Small Pieces Logo

Chapter 1

copyright 2002, David Weinberger When Michael Ian Campbell used an online alias, no one was suspicious. After all, choosing a name by which you'll be known on the Web is a requirement for using America Online. Known as "Soup81" to his AOL buddies, the eighteen-year-old Campbell was considered a polite, even kind young man in the Florida town where he lived with his mother. At the end of 1999, he had finished his first semester at a community college and was working in a retail store during the day; at night, he pursued his dream by acting in plays at the Cape Coral Cultural theatre. On December 15, he and millions of others were using America Online's "instant messaging" facility to type messages back and forth to their friends old and new. Instant messaging opens a window on your computer where the letters being typed by your conversant show up as they're being typed--even the effect of the Delete key is eerily evident--although that person can be thousands of miles away. Indeed, Soup81 was chatting with sixteen-year-old Erin Walton in Colorado, someone he had never met before. He did know something about her though: eight months earlier, a pair of teenagers had killed thirteen people at Walton's high school, Columbine, in Littleton, international fulfillment center Colorado.

After some initial chitchat, he typed a warning onto Walton's screen. Don't go to school the next day, his message said, because "I need to finish what begun [sic] and if you do contact the college [go to school] I don't want your blood on my hands."

When Walton, understandably shaken, alerted the Columbine school officials, they closed the school for two days and postponed exams. Three days later, the FBI got a court order in Denver forcing AOL to reveal the person behind name "Soup81." The agents moved in quickly, questioning Campbell for ninety minutes and taking custody of his computer. A judge ordered Campbell to remain in the county jail without bail until his hearing a few days later. [i]

Campbell's mother blamed this aberrant behavior on the death of Campbell's father a month earlier. Campbell's lawyer, Ellis Rubin, made up a type of insanity--"Internet intoxication"--to excuse it. But Michael Campbell expounded a different explanation. On The Today Show a few days later, seemingly trying to puzzle out his own behavior, he said that he, as a dedicated actor, was trying on a role. He was seeing what it would be like to be his favorite actor, John Malkovich.

"Internet intoxication" makes about as much sense as the "Twinkie defense" --Dan White's supposed claim that junk food threw off his moral judgment [ii] --but it at least acknowledges that something about the Internet contributed to this event. At the very least, had Campbell met Walton in person, his "channeling" of Malkovich would probably have come off as nothing more than a celebrity impression. The Internet let Soup81 assume a persona and become someone that Michael Ian Campbell isn't. In fact, Soup81 didn't usually go around threatening people online; this seems to have been an toll free isolated incident. Although Soup81's actions on December 15, 1999 were atypical of the tens of millions of chats held everyday, it is not at all unusual on the Web for someone to "try on" a personality and to switch personalities from chat room to chat room; behavior that would cause your family to canadian pharmacy meds world plot an intervention off the Web is the norm on the Web. The very basics of what it means to have a self-identity through time, an "inner" consistency, a core character from which all else springs--are in question on the Web. [iii]

Michael Campbell is, of course, an exception, which is why he got onto The Today Show while the other 300-400 million users of the Web did not. And that's why he served four months in a Florida jail as part of a plea bargain that also forbade him from using the Internet for three years. Fortunately, Campbell's story is not typical. But, even the everyday world of the Web is more alien than it at first seems. Take something as ordinary as visiting eBay. For example, I recently visited eBay after deciding that a quilt would make a perfect--or at least safe--housewarming present for a friend moving into his first house.

I type "quilt" into the page's search field. In about one from canada second (I have a cable modem) eBay shows me a page with the first 50 of 8,179 items for sale with the word "quilt" in their title, including books about quilts, fabric for making quilts, quilt designs, and quilt stencils. Daunted by the 164 pages of listings, I search again, this time for "homemade quilt" and narrow it down to 16. That seems so few that I reconsider my search query and realize that I probably should search for "handmade" quilts, not "homemade" mail order ones. Sure enough, I now find 248 items, listed according to which auctions are going to be over first. "Stunning Handmade Quilt w/Brilliant Colors" is closing in 2 hours 25 minutes; its opening bid of $159 has attracted no takers. Too expensive for me, and apparently also for people who know more than I do about quilts. "NEW HANDMADE SMALL COLORFUL QUILT" closes three hours after that; four bidders have pushed the price to $26.09. The picture is small but the explanatory text has a homey touch:

This quilt measures 56x72 and is very colorful. This quilt is new and will last a lifetime. This would be a perfect fathers day gift, or perfect on back of couch. Please e-mail me with any questions. Shipping will be 5.00. Thank you for looking.

Although the eBay page is formulaic, there's no prescription pharmacy enough context for me to make some tentative judgments. The amateurish prose and layout of the page leads me to assume that the seller isn't fulltime in the quilt business. But she seems not to have made the quilt herself because there's no mention of how long it took her and no story about why she made it and why she's now giving it up. Maybe this was a housewarming gift she herself wants to pass on. Could I be wrong about her? Definitely. But in this case it doesn't matter since this one is too far under the $75 I want to pay for this gift. I may be passing up the bargain of the century, but, as a naive quilt buyer I have to trust the pricing judgments of the other bidders. I go back to the listing of auctions.

Before I can investigate any more offerings, my ten-year-old son slams the door and yells up a cheery "Hey-lo!" and I am distracted for the next couple of hours. It's shortly before dinner when I go back to eBay. On page three is an auction for a red and white quilt currently at $66. The picture shows a pattern that I think my friend may like. It can even be construed as a series of Jewish stars if you catch it at the right angle, which my friend will get a kick out of. The text says:

This is a beautiful quilt made by my Great Aunt. It is in excellent condition. The colors are beautiful. It measures 89 x 72. Buyer pays $10 shipping and insurance.

The page tells me that the starting price for the piece was $40 and four people have bid on it so far. This is getting interesting. So, I click on the rating next to the seller's name. eBay takes me to a page of comments from people who have done business with her. Four people have rated her, all have rated her excellent, and each has written a one-line comment praising her to the skies. But I've bought from eBay before and I know how this works: after the sale, the seller and buyer each get to write a brief evaluation. Anything less than lavish praise is taken as a veiled criticism. Grade inflation has hit eBay.

I didn't win that auction. And although my interactions with eBay were very simple, they were based on assumptions that are quite different from my real world assumptions. Most obviously, I assumed no locality for the seller and bidders beyond an expectation that they probably all were on the North American continent; it's perfectly possible that some were from beyond that domain, although the complications of the real world postal system discourage that. But the distancelessness of the Web is just the most obvious of the disconnects between it and the real world. You could even classify them by using some big concepts from the real world, such as space, time, self, and knowledge:

Space: eBay is a Web space that occupies no space. Its "near" and "far" are determined by what's linked to what, and the links are based not on contiguity but on human interest. The geography of the Web is as ephemeral as human interest: eBay pulled together a listings page for me based on my interest in "handmade quilts," while simultaneously building pages for thousands of others who had other, unpredictable interests. Each of us looked across the space that is eBay and saw a vastly different landscape: mine of quilts, yours of Star Wars memorabilia, someone else's of battery chargers.

Time: Earlier that morning, while waiting for my wife in our town center, I ducked into a store called Ten Thousand Villages that sells world crafts at a price fair to the artisans. [v] For ten minutes I enjoyed being a Yuppie among the Chilean rainsticks and the Djembe drums from Burkina Faso. Then I saw my wife through the window, left the store, and closed the door behind me. Real-world time is a series of ticks to which schedules are tied. My time with eBay was different. As I investigated different auctions, placed a bid, and checked back every few hours to see if I'd been outbid, I felt as if I were returning to a story that was in progress, waiting for me whenever I wanted. I could break off in the middle when, for example, my son came home, and go back whenever I wanted. The Web is woven of hundreds of millions of threads like this one. And, in every case, we get to determine when and how long we will participate, based solely on what suits us. Time like that can spoil you for the real world.

Self: Buyers and sellers on eBay adopt a name by which they will be known. The eBay name of the woman selling the quilt I was interested in was "firewife30." Firewife30 is an identity, a self, that lives only within eBay. If she's a selfish bastard elsewhere but always acts with honor in eBay transactions, the "elsewhere" is not a part of Firewife30 that I can know about or should particularly care about. The real-world person behind firewife30 may even have other eBay identities. Perhaps she's also SexyUndies who had 132 "sexy items" for sale at eBay while firewife30 was auctioning her quilt. Unlike real-world selves, these selves are intermittent and, most important, they are written. For all we know, firewife30 started out as firewife1 and it's taken her this many drafts to get to a self that feels right to her.

Knowledge: I began my eBay search ignorant about quilts. By browsing among the 248 quilts for sale, I got an education. Yes, I could easily use the Web as a research tool, and at times during my quest I ran down some information--"sashing" is a border around each quilt block [vi] and a good quilter will get 10-12 stiches per inch [vii] --but I learned more and learned faster by listening to the voices of the quilters on eBay. I got trained in the features to look for, what the quilters consider to be boast-worthy, and what the other bidders thought was worth plunking their money down for. This was unsystematic and uncertified knowledge. But because it came wrapped in a human voice, it was richer and, in some ways, more reliable: the lively plurality of voices sometimes can and should outweigh the stentorian voice of experts."

If a simple auction at eBay is based on new assumptions about space, time, self and knowledge, the Web is more than a place for disturbed teen-agers to try out roles and more than a good place to buy cheap quilts.

* * *

The Web [1] has sent a jolt through our culture, zapping our economy, our ideas about the sharing of creative works, and possibly even institutions such as religion and government. Why? How do we explain the lightning charge of the Web? If it has fallen short of our initial hopes and fears about its transformational powers, why did it excite those hopes and fears in the first place? Why did this technology hit our culture like a bolt from Zeus?

Suppose--just suppose--that the Web is a new world we're just beginning to inhabit. We're like the earlier European settlers in the United States , living on the edge of the forest. We don't know what's there and we don't know exactly what we need to do to find out: do we pack mountain climbing gear, desert wear, canoes, or all three? Of course, while the settlers may not have known what the geography of the New World was going to be, they at least knew that there was a geography. The Web, on the other hand, has no geography, no landscape. It has no distance. It has nothing natural in it. It has few rules of behavior and fewer lines of authority. Common sense doesn't hold there, and uncommon sense hasn't yet emerged. No wonder we're having trouble figuring out how to build businesses in this new land. We don't yet even know how to talk about a place that has no soil, no boundaries, no near or far.

New worlds create new people. This has always been the case because how we live in our world is the same thing as who we are. Are we charitable? Self-centered? Cheerful? Ambitious? Pessimistic? Gregarious? Stoic? Forgiving?" Each of these describes how we are engaged with our world but each can also be expressed as the way our world appears to us. If we're egotistical, then the world appears to center around us. If we're gregarious then the world appears to be an invitation to be with others. If we're ambitious then the world appears to be awaiting our conquest. We can't characterize ourselves without simultaneously drawing a picture of how the world seems to us, and we can't describe our world without simultaneously describing the type of people we are. If we are entering a new world, then we are also becoming new people.

Obviously, we're not being recreated from the ground up. We don't talk in an affect-less" voice, express curiosity about the ways of earthlings and get an irresistible urge to mate once every seven years. But we are rewriting ourselves on the Web, hearing voices we're surprised to find coming from us, saying things we might not have expected. We're meeting people we would never have dreamed of encountering. More important, we're meeting new aspects of ourselves. We're finding out that we can be sappier, more caustic, less patient, more forgiving, angrier, funnier, more driven, less demanding, sexier, and more prudish--sometimes within a single ten-minute stretch on line. We're falling into email relationships that, stretching themselves over years, imperceptibly deepen, like furrows worn into a stone hallway by the traffic of slippers. We're falling into groups that sometimes feel like parties and sometimes feel like wars. We're getting to know many more people in many more associations than the physics of the real world permits, and these molecules, no longer bound by the solid earth, have gained both the randomness and the freedom of the air-borne. Even our notion of a self as a continuous body moving through a continuous map of space and time is beginning to seem wrong on the Web.

If this is true, then for all of the over-heated, exaggerated, manic-depressive coverage of the Web, we'd have to conclude that the Web in fact has not been hyped enough.

* * *

In 1995, when the media coverage of the Web was at its most hysterical, psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University began giving computers, software and Internet access to 93 Pittsburgh families who had never been online before. While a significant portion of the globe was wearing out the thesaurus looking for synonyms for "exciting" to describe the promise of the Web and another portion with equal passion saw the Web as the final smut-filled convulsion of civilization, the Carnegie Mellon scientists calmly studied these families for two years, asking them questions about their patterns of usage, their outside interactions and their mental states. In the fall of 1998, the results began to leak out: for a significant number of these families "Internet use led to their having, on balance, less social engagement and poorer psychological well-being." [viii] Not surprisingly, the study was featured on the front page of the New York Times.

Two years later, in the fall of 2000, another study was featured in The New York Times. Headlined "Who Says Surfers are Antisocial?"--and ignoring the obvious riposte that it was the Times who had said it just two years earlier--the article reported that a study of 2,000 people by the University of California at Los Angeles had found that Internet users increased their contact with others, made online friends, and spent just as much time with their families as before. They were also watching 28% less television. [ix]

The studies caused controversy individually and in comparison. Were the samples fair? Why didn't the Carnegie Mellon study have a control group? Had the Internet changed in the five years between the start of the first and the end of the second study, as suggested by one of the first study's authors? [x] But more was at stake than the quality of the science. That each of these opposing stories was front-page news exposed some of the disquiet behind the public passion for the Web. At the time the media were focused on how the Web was making twenty-five year old software jockeys into billionaires, how upstart companies were threatening the largest "bricks and mortar" corporations, how investors were grumbling if they didn't make 10 times their money in 18 months. But we--the great mass of Web users--knew that there was more to the story than how the money was being made and, later, lost. We knew that the Web was affecting more than our bank accounts and our "shopping experience." It was changing the way we're social, for example.

The truth is that neither of these studies could really answer the question "Is the Web making us more or less social?" much less the broader question "What is the Web doing to us as social animals?" Even if we assume that both studies are paragons of the scientific method, the best they could do is answer some highly specific questions: Are Net users watching more or less TV? Are we spending more or less time with our friends in the real world? These questions are only interesting, however, because they give us factual pegs on which to hang our intuitive sense that something big is happening.

We're worried, we're giddy, we're confused. If our way of being social is different on the Web, it surfaces questions that give us vertigo. For example, much of our sociality depends upon drawing the line between our private and our public lives: a friend is close if you feel we can tell her that you're secretly quite religious, that your sex life is other than she thought, that you're not as confident as you may seem. Likewise, it's a serious transgression for someone to overstep the line by asking questions more personal than we're entitled to; "So, how much money do you make?" and "You and your spouse doing it much?" are more likely to prevent intimacy than to foster it. Because the line between public and private is so important to us--we use words such as "embarrassment" and "humiliation" to describe what happens when the line is crossed--we generally know the rules so well that we don't have to think about them. But the Web is putting us into positions where the lines are not just blurry but seem to have been re-drawn according to a new set of rules that don't yet make sense to us. Even something as straightforward as email is catching many of us unwittingly on the wrong side of the line. For example, in October 1999, Xerox fired 40 people for email abuse. [xi] In the beginning of December 1999, the New York Times fired 23 employees at a Virginia payroll processing center for sending "inappropriate and offensive" email --reportedly off-color jokes. At the same time, the Navy was reporting it had disciplined more than 500 employees at a Pennsylvania supply depot for sending sexually explicit email. These crackdowns on email "abuse" expose a fissure. On the one side, email is like mail-- you type it in and send it to someone. On the other, email is like a conversation --you talk about whatever you want, you make jokes, you don't bother re-reading it before you send it, you forget about it ten minutes later. So which is it? A formal letter or an informal conversation? Get it wrong, draw the line between public and private inaccurately, and you could end up fired.

Or worse. John Paul Denning found himself locked up in the Bellevue Hospital's ward for the mentally disturbed--his shoelaces confiscated as a precaution against suicide--because he'd written an email to an old friend in which he said, "Maybe I should stop showing people my new gun, but I'm so proud of it. Makes me feel like a real New Yorker," [xii] as well as some references to the mayhem he could commit. New York University expelled Denning when they heard about this, although eventually a board of inquiry readmitted him when he was able to show that the email was meant as dark humor to a close friend.

The problems we have finding the new lines between the public and the private are part of a more general problem we're having understanding how to coordinate the two worlds, one real and one virtual. Consider Tom Alciere, elected to the New Hampshire state legislature in November 2000. [xiii] The barrier was low: it costs $2 to register as a candidate, and the position pays a lordly $100 a year--plus free passage through state highway tollbooths. A circuit board inspector for a local electronics company, Alciere ran as a Republican in a heavily Democratic ward, although in his six previous bids at public office he had run variously as a Democrat and as a Libertarian. The four-way race received almost no coverage, and Alciere squeaked in with a 55-vote margin, possibly because his name was listed first on the ballot. Only a couple of weeks after he was sworn in did anyone notice that The Honorable Tom Alciere had a home page that called for eliminating mandatory school attendance and removing the age restrictions on drinking. On a site devoted to the topic of suicide, Alciere weighed in with his suggestion that one way to get "sweet revenge against the government for making everybody's life to waste as many cops as possible before you die." Turning to practical considerations, he recommended driving a truck into the crowd at a police officer's funeral. Thirty-six days later, he resigned, sending an email that explained how he got elected: "Well, nobody asked me if I liked cops, or supported the drug laws, etc." Alciere told the truth about himself in a globally public forum. He did nothing to hide his views. It's quite likely that the voters in his district in New Hampshire have learned a lesson: what counts as "the public sphere" has changed. It now includes the Web. We're just not sure how.

* * *

You could look at these examples as anomalies--a quiet teenager who gets on the Web and makes cruel threats, scores of workers who get fired for saying in email only what they would have said in person, a fringe candidate who's blunt about his outrageous views on the Web without any effect on his campaign. But just about everywhere we turn, the Web upsets our expectations. Sharing copyrighted music files seemed perfectly proper to 70 million Napster users. Companies that compete form cooperative net marketplaces. Pornography that once you had to go to Sweden for now you can't avoid. The best sources of information about products are online customer forums, not the companies creating the products. Children play ultra-violent online games with the innocence of a game of tag. Hundreds of millions of people are building a trans-national infrastructure without guidance, assistance or permission. So many things don't make sense on the Web that we're suffering from Anomaly Fatigue.

Perhaps it's just as well, for focusing on anomalies can be a way of denying the disturbing nature of what passes for normal. Just as arguments about, say, abortion are the least likely to lead to an understanding of the nature of morality--far better to watch how we humans accomplish our ordinary acts of decency--so, too, if we want to make progress understanding what the Web is doing to something as basic as our social natures, we need to look at our everyday experiences of the Web. Besides, does anyone really want to keep arguing about Napster?

So, let's not pound our heads against the anomalies. We can learn more by looking at something perfectly ordinary on the Web. For example, if we want to pursue the question of the Web's effect on our sociality, we could look at "weblogs" or online journals, for there you can see the redrawing of the line between public and private. In 2000, a few sites began offering tools that made it so easy to create and maintain a weblog that all you had to do was type in the content." As a result, it's been estimated that there are around 100,000 weblogs now, although the actual number is unknowable.

Let's take a random example. Someone named .Zannah (yes, the leading dot, the visual equivalent of a pierced tongue,is part of her Web identity) has a weblog titled "/usr/bin/girl" [xiv] ; the technoid sounding name refers to standard Unix directories. The page's main serving consists of frequent write-ups of Web sites .Zannah finds interesting:

This site [] sells Computer Gargoyles, to watch over you as you surf the 'net.

Taco Joe's graphics are silly at best, which led me to believe that I wouldn't like this game. However, upon giving it a chance, I found myself somewhat enthralled with the taco making, roach squashing business.

Open Cola, the world's first open source cola. I have no idea how it tastes, but I'm fairly amused at the idea of an open-source food or drink.

Good information that might help a hapless browser find some useful sites. But .Zannah isn't merely conveying information. In the left-hand margin of the page, .Zannah pulls back the veil on herself by providing lists of what matters to her, including "recently acquired items" ("blue vinyl pants, rhinestone chain, hair toys, replicant shirt, glowsticks") and a list that's harder to categorize:

mixellanea randomosity:

I am 65.465% insane.
I'm 42% bitchy.
I'm an idealist.
I'm also sensitive.
My geek quotient is 63.
I'm a pink grapefruit.
I'm right between pessimism & optimism.

If you follow the links, you find that these are the results of various sarcastic quizzes around the Web. Despite--or is it because of?--the irony and sarcasm, the reader begins to get a sense of this young woman.

Then, in one corner there's a link to a personal home page, [xv] a second place for .Zannah to expose herself to the public in highly controlled ways. The weblog page is updated more frequently than her home page, but the two pages also seem to differ in the type of disclosure. It's almost as if they are the views two different friends might have of her, each site drawing the line between the public and the private differently. The home page doesn't feel quite as free; it's as if the page is tied more closely to her offline self--for example, she discloses her physical location--although the differences are more in tone than content. In the upper left corner of her home page, there's a picture of her. She looks like she's in her early twenties. Head bent down, black hair falling in parentheses past her face, her eyes looking up to make direct contact. An appealing, knowing face. But, if you leave your mouse cursor over the face for more than a few seconds, up pops a caption. It reads: "[just some random chick]." So, is the photograph of .Zannah or is it truly just a random photo? Her webcam is off right now, but the last image it recorded is there. The random chick is .Zannah all right. The caption is just some misdirection. Probably.

What's going on here? Personal revelations, but enough irony to make sure we don't trust them too much. A name that begins with punctuation, a carefully constructed set of sarcastic lists to tell us about herself, and a clue that what we're reading is a mix of self-revelation and self-invention. Is she being sociable on the Web? She is certainly playing in public with others. But how can we make sense of the evidence about whether the Web is making us less social if we're not certain what it means to be social in this new world?

.Zannah is no Michael Ian Campbell, channeling John Malkovich and making idle threats to a student recently terrorized in a school shooting. She's not insane and she's not an anomaly. For all her oddness, her quirkiness, her post-modern irony, .Zannah is the norm of the Web. She is what's ordinary. The real problem we face with the Web is not understanding the anomalies, it's facing how deeply weird the ordinary is.

* * *

When I met Mike O'dell, he was Chief Scientist at UUnet, one of the main providers of the Internet "backbone," the wires and routers that in one sense are the Internet. We were at the first meeting of a small conference in intensely quaint Woods Hole. Massachusetts. O'dell dominated the meeting. Although the conference was intended to bring together hard-nosed engineers and soft-hearted social commentators, O'dell was so adept at slapping us softies down with a swipe of his hand, using facts like brass knuckles, that we thought and second and a third time before benturing into the conversational arena. There seemed to be nothing he didn't know. When I went home and told my wife about the weekend, I mainly described how smart and intimidating I found O'dell. Yet, within a few months, he and I had become good friends through email. It's a better medium for us since neither of us is tempted to show off by being gratuitously right in public.

Almost a year after the conference, I wrote to Mike and asked him to take a guess about how much data at any one moment is in the wires that compose the Internet. He responded almost immediately. Based on guesstimates of the total mileage of wires carrying Net traffic and the average speed with which bits are moved through those wires, Mike estimates that at any one moment, there are between five and ten gigabytes of information in the wires. A gigabyte is 1,073,741,824 bytes (2 to the 30th power)--call it an even billion--enough to encode about 3,000 books of average length. Thus, at any moment there's the equivalent of a small library--15,000 to 30,000 books--in transit over the Internet. In just one wire going across the United States , O'dell estimates, there are about 3 megabytes of information. If we take as our example not merely the text but all the other information that's included in a high-quality electronic book--information about how to lay out the pages and the fonts to use, for example--if an ebook of Hamlet started in Boston, Fortinbras would be ringing down the curtain just 15 miles short of Akron, Ohio. [xvi]

Books stretched to the height of one bit and strung between telephone polls make for an arresting image, especially if one keeps in mind that these libraries are rushing through the wires at the speed of light, pulsing at intervals on the order of one ten-billionth of a second. O'dell calls his calculation the number of "bytes in flight," a lovely phrase. Even though this view of the Net isn't useful to most of us, it lays claim to our attention. So do many views that have been put forward: the Web as technological marvel, as the millionaire-maker, as the modern Gold Rush, as the new economy that will raise all boats and sink old rules. Then the weekly magazines arrive and the lead stories are about the anomaly of the week: the music our kids are downloading for free when they wouldn't dream of shoplifting it, the bankrupt companies selling to creditors their lists of customers who thought they'd been assured of privacy, the juicy rumors being circulated by people who are sober and careful in what they say in the real world.

All these views of the Web are true enough and fair enough. But if we're to make any progress understanding the Web's effect on us--including but certainly not limited to the question "Is the Web making us more or less social?"--we need something more than Yet Another View. We need a way to address this question and a thousand others, but we seem to lack the basic stance. We have a hundred ways of considering the Web, from bytes in flight to technological infrastructure to economic playing field to entertainment medium to global conversation to a wanker's paradise. But none seems adequate to the task. Our ways of thinking about the Web --even ones as evocative as Mike's bytes in flight--have tended to make the Web too small to account for the effect it's having.

* * *

If we were to investigate a "big idea" such as democracy, we'd look at how its introduction in the 18th century affected a suite of related terms basic to our understanding of ourselves in a world of others: citizen, rights, duties, equality, justice, nation, government, authority, legitimacy, law, morality, human nature. In a parallel fashion, as we've looked at just one sample question about the Web--does it make us more or less social? "we've found ourselves brought to consider terms as basic as self, society, friendship, knowledge, morality, authority, private and public. It is a measure of the importance of the Web that to understand it we find ourselves re-thinking bedrock notions of our culture.

But democracy had such a powerful effect, overturning governments and changing the social order, only because it occurred within an oppressive culture of monarchy and aristocracy. Who you were depended on who you were born as, and clearly not everyone was born equal. Democracy was an explosive idea only because this context pressed so hard against it. The Web's power likewise comes from the pressure of the atmosphere into which it was born. Just as the opposite of democracy was aristocracy, the opposite of the virtual world of the Web is the real world. The Web explodes out with precisely the force with which the real world pushes in.

It's easy to see what was so oppressive about aristocracy and all that went with it, but what's so oppressive about the real world? Yes, having to travel distances to get where we're going is a bother, but the Web's distancelessness isn't enough to explain the force with which the Web has hit us. After all, telephones and faxes also eliminate distance. Something more has to be going on.

A few years ago, I listened to a woman calling into a legal expert on a radio talk show. Her basement apartment had taken in a few feet of water in a flood. She didn't have insurance and the landlord's insurance didn't cover the damage. The legal expert explained that the caller was out of luck. Floods happen. The caller was outraged. Who was going to replace her appliances and furniture, not to mention the keepsakes now ruined forever? This was an injustice! I listened with sympathy, for I had been through a flood many years ago, but I also listened with amazement. A bad thing happened to this woman so she expects compensation to make it all better. It's as if the world had not lived up to its side of a contract.

Her demand was unreasonable but her premises I think are widely shared in our culture. Bad things aren't part of "the deal." There isn't a problem we don't assume we will solve eventually. Cancer will be cured soon. AIDS is on the run. We'll figure out a way to mend the hole in the ozone layer and to reverse global warming. We just need to marshal the facts and manage the project. The dinosaurs could only look up in dismay as the asteroid slammed towards them, but we'll organize an international project, preferably with Bruce Willis at the helm, and we'll nuke that sucker back to the Stone Age. We are the masters of our fate. We can manage our way out of any problem. [Note: As I write this, the United States is reeling from the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This has shaken our sense of mastery with results that cannot yet be predicted.]

The building of the Hoover Dam is perhaps the emblematic example of the power of traditional management. The six companies responsible for the project had to construct a complete city to house 5,000 workers, complete with a water and sewer system in the desert, a city hall, laundries, schools, police and fire departments and a hospital. They had to build a 222-mile extension of the power system to bring electricity to the site. They spent seven months building a 22.7 mile railroad and a 400-car switchyard. To deliver materials, they built a cableway 1,580 feet long. Even the simplest aspects of the dam's construction often turned out to be hideously complex, requiring ingenious solutions. For example, moving pipes a mile and a half from their fabrication plant required building specially-designed 16-wheeled, 38-feet-long trailers with tractors in the rear devoted simply to braking, and two-tier cars to bring the pipes to their final destination. [xvii] The Hoover Dam is a masterpiece of management as well as of engineering.

The Web, however, is teaching us a different lesson about management. Consider the Web as a construction project. It's the most complex network ever created. It is by many orders of magnitude the largest collection of human writings and works in history. It is far more robust than networks far smaller. Yet it was created without any managers. In fact, it only succeeded because its designers made the conscious decision to build a network that would require no central control. You don't need anyone else's permission to join in, to post whatever you want, to read whatever others have posted. The Web is profoundly unmanaged and that is crucial to its success. It takes traditional command and control structures and busts them up into many small pieces that then loosely join themselves--and that, too, is crucial to its success.

As a result, the Web is a mess, as organized as an orgy. It consists of voices proclaiming whatever they think is worth saying, trying on stances, experimenting with extremes, being wrong in public, making fun of what they hold sacred in their day jobs, linking themselves into permanent coalitions and drive-by arguments, savoring the rush you feel when you realize you don't have to be the way you've been.

The Web has driven through the plate glass window of traditional management. Its existence is a slap in the face of the managed world of modern American realism. Because every surprise is an affront to the managed world--not anticipating market trends or the action of competitors can give a management team the opportunity to "pursue other interests"--we agree to play by the rules so that we won't surprise anyone and no one will surprise us. We become professionals by adhering to a code of conduct that has us all sounding the same. We manage our time into neat segments of work, home, recreation, sleep. We focus on the facts because that's how you get predictability. We aim for an objectivity that suppresses individual viewpoints and passion.

But there's a price we pay psychologically and sociologically for repressing our differences. In fact, it goes beyond psychology. It has to do with the fundamentals of our world. Our real-world view of space says that it consists of homogenous measurable distances laid across an arbitrary geography indifferent to human needs; the Web's geography, on the other hand, consists of links among pages each representing a spring of human interest. Real world time consists of ticking clocks and the relentless schedules they enable, while on the Web, time runs as intertwining threads and stories. In the real world, perfection is held as an ideal we humans always disappoint; on the Web perfection just gets in the way. In the real world, social groups become more impersonal as they get larger; on the Web, individuals retain their faces no matter what the size of the group - even in the "faceless mass" of the public. In the real world, we have thinned our knowledge down to a flavorless stream of verifiable facts; on the Web, nowledge is fat with stories and voice. Our "realistic" view of matter says that it's the stuff that exists independent of us, and as such it is essentially apart from whatever meanings we case over it like shadows; the matter of the Web, on the other hand, consists of pages that we've built, full of intention and meaning. In the real world, to be moral means we follow a set of principles; on the Web, morality looks like prissiness and authenticity, empathy and enthusiasm instead guide our interactions.

If the Web is changing bedrock concepts such as space, time, perfection, social interaction, knowledge, matter and morality--each a chapter of this book--no wonder we're so damn confused. That's as it should be. A new world is opening up, a world that we create as we explore it. .Zannah is inventing it, Michael Ian Campbell is abusing it, and every person browsing and posting is setting bytes in flight that shape this new world. Space, time, matter, perfection, social interaction, knowledge and morality --this is the vocabulary of the Web, not the bits and bytes, the dot-coms and not-coms, the e-this and B2That. The Web is a world we've made for one another. It can only be understood within a web of ideas that includes our culture's foundational thoughts, with human spirit at every joining point.

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[1] I purposefully conflate the Internet and the Web throughout this book. The distinction is very real from the technical and historical perspectives, but it doesn't apply to our usual experience: email and home pages seem to be part of the same phenomenon even though the former is the Internet and the latter is the Web.

[i] Dave Bryan, "Parent: Teen accused of threatening Columbine student was 'bored'", AP, December 18, 1999. Cf.

[ii] According to the Urban Legends Reference Page, the Twinkie Defense was never actually offered. Instead, an expert witness testified that White's abandoning of his usual health food regime was evidence of White's deep depression. The witness did not claim that eating junk food caused the depression. Barbara and David Mikkelson, 1999.

[iii] Sherry Turkle has written two excellent and prescient books on the nature of the self online: The Second Self and Life on the Screen.

[v] Ten Thousand Villages has a Web presence too, of course:



[viii] Lawrence Biemiller, Chronicle of Higher Education, "Lonely and Unhappy in Cyberspace? A New Study Prompts On-Line Debate."

[ix] John Schwartz, The New York Times, "Who Says Surfers Are Antisocial?" October 26, 2000.

[x] Robert Kraut, cited in the John Schwartz article.

[xi] "Your Boss May be Monitoring Your Email," Maura Kelly, Salon, December 8, 1999.
Thomas York, "Invasion of Privacy? E-Mail Monitoring is on the Rise" InformationWeek, Feb. 21, 2000.

[xii] Fred Kaplan, "Words That Haunt: Student's Dark Humor Brings a Hospitalization Order," The Boston Globe," 5/2/2000.

[xiii] Sally Jacobs, "After Political Storm, N.H. Ponders," Boston Globe, January 12, 2001.



[xvi] The distance from Boston to Akron is 640 miles. Hamlet can be done in 625 miles.

[xvii] Wm. Joe Simonds, "The Boulder Canyon Project: Hoover Dam."