13 July 2007

Coming (5 Years) Late to the Party

Some thoughts on Small Pieces Loosely Joined (David Weinberger, 2002), most of which have probably already been voiced elsewhere, some of which are probably gross mis-characterizations.

1. My first thought, upon completing the book, was "Myeah." My thought upon thinking that was, "How strange. Seems like I found some interesting ideas to chew on while reading. Why such a noncommittal reaction?"

2. Most compelling: how the web reconfigures and re-imagines space and time. Least compelling: how the web forces us to rethink knowledge. Somewhere in between: perfection, togetherness, hope. Weirdest bit: matter.

3. Weinberger points out that whereas in "real life" we can claim we don't want to be forced into community, that community is a byproduct of geographic accidents, on the Web we cannot reasonably make that claim, because the Web exists on a strictly voluntary basis. So the Web shows false those who doubt the premise that humans long for community and relationship. While I happen to agree that humans need community, and indeed agree with Weinberger that without relationships humans become something other than human, I am not convinced that the Web reveals this as truth because not everyone, even in the alienated West, wants to participate in the Web, and even if everyone wanted to, many (most?) participation seems to me to be largely a consumer/customer/client-to-business model. The vast majority of what I do online is shopping and information gathering of a sort not considerably different from that of listening to NPR, reading the Truth, or watching BBC World or ABC News. Perhaps my sources are more varied, but I hardly think that shopping and information gathering indicate some deep desire for community (one could argue, I suppose, that watching the news does indicate deep desire for community, but I'm dubious for the time being). Only recently did I start a blog, and even that was mostly to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe I'll find my voice and discover that I was in fact yearning for new strangers to become friends. These things happen.

A related note: community online is a little strange. In the physical world, adding additional people into a community, even as silent observers, changes the nature of the community. Our bodies matter for community. Online, silent observers change nothing. Right? What kind of community is that, anyway? How is that different from newscasts?

4. The most interesting and troubling idea in the book is that whereas other technologies can be thought of merely as extensions of the human body (the keyboard is an extension of the hand), the Web is not merely an extension of consciousness, but a representation (experiment) of what sort of world we would create were we no longer bound by space, time, and body. Weinberger should pursue this further. He seems willing to stop with disembodied, atemporal (or, perhaps, para-temporal), a-spatial (what's the word I meant to use there?) entities communing with each other. It seems to me, though, that MMORPGs and other virtual worlds (and, yes, they existed in 2002 when Small Pieces was written), wherein people choose Avatars to represent them so they can wander around a spatially-bound (though physically different) world with friends who are logged in simultaneously challenges the notion that the Web Weinberger sketches is somehow what our true selves are like, and that that is somehow different than we are without the Web. Or maybe we're simply using MMORPGs to retreat into the familiar instead of continuing to flit along in a non-embodied sort of way. But that, too, reveals something of our nature.

In short, I may argue that MMORPGs demonstrate that, far from wanting to escape the confinement of space, time, and body, like some Gnostic of old, we yearn for more contact in precisely those areas. This is where I may well be misreading Weinberger -- he certainly does talk about our wanting to overcome our alienation from ourselves, and it may be that my claim is not so far from his as I thought when I started typing this paragraph.

All that said, I'll probably read Everything is Miscellaneous. But next up, an even older (gasp!) book: Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart (Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L O'Day, 1999)


John David said...

Ewww. How is a photo of a nasty 'ol toe an homage to me? Were you naked when you took it?

BMG said...

Not fully. But I'm glad you understand the reference.

John David said...

It took a while. The initial disgust clouded my deductive endeavors.