Further adventures of Small Pieces

I finally finished reading Small Pieces
Loosely Joined
. It took me quite a while because I was also writing a review
of it for Boxes &Arrows, which should be coming out as soon as they finish gutting and revising it so that it
makes sense. This is a tough book to review in 1500 words, and I cranked out a
wheelbarrow full of other stuff I was trying to say that I ended up taking out.
So, as a supplement, I’m going ahead and putting this very long and winding post.

If you’re interested in more of what I liked and wondered about in the book, read
away. If you really don’t care, that’s fine, it’s the Web! You can click to someplace else.

A bit of personal background:

I first encountered Weinberger on April 27, 1998, while listening to NPR. His
topic was “Confessions
of a Quake Player

I myself was in a somewhat boring but easy job, one which afforded me lots
of free time to dabble in an obscene amount of bandwidth on the ‘Net. And I’d
found myself sucked into the “Quake Scene.” I couldn’t get enough of it. Between
Capture-the-Flag and Deathmatch, and especially with the addition of Rocket
Arena, Quake had an endless attraction for me. I started a clan called Wicked
. (The clan is still around, but is now barely recognizable to me. Though
the name and logo were of my design, and I still feel a certain parental pride
and sadness about it.) I learned programming so that I could create new mods
that combined various weapons and gameplay capabilities. I set up numerous servers
and tracked stats with code from the Netherlands. I set up a number of discussion
boards for all the players to hang out, compare strategies, talk smack. It was
a fully immersive community that reached far beyond just fragging each other
in the game. It ended up being the reason why I learned most of what I know
about the Internet, and still sets the bar pretty high for me in terms of what
community, collaboration and creativity can mean on the Internet. It was an
experience that forever proved to me that the Internet is a fundamentally different
kind of place than most of us have imagined.

But even in the game itself, there was something intoxicating, liberating,
and downright addictive about dwelling in another world like that. I remember
hopping onto a server at one point where a couple of others I’d often played
against were just running around the “map” (the game level) and seeing how fast
they could run a flag from one end to the other. I said “how long have you guys
been practicing today?” and one of them replied “We live here.”

But I’d been
feeling guilty and kind of alone; nobody else I knew in person did this as much
as I did. My friends would look at me with a puzzled expression, like I’d become
some kind of glue-sniffing hobo.

But that meant I had nobody else in meatspace to talk to about it, who understood
the rush, the complete envelopment and sense of dexterity, immortality, power
and most of all community that was available among the people playing this game.
(I confess, since my career became more interesting and demanding, I’ve not
even played Quake or any similar game for any significant length of time; but
for the year or so I had that job, it was my main incentive for learning anything
about the Internet.)

Then one afternoon during All Things Considered, I heard this guy in his 40s
who sounded very mature and intelligent talking about how, in spite of his pacifist
politics and personal meekness, he found himself powerfully drawn into this
netherworld. He talked about how silly it made him feel, but how it was just
too much fun, and too powerful of an experience to give up.

As Kant might say, I felt awakened from my dogmatic slumbers. Here was a thinking
person who NPR was willing to broadcast who was struggling with the same feelings
I was. So I wrote him and told him my own struggle with the addiction, and he
wrote me back saying, essentially, "Hey, please, you’re pratically a kid
compared to me. If you feel stupid playing it, imagine what I a loser am!"
I wasn’t sure how to take him at the time. But later, I discovered JOHO was
actually quite relevant to my work and the stuff I tend to obsess about, and
became a loyal reader and, at times, contributor (since Dave is good about mentioning
emails people have sent him, and even quotes them often in his newsletter).

Who knows, he may read this addendum. He may not. But his point of view has
meant a lot to me for most of my Internet career.

* * *

ÏThe kids who are posting reviews at Amazon÷are implicitly seeing the world
as a collection of people grouped by what they like to read. This is the opposite
of thinking about the world as land masses that group people through the tyranny
of distance.Ó 177

The way I take Weinberger’s statement about the kids on Amazon seeing the world
differently is that this doesnÌt mean weÌre headed for utopia, but it does mean
weÌll have generations that have very different assumptions about politics,
society and government.

* * *

Weinberger’s points about the persistence of all that’s said on the Web, and
how it’s like frozen conversations creating a massive work of literature, are
very much like what I’ve been thinking about the Internet for quite a while.
If, as Vico said, the world is compounded memory, then the ‘net is as much a
world as this one.

Here’s a strange image that comes to mind for me:

Imagine if all the conversations happening in the streets and cafes of New
York today were captured, written down, stowed away in a vast (though poorly
organized) library.

Then imagine that the next dayÌs conversations were also captured in this way,
but many of them reference the previous dayÌs conversations. Now imagine that
the vast library is in fact the very space around us. Words are thrown in the
air, and the shapes they make kind of stick there, writing arcs in the atmosphere,
and subsequent words intersect and riff on the words already there, while others
fly off in new directions on their own. Over time, some of them disappear, while
others shine more brightly than they did before, are imitated, their children
folding out into the sky, down alleyways, up elevator shafts.

* * *

Much like physics found itself having to describe light as both particle and
wave, we find ourselves having to rub words against each other to spark the
right ideas for grasping the Web. The idea of the document-building is intriguing:
on the Web, words are the stuff places are made of. Even though we know that
weÌre not actually ÏgoingÓ anywhere, our perception and language tell us otherwiseÛthat
weÌre travelling from one locale to another. Some of them are very shallow,
like the facades used on a movie set, and others are very deep, like the Louvre,
or the Black Forest.

It would follow, then, that we NOT make the mistake of leaning too far in either
the direction of document or building. Library Science can
easily fall into the document trap, as do advertising folk who think of it as
just another medium (much like documents, but more about broadcast and decoration).
Others tend to think of it as just a bunch of containers where people can arrange
the furniture however they want: it won’t work either because since the space
and air and everything is made out of the same stuff the container is about
(i.e. language), it doesn’t work the way things do when you have objects and
emptiness. Even emptiness is an object on the Web.

And yet the document-building metaphor doesnÌt quite grasp it still. ItÌs true
that on the level of individual sites and pages and in traveling between them
there is a sense of geography, of lived space as in a city. But the disconcerting
thing about the Web is that the whole thing shifts under our feet, changes from
day to day, seems to grow with an organic* logic all its own.

Cities change over time, sure, but we donÌt see the New York skyline rearrange
itself overnight, and we donÌt have to figure out how to use a new subway every
year or so because the previous one has become obsolete.

In this way the Web is like the the Escher-inspired stairwells of Harry PotterÌs
Hogwarts, or like looking out the window of the Millenium-Falcon and realizing
the nice stable cave in which youÌve sequestered yourself is in fact a giant,
roiling worm. Or to engage another famous geek metaphor, itÌs more bazaar than

It occurs to me that in this sense so much cyberspace fiction and speculative
imagination got it wrong. Which is ok because all speculation is finally wrong
in one way or another. But where we had trouble was imagining a massively shared
online environment that was so slippery and un-metaphorable (not a word, but
you get my drift.)

William GibsonÌs brilliant description of cyberspace in Neuromancer and Neal
StephensonÌs compelling vision of corporate intrigue in a similar avatar-populated
parallel world in Snow Crash was both great reading. But cyberspace isnÌt turning
out to be a three-dimensional ersatz world full of digital buildings and hallucinogenic
avatars. (Except for in notable massively-multiplayer online gaming environments,
which are a different subject.) The Web turns out to be both more mundane and
more strange than weÌd imagined. When we thought about the ultimate evolved
form of cyberspace, we couldnÌt help but imagine it as place with space, where
we couldnÌt totally immerse ourselves in it using electrode-covered bodysuits
and face visors (as seen in movies like Lawnmower
, Disclosure, or even

But anyone who has camped out on discussion boards, IRC or an AOL chatroom
for hours on end can tell you that all it takes is a blinking cursor and words
from other people to create an immersive experience. Even in the early 90’s,
in MUDs and MOOs, people were having to debate the ethics of what avatars did
to and with one another, since it was so powerfully affecting the ‘meatspace’
lives of their users.

More of my favorite quotations & paraphrases from Small Pieces Loosely Joined:

ÎÏEverything is in flux,Ó said the ancient Greek philospher Heraclitus. And
he said: ÏYou canÌt step in the same river twice.Ó ÷ In fact, Heraclitus identified
one elementÛfireÛas the underlying principle (Logos) of the world. 62

ÏFrom the beginning of recorded history, weÌve understood our situation in
the world through narrative. (Of course, without narrative there is no h istory,
so the previous sentence is necessarily true.Ó A story doesnÌt thread events
together like beads on a string; it instead keeps us in thrall by promising
us an ending that was there, hiding, in the beginning all along. Our time is
bound together by the stories we hear, tell, and tell to ourselves. A story
is an expression of how the world matters to us and thus interest, passion,
caringÛfireÛthread our time. Heraclitus was right.Ó 65

ÏBut it is not at all clear that our new distractedness represents a weakening
of our clutureÌs intellectual powers, a lack of focus, a diversion from the
important work that needs to be done, a disruption of our very important schedule.
Distraction may in stead represent our interest finally finding the type of
time that suits it best. ÷ Perhaps the Web isnÌt shortening our attention span.
Perhaps the world is just getting more interesting.Ó 69

ÏThe real stickiness on the Web isnÌt inconvenience but interest.Ó 55

ÏWhat holds the Web together isnÌt a carpet of rock but the worldÌs collective
passion.Ó (56)ÏIf we say the Web is self-organizing, itÌs crucial to recognize
that Ïself-organizingÓ does not imply that the Web is very organized at all.
It is not, for example, as consistent, predictable, or purposeful as a protozoan.
To say that the Web is organic is to underappreicate organisms÷ The Web works
because itÌs broken.Ó 82-83

Knowledge chapter: discusses difference between calculate and decide. WeÌre
not Ïpredictable machines made of matterÓ like computers; weÌre rather Ïwhat
we feel like to ourselves: an unpredictable disruption of the world of matter.Ó

Difference between computing and understanding. Understanding requires the
whole body, and all the sensory inputs that collectively represent the soup
of experience in which we swim. ÏWe experience the symbols in a way that bit-flipping
machinery cannot and we care about what we experience.Ó 137

Our idea of knowledge has shifted away from the Ïtruths of the bodyÓ and material,
bodily experience. But ironically the Web is reorienting us to understanding
knowledge as Ïtied to an individual, oriented by a particular viewpoint, rooted
in passion.Ó 139

ÏKnowledge isnÌt a body of truths stamped with a seal of justification. Knowledge
on the Web is a social activity. It is what happens when people say things that
matter to them, others reply, and a conversation ensues.Ó 140

ÏWe canÌt explain the pull of the Web if we view it simply as an online almanac
and gazetteer. What pulls us on is the sound of voices, like the sound of the
parties our parents used to throw that we listened to from the top of the stairs.
And, just as at a party we migrate towards those who are interesting and we
move away from the spouters of facts, on the Web we find those we enjoy hearing
from and conversing with.Ó 143

ÏThe story itself pulls us because we are fascinated by the way time can unfold
itself, the end finally revealed as present in the beginning.Ó145

ÏThe bodiless Web is fat with embodies knowledge that could only come from
the particular peopleÛsmart, wise, opinionated, funny, provocative, outrageous,
interestingly wrongÛto whom weÌre listening. Indeed thatÌs why weÌre listening.Ó

ÏThe Web is doing more than extending our bodies, however. Yes, like the telephone
and fax, itÌs extending our senses of hearing and sight. But itÌs also creating
a new, persistent public space where our extended bodies can go. The message
of the Web as a medium is this: Ultimately, matter doesnÌt matter. If we can
be together so successfully in a world that has no atoms, no space, no uniform
time ,no management, and no control, then maybe weÌve been wrong about what
matters in the real world in the first place.Ó 174

ÏHope is warranted. We should give in to it.Ó 174

ÏIt can take generations to transform our understanding of ourselves and our
world.Ó 175

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at andrewhinton.com.