Monday, May 13, 2002

David Weinberger Speaks

I finally got a chance to ask David Weinberger a few questions about his new book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined. Here's what he had to say:

Question: After writing The Cluetrain Manifesto with co-authors Rick Levine, Christopher Locke and Doc Searls, what was it like to write your new book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined, completely solo?

What a relief not having to carry those three sluggards on my back!
"No, RageBoy, let me show you how it's done." You try to teach them, but you
know it takes an enormous amount of energy, like training voles* to play the violin.

Ah, but perhaps you wanted a serious answer. It really wasn't that
different because each of the four of us wrote our own sections alone.
It's not like we holed up for three months in a house, came down in our
bathrobes for breakfast and read one another's drafts.

The biggest difference is that I can't hide behind the three of them
with this one. If people don't like it, I can no longer blame it on the
trained voles. Although, of course, I still intend to try.

[*Vole: "Any of various rodents of the genus Microtus and related
genera, resembling rats or mice but having a shorter tail and limbs and
a heavier body."].

Question: Can you talk about the process of writing you book, the day-to-day challenges and concerns? For instance, weren't you still finishing it on September 11, 2001?

Yeah, I was doing the final copy-edit and some innocuous passages
suddenly became sinister. I decided to take out a passing reference to a
"big smoking crater" at the beginning of the last chapter, and some of
my claims about Americans feeling like we can manage our way out of
anything didn't seem so obvious any more. (It's a powerful delusion
though that keeps re-exerting itself, even now.)

But, 9/11 aside, the day to day of it was frustrating and difficult. I did more
rewriting than I've ever done. And writing a book is attempting to solve a puzzle
for which there may be no solution. As you well know, I was very close to
chucking the whole project about half way through because I couldn't write a single
chapter that was worth reading. Once I'd gotten one that didn't seem terminally
stodgy, the others came more easily. David Miller and Lisa Adams, my agents,
were very helpful at this pre-show-it-to-your-editor stage. Amanda Cook at
Perseus was great also.

Also, I was posting my drafts every day at, even
stuff I knew was pure crap. Very embarrassing. On the other hand,
comments and encouragement from people who started out as
strangers not only improved the book but literally kept me from
giving up on it. Thanks, Halley.

Question: What are you saying when you suggest "The Web celebrates our imperfection, ludicrous creatures that we are."

Business is anal-perfective. It's incapable of admitting that its
products aren't perfect even though we all know that. Marketing just
naturally assumes we want to see idealized images, and we have learned
not to trust those images. But slickness on the Web feels out of place.

Besides, fallibility is a requirement for conversation. If you don't
have even a smidge of a sense that you might be wrong, you're lecturing,
not talking. And almost all jokes celebrate that fallibility.

There's something liberating about not having to polish what you write.
Post it and run. That's one reason weblogs are so much fun. (AKMA
brought this up in his weblog the other day, citing Dr. Johnson.)

Question: Explain what you're saying when you say that the web "is the elite's nightmare of hoi polloi, the rabble, the mob that originally spurred the building of ivy-covered retreats."

Pretend you're an academic trying to put together an anthology of
literary criticism of Moby Dick. Consider the manuscripts that come
through the mail from accredited scholars. Now google "Moby Dick."
Examine your attitude. That's what I mean.

Most institutions are there in part to authorize and authenticate. When
we find other ways to do what they do without going through the
institutional channel, the institutions are right to be scared about
losing their grip and purpose.

Question: What do you mean when you say "The knowledge worth listening to --
that is worth developing together -- comes from bodies."

The rest of the passage says: "for only bodies (as far as we can tell)
are capable of passionate attention, and only embodied creatures, their
brains and sinews swaddled in fat and covered with skin, can write the
truth in a way worth reading."

The main point of that chapter is that historically we've reduced knowledge
to mere objective facts. But we need more than that and we are more than
that. We humans don't process information: we argue, shout, joke,
celebrate, wail, etc. Human knowledge comes from and embraces passion.
The connection to the body, which is rather tenuously expressed in the book
I'll admit, is that we are creatures who have to care about who we are
because we are in bodies abuzz with desires. And as bodily we die so we
know (as Heidegger puts it) that we are always at issue.

Question: What about "The Web helps us to embrace without embarrassment who we really are." What do you mean by that?

The overall theme of the book, which emerges slowly (which is one reason
I have so much trouble saying in a couple of sentences what the book is
about), is that the truths the Web uncovers are in fact the truths of
our lives in the real world as well, although our "default philosophy"
in the RW is alienated from these truths. Some of those truths are
embarrassing because we are not what we pretend to be. I think the Web
lets us be more of what we are -- at least in the talky, social ways --
than we feel we can afford to be in the real world.

Question: What trends on the Web do you see developing since the time you finished your book, that seem significant to you?

Oy gevalt. The virulent industrial-governmental attacks on Internet
freedoms that threaten to cripple the best chance for making free speech
and free markets the global norm (the stupid fucking bastards). The
emergence of weblog communities with very strong voices. The coming
collapse of the telcos. WiFi-based neighborhood networks bringing
broadband to anyone with a wireless card. The continued need for a layer
(at the edge!) that shows the Net as my set of social groups.