Small Pieces Loosely Joined, by David Weinberger (Perseus, 2002)

Something about David Weinberger’s writing style really makes me want to use the word “avuncular.” I’m not sure why — his writing is not particularly uncle-like — but there is something about his friendly, down-to-earth, thoughtful-chat-by-the-fireside-with-a-glass-of-brandy-in-hand manner that makes me want to use the word, however inappropriately. So: Avuncular. There it is.

With that out of the way, I can move on to say that Weinberger’s book is indeed a thoughtful and thought-provoking attempt to assess the impact of the Web (or the Internet; Weinberger deliberately conflates the terms) on how we live, experience time and space, relate to one another, and know things. In other words it’s more philosophy than business book, and thank god for that. But this isn’t abstruse, eggheady stuff. While Weinberger cites such heavy-duty philosophers as Hegel and Heidegger, his own writing is always clear, understandable, and sprinkled liberally with concrete and often humorous examples. That’s a virtue. In this way it’s very similar in tone to another fine book of popular philosophy, Socrates Cafe, by Christopher Phillips (Norton, 2001).

Weinberger somehow manages to be incredibly optimistic about the future of the Web and its impact on human experience without sounding breathless. That’s a good thing. His insights into the Web’s spatiality and temporality are sharp, and shed new light on what it means to be online.

W. overstates the case a bit when he argues that the Web exalts imperfection over perfection and that it disparages professionalism. I’m not sure that’s true, because a big part of what I use the Web for is simply information retrieval. Within that sphere, accuracy and professionalism rule. It’s the other sphere, of interpersonal interaction, that interests W. more, and he rhapsodizes about the Web’s glorification of personal foibles, imperfections, rants, and raves. He’s right to focus on that but it’s not the whole story.

The thread gets a little more mixed up when W. tackles the subject of “knowledge,” however. He rightly cites a long tradition of thought that emphasizes the importance of our bodies in cognition, but then also makes the somewhat contradictory argument that the Web gets its power from disembodiment, somehow. “Matter drops out and we’re left with ourselves and nothing else,” he writes on p. 191 — a statement that’s hard to reconcile with the statements he made earlier about the body-ness of thought and personality.

In all, though, I’m impressed by this book’s understated wisdom and I commend Weinberger for having written it. It’s not easy to sell a book that gives thoughtful, reasoned consideration to a complex topic — especially a topic that, to many publishers, is as good as dead. Unlike many other writers, Weinberger doesn’t grind any particular ideological axe, nor does he have a strident or controversial message to sell. Instead, he has written something that helps us think about the Internet — no small feat.