copyright © 2002 David Weinberger
In late 1993, one of the programmers at the software company where I was VP of strategic marketing called me into his office. "You have to see this," he said, pointing to his computer screen, standing as I sat, drumming his fingers anxiously on his thighs. There was an ugly gray document in an ugly window labeled "Mosaic." In the middle of the ugly black text was a phrase, underlined and in bright blue. "It's a link," my friend said. He clicked on it, and a new document took its place. The document might as well have been titled "Your Company's New Product Is Doomed." I rounded up as many other members of the management team as I could find and brought them in to see what I had seen, and watched the blood drain from their faces as it undoubtedly had from mine.
It's not that we were shocked by the idea of links. Quite the contrary. We had recently launched a product that let users publish their documents on line and embed links in them. Plus, our software had capabilities far beyond that of Mosaic. As we stared at the programmer's screen, we reminded ourselves of those differences: publishers could control the layout of the page, could embed graphics of many sorts, and could use multiple columns. We also had a powerful set of tools for creating the documents in the first place, automatically building hyperlinked indexes and tables of contents. So, this little Mosaic viewer wasn't a real threat. Oh, it was nice enough toy, but the big time corporations we were dealing with — aircraft manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, multinationals that practically had their own governments — wouldn't be satisfied with such a dinky little piece of software.
Thus did denial set in. That dinky browser, the progenitor of Netscape, may have lacked the bells and whistles of our software, but it had something from the start that our software would never have: openness. With our software, a publisher could embed a link from one document to another, but the publisher had to own both documents. That's fine if you're putting together a set of aircraft maintenance manuals and you want to make all the cross references active, so that clicking on one brings up the page to which it's referring. But those links had to be compiled into the system. Once the document was published, no more links could be added except by re-compiling the document. And, most important, the only people who could add new links were those working for the publisher. If you were an aircraft mechanic who had discovered some better ways to clean a fuel line, you had no way to publish your page with our system and no way to link it to the appropriate page in the official manual.
The Web, on the other hand, breaks the traditional publishing model. The old model is about control: a team works on a document, is responsible for its content and format, and releases it to the public when it's been certified as done. Once it's published, no one can change it except the original publisher. The Web ditches that model, with all its advantages as well as its drawbacks, and says instead, "You have something to say? Say it. You want to respond to something that's been said? Say it and link to it. You think something is interesting? Link to it from your home page. And you never have to ask anyone's permission." Then it adds: "And how long will it take to do this? I dunno. How fast do you type?" By removing the central control points, the Web enabled a self-organizing, self-stimulated growth of contents and links on a scale the world has literally never before experienced.
The result is a loose federation of documents — many small pieces loosely joined. But in what has turned out to be simply the first cultural artifact and institution the Web has subtly subverted, the interior structure of documents has changed, not just the way they are connected to one another. The Web has blown documents apart. It treats tightly bound volumes like a collection of ideas — none longer than can fit on a single screen — that the reader can consult in the order she or he wants, regardless of the author's intentions. It makes links beyond the document's covers an integral part of every document. What once was literally a tightly-bound entity has been ripped into pieces and thrown into the air.
What the Web has done to documents it is doing to just about every institution it touches. The Web isn't primarily about replacing atoms with bits so that we can, for example, shop on line or make our supply chains more efficient. The Web isn't even simply empowering groups, such as consumers, that have traditionally had the short end of the stick. Rather, the Web is changing our understanding of what puts things together in the first place. We live in a world that works well if the pieces are stable and have predictable effects on one another. We think of complex institutions and organizations as being like well-oiled machines that work reliably and almost serenely so long as their subordinate pieces perform their designated tasks. Then we go on the Web, and the pieces are so loosely joined that frequently the links don't work; all too often we get the message (to put it palindromically) "404! Page gap! 404!" But, that's ok because the Web gets its value not from the smoothness of its overall operation but from its abundance of small nuggets that point to more small nuggets. And, most important, the Web is binding not just pages but us human beings in new ways. We are the true "small pieces" of the Web, and we are loosely joining ourselves in ways that we're still inventing.
So now you know where this book's title comes from. The subtitle is a different issue. The "unified theory of the Web" it promises is quite similar to the unified theory of physics from which I derived its name—but only in that both are non-existent.
I toyed with maintaining that my unified theory of the Web is that the Web consists of many small pieces loosely joined. But this would have put it in the same category as Ann Elk's Theory of the Brontosaurus as explained in a Monty Python sketch. After much ahem-ing, John Cleese, as Ms. Elk, pronounces her theory1:
While "The Web consists of many small pieces loosely joined" may be only slightly more helpful than Ann Elk's contribution, this book does suggest a way of thinking about the Web that, although not as rigorous as a unified theory, that will I hope help drive the conversation deeper. I'm one of those who believes that we can only be individuals because we are members of groups. Our families, our communities, and our culture make us what we are. And once we are what we are, we are still unthinkable outside the groups with whom we live; maroon us on a desert isle, and we'll form an association with a volley ball if we have to. So if a new infrastructure comes along that allows us to connect with everyone else on the planet and to invent new types of connections, this is big news indeed.
Even so, the conversation needs to take one step more. Our social connections until now have almost all been constrained by geography and atoms: the real world. These constraints feel natural to us because that's exactly what they are. They're so natural that they're usually invisible: It's inconspicuously true that we generally have to travel longer to get to places that are farther away; that to be heard at the back of the theatre you have to speak louder; that when a couple moves apart, their relationship changes; that if I give you something I don't still have it; that our presence in the world is continuous from birth until death. Our every social act implicitly conforms itself to the geographic and material facts of the real world. But the Web is an unnatural world, one we have built for ourselves. The facts of nature drop out of the Web. And so we can see reflected in the Web just how much of our sociality is due not to the nature of the real world but to the nature of ourselves. The Web confronts us with a different sort of brute fact: we are creatures who care about ourselves and the world we share with others; we live within a context of meaning; the world is richer with meaning than we can imagine.
The Web gives us an opportunity to re-think many of our presuppositions about our nature and our world's nature. Only by so doing can we begin to discern why the Web has excited us far beyond reasonable expectation. The hype about the Web hasn't been unwarranted, only misdirected. The conversation I believe we need to have is about what the Web is showing us about ourselves. What is true to our nature and what only looked that way because it was a response to a world that was, until now, the only one we had?
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1 Surely Monty Python owns the rights to the Ann Elk sketch.