Thanks to The Newspaper of Record, we now know that Web is boring; the Web has gotten old, and the frontier thrills of exploration and discovery have evaporated. Fortunately, no one told David Weinberger.
Weinberger's book Small Pieces, Loosely Joined proposes not only that the Web isn't boring, but that the excitement is only just beginning. We haven't missed the main event, only the previews of coming attractions.
He sees the promise of greater things yet to come in the ways that culture's engagement with the Web has already begun to influence the English language. He adopts seven key terms ("space," "time," "perfection," togetherness," "knowledge," "matter," and "hope") and illustrates the ways that their conventional usage might be seen to apply simply and directly to the Web. Then he goes further to show how these terms warp and crack with the torsion engendered by their roles in articulating Web experiences. After they have circulated online, these terms return to colloquial use with changed textures--space, perfection, hope, all signify very differently after their circulation on the Web.
Weinberger gracefully invites technological newcomers into the party. He has a gift for epigrammatic phrases, and regularly summarizes his exposition in memorable sound bites. He cites both familiar and less well-known examples of ways the Web has changed over its brief history, and of ways the Web has changed us. The heart of the book, however, lies in Weinberger's ardent affirmation of the positive possibilities that the Web opens for humanity. Without concealing the seamier dimensions of the Web, he urges readers to take up the opportunity to be better people in new ways, online.
Thus far one might construe the book--at the prompting of its title--as a new, improved theory of the Web. That would miss the point: Weinberger really hits his stride not as a pitchman for e-commerce or a disneyfied futurama, but as a reflective advocate for humanity. The subtitle might more appropriately suggest that Weinberger here offers a theory of how human beings may live more richly human lives in conjunction with the Web.
This mixed thematic impetus provides a great strength to the book. Weinberger writes with passion addressed to his readers' passions, in a way that distinguishes his work from "For Dummies" introductions or technological snake-oil pitches. Weinberger sings the opportunities that reside in the Web not with a self-interested voice, but as one who earnestly wants others to share the excitement he feels.
The mixed thematics also set Weinberger up to frustrate some readers. A book as ambitious as this one will evoke the hopes and passions of its readers, and will inevitably disappoint some. More technically-inclined readers, for instance, may wish for more detail in the discussions of the Web itself. Some readers interested in media theory may wish for fewer anecdotes and more analysis.
But this is not a book that should satisfy readers; on its own terms, the book ought to push its readers to think beyond what Weinberger himself suggests (the book, like the Web, is far from being "perfect," and is paradoxically stronger for that imperfection). This is part of Weinberger's subtle exposition of his theme. In composing a meditation on unfamiliar modes of human self-expression, Weinberger appeals to--and stimulates--our inclination to reach further than the limits of what we presently imagine. Small Pieces, Loosely Joined is not only an extraordinarily apt, lapidary description of the Web--it's the right book at the right time. We should read it appreciatively, in the hope that once we've caught up to where Weinberger leads us, he will again point out to us ways that these practices with which we've grown familiar begin to have decidedly unfamiliar effects on our lives and imaginations.