Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Thu 13 Mar 03 13:56
David Weinberger, co-author of "The Cluetrain Manifesto" and author of "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," has been making some more noise around the Web this week. Heck, he's been slashdotted twice in five days, once for an article (World of Ends, co-written with Doc Searls) that tries to set the record straight about what the Internet is and isn't, and again for an article in Salon about David Reed's views on "the myth of interference." David came to the Internet and to the software industry in the mid '80s after having taught philosophy for six years. That outlook, plus his 25+ years as a journalist, seems to color his outlook. "Small Pieces," for example, tries to take seriously the Web's effect on the set of ideas central to our understanding of ourselves and our world. But David is also known as a funny writer. (Give him a couple of beers and he'll tell you about the seven years he wrote gags for Woody Allen's comic strip.) Leading the conversation with David is our own Jon Lebkowsky. Jon has been soaking in network culture and virtual community since 1990. He's served as community host/moderator for The WELL, Electric Minds, and HotWired. He has written technoculture articles and essays for Whole Earth Magazine, The Austin Chronicle, 21C, Factsheet Five, Mondo 2000, Mindjack, Wired Magazine and other publications, and was the "consciousness" sub-domain editor of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, and editor/publisher of Fringe Ware Review and Unshaved Truths. As co-founder and former CEO of FringeWare, Inc., he was a pioneer in electronic commerce and its relationship to online community. An Internet activist, he was involved in initiatives of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, among others. He was twice President of EFF-Austin, and is a member of The Internet Society, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Association for Community Networking, and the Project Management Institute. He served as Online Community Director for WholeFoods.com and Web Technology Director for WholePeople.com. Jon is co-founder and CEO of Austin-based Polycot Consulting L.L.C., a company that provides web consulting and development services. He just coordinated the revival of EFF-Austin, where he again serves as president. His weblog, Weblogsky, is at http://www.weblogsky.com. Welcome to Inkwell.vue, David, I know you and Jon have a lot to talk about!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 13 Mar 03 14:52
Hello, David! Thanks for agreeing to spend some time with us. I want to start with the question I recall that you asked at the beginning of your talk at South by Southwest in Austin a few days ago, which was deceptively simple: What's the web for?
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Thu 13 Mar 03 16:49
In one sense, it's a trick question: you could ask "What are computers for?" and be equally stymied. But in another, I think it's worth raising because the answers are more varied than for most other technologies. The Internet has something to do with connecting us, but beyond that, I find it hard to come up with a single answer that works. I think that's one reason why the Internet sometimes feels like a natural resource to mes. "What's the ocean for?" I dunno, what do you want to do with it? Or maybe it's like: "What are groups for?" To care about things together. After all, the connections we make on the Web aren't physical. They're expressions of what we are willing to care about with others.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 13 Mar 03 17:10
So, for you, the web is really a social, rather than technical, phenomenon?
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Thu 13 Mar 03 19:09
This should be a softball question, but I actually find it hard, for two reasons. First, I'm interested in their intersection: how the social reflects the technical. Second, I'm most interested in how our (social) experience of the Web affects our ideas. For example, you could investigate democracy by looking at the sociology of democracies or the history of their development. You could even put hanging chads into evidence bags. But you could also investigate democracy as an idea, which would mean thinking about how it affected our ideas about freedom, authority, citizenship, liberty, etc. I'm most interested in the Web as an idea...although I'm still not entirely sure what I mean by that.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 14 Mar 03 07:34
Is that what you've done in _Small Pieces Loosely Joined_? It strikes me as an exploration of the web as an idea, but a three dimensional hologram of an idea, which is a little different depending on the perspective you take when you look at it.
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Fri 14 Mar 03 08:39
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Fri 14 Mar 03 09:29
I think that "3D hologram" is your kind way of saying "not rigorous." And "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" is definitely not rigorous. It isn't an argument with evidence and proof. If only. The book was provoked by a single question: Since the Web is so weird, why are we responding to it so deeply? (Those who think that the Web is merely a good tool or a commercial opportunity think Small Pieces is insanely irrelevant.) The answer the book comes to is: We've developed a "default philosophy" that is out of whack with how we actually experience the world, and the Web reminds us of the truth about what it means to be human in a shared world. It's embarrassing to believe that. But I do.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 14 Mar 03 10:10
Can you say more about "what it means to be human in a shared world"? I know you have some good concrete examples...
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Fri 14 Mar 03 10:36
"Living in a shared world" has become my locution -- one-person jargon -- for "being alive" or "being conscious." I prefer "living in a shared world" because it immediately brings in the two terms that too often get forgotten in our default philosophy: we can only be individual, conscious humans because we live in the context that is the world, and we always (always!) understand that world as one that we share with others. And so my naive Heideggerianism begins! :) The two points implicit in the phrase "shared world" are explicit in our participation in the Web: the web is a rich, messy context that only matters because it's shared. In this, it is a better reflection of what it means to be human than is our default philosophy that tells us that we are primarily individuals and primarily apart from the world. (Did you say something about "concrete examples"? Hah!)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 14 Mar 03 12:09
<scribbled by jonl Fri 14 Mar 03 12:41>
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 14 Mar 03 12:46
It would've made more sense if I'd asked for "examples where the web reveals that truth"... So what happens when we get into this "profoundly unmanaged" set of nodes and connections, and we rebuild our world on a technology that "takes traditional command and control structures and busts them up into many small pieces that then loosely join themselves..." (crucial phrases from the book). It seems "messy," as you say... Why are do so many people find this "messy" way of doing things so compelling?
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Fri 14 Mar 03 13:04
Aha! My fault. I owe you a big D'oh, Jon! I think we find it compelling because it better reflects reality. Life is messy, despite all our efforts to clean it up. Big chunks of our day are spent in denial about the randomness and messiness of life, from businesses that mistake measurement for the measured, to governments that have careful contingency plans for everything except what actually happens. We go on the Web and we can speak in our own voice about the things that matter to us. We can group together in ways that the group themselves develop. The accretions of extraneous structure and control and professional tones that we accept because they're comforting dissolve, at least for a while. Oddly, the bit-mediated chaos of the Web feels more real than the placidity of much of RW lives.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 14 Mar 03 13:31
Which is a marked contrast to the perception of the web by people who don't spend time there, I think. How do you explain this to people who think that computers and the Internet are isolating and alienating those who use them?
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Fri 14 Mar 03 14:17
(Loose joints are better than none at all? There's a serious "compared to what?" issue there -- and I say this as someone who has asked the same sort of question, Jon.) Great to have you here, David. Terribly interesting book, tightly argued or no. My copy of the book is at home, so I can't do chapter and verse (Jon's just got it memorized, I bet), but I wonder -- in light of what you say about the Web as shared world -- why you think we don't have that same sense of our lives in physical space?
Eleanor Parker (wellelp) Fri 14 Mar 03 14:21
Hello, David. I greatly enjoyed your book because it helped me make sense of what I've experienced online, in my case, mainly here on the Well.This is my only VC, and it took a while to understand the connections and ebbs and flows. But you put all the interactions in a perspective I can understand. And you did it with with grace and humor. Pretty cool!
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Fri 14 Mar 03 15:15
Eleanor, thanks so much. That's great to hear. Bruce, you know that tired old rap about patriarchal Western philosophy, rationalism, pin it on Descartes, etc.? I believe all that. What's interesting to me is the way that our beliefs about who we are and what the world is don't reflect the way we actually live in the real world. I think we escape (somewhat) those inappropriate, alienating beliefs on the Web for two basic reasons: First, the Web is new so we get to start fresh. Second, it's harder to make some of the old mistakes on the Web because the of the ways the Web is different from the RW. For example, our "default philosophy" says that the RW consists of matter that is essentially meaningless and indifferent to us. That's pretty alienating. But there is no matter on the Web, just words and pictures and songs. That's the "matter" of the Web and it clearly isn't meaningless and indifferent the way dirt is. That's why the Web feels familiar, even in its multitudinous weirdnesses. It reminds us of the truth that our default philosophy masks.
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Fri 14 Mar 03 15:23
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Fri 14 Mar 03 15:46
Jon (#13), it's hard to explain the draw of the Web so many of us feel to someone who does not. I can tell them that I know far more people, that I have "efriends" who I expect to keep for the rest of my life, that circles of friends form who care about one another as much as RW friends do. But then I also have to say that the friendships are different: they're intermittent, topical and verbal. This gets heard as "Oh, they're more frequent but shallower," as if the Internet allows only promiscuity. It doesn't feel to me like I've taken my allotment of Friendship Energy (FE) and have merely spread it more thinly. It feels like I care more about more people than I did before. As anyone who has had more than one child knows, the principle of the conservation of energy just doesn't apply to friendship. Why, it might even be a case of an Entropy Gradient Reversal! [Cue the really bad country-western ditty: "The Conservation of Love."]
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 14 Mar 03 16:34
I'd like to know more about some of your other projects. Actually, I know something about the cluetrain because I took the ride (signatory in '99)... how did you fall in with that particular set of companions? How did the cluetrain manifesto come about? (For those of you who don't know about the cluetrain manifesto, see http://www.cluetrain.com/).
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Fri 14 Mar 03 17:34
I had known Chris "RageBoy" Locke for about 10 years; he was already the official Scourge of JOHO, my newsletter. A year earlier or so he'd e-introduced me to Doc Searls. The three of us struck up a conversation about how pissed we were about the media's consistent portrayal of the Web as being about business. We talked for a few weeks via email and phone, and then Chris wrote a draft of the site incorporating the various themes. Chris brought Rick Levine around this time. A few days later, a literary agent wrote and said he thought there might be a book in this. We liked this guy a lot, and not just because he was talking about a big paycheck; he's since become a good friend of mine. So, we wrote up what may be the world's worst book proposal, and he held a book auction. The book ended up being nothing like the proposal. The four of us have only all been in the same room twice: once at the beginning of the summer when we wrote the book and again at the end of that summer when were finishing it. I'm afraid to re-read it.
Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 14 Mar 03 18:05
I think maybe the big thing about the Web as opposed to real life is that there's no nature on the Web--it's all mediated. It's like the greatest *medium* ever devised, and there's no landscape or ecosystem or plants or animals in it, or anything not touched by human hands. It's all human, and for me it exercises mental muscles that I can avoid using otherwise.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 15 Mar 03 05:30
In Cluetrain you asked the question that you still seem to be considering - "what's the web for?" You talk about the web's promise of a voice, and I see that in the proliferation of weblogs in the kind of creative online vacuum we saw after the web-as-business bubble burst. How do weblogs relate to your thinking about the web? (Or should I say "what are weblogs for?")
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Sat 15 Mar 03 05:41
Andrew, yes, I think that is one of the crucial facts: there is no nature on the Web, so we know that everything we encounter was created on purpose by another human for some reason. We can't make the mistake of thinking that what it _is_ is somehow separate from what it _means_. This is true of all human artifacts, of course. But what makes the Web different, IMO, is that it's not a medium so much as a world. It's more like a work of fiction in this regard than it is like a medium. (Note: Of course much of the content of the Web isn't generated directly by humans but by computers. But even then we understand that behind the autocontent is human intention.)
David Weinberger (dweinberger) Sat 15 Mar 03 05:53
Jon (#22), I think that the opportunity to speak in our own voices about what matters to us is one of the big draws of the Web. But the history of weblogs is illustrative of why it's not just about voice. They started as an annotated log of where some nethead surfed today. Then, when you didn't have to know html to write one and weblogs first started hitting public awareness, they were often dismissed as the pimply self-expression of teenagers and other self-absorbed egotists, yada yada. But these days, a weblog that isn't in fact a conversation with other weblogs doesn't feel much like a weblog. In other words, we went from "How much web could a weblog log if a weblog could log webs?" to Peter Merholz's "we-blog."
Andrew Alden (alden) Sat 15 Mar 03 13:59
Just as a corollary: in dreams, everything we perceive is the product of our own imagination. So the Web is like dreaming in that respect. And it's easy to forget most of what you see there, too...
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