us. The real world is that which is apart from us … Our passion for the Web is in a sense, our passion for passion itself.”

169 Our default realism says relationships are less real than the people involved. But this causality is backwards. Change my relationships and you change me.

170 On the web nothing is “apart” from us, or independent of us.

[Not sure the point of that chapter.]


174 We adopt technology that changes the way we think. McLuhan: This happens because technologies are an extension of our bodies (external scaffolding again). But the web is also creating a new space our extended bodies can go to. If we can be together so successfully in this unreal place maybe we’ve been wrong about what matters in the real world.

180 On the web we can ignore the distractions our real life experiences have made us become used to. The web “shows us more purely the truths of our human experience.” “A culture’s excitement about the web is directly proportional to that culture’s alienation from its everyday experience.” “The web is a return to the values that have been with us from the beginning.”

181-2 The web frees us from individualism, realism / materialism, relativism and solipsism.

183 “The moral sway of the geeks waned precisely when having an email address that ended in ‘’ lost its stigma.”

188-191 Our moral reasoning is based on our intuitions (our default philosophy), not on principles.

193-4 Our web selves are more authentic.

195 “In fact, it’s not quite true to say that we’re sharing the new world of the Web because we want to. We’re sharing the new world of the Web because that’s the type of creature we are. We are sympathetic, thus moral. We are caring, thus social. These facts are easy to miss in the real world where we can blame space and geography for our involvement with others. On the Web we have no one to blame but ourselves.”

196 The web is fundamentally ours.

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