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How did you come across this review? There are only two possibilities, actually. You either typed in the address www.techsoc.com (or selected it from your bookmarks), because you are familiar with the excellent book reviews on this site, or you got here by clicking a link from another site. In the latter case, this means that another individual, publishing another site, created a link to this location, and, by this simple act, created a relationship that, according to David Weinberger, is changing the way we live.
The title of this book refers to the way documents are linked across the web: “The result is a loose federation of documents - small pieces loosely joined.” Weinberger points out how the internal structure of documents has changed, saying that the web “has blown documents apart”, and that it “treats tightly bound volumes like a collection of ideas . . . that the reader can consult in the order she or he wants.” This review is a good example of this: to the left are links to other sections of this site. And at the bottom of the page is a link to my own web site. The review is, therefore, part of a larger, much larger network of interconnected text. If one follows the few links on this page, one is led to other links in increasing number, and, eventually, through a game of “degrees of separation”, to every other web page in the world. One researcher suggested, a few years ago, that all documents on the web were no more than a dozen links apart from any other document.
If it is true that we construct new “selves” in new social contexts, then the web and the internet have certainly led us to create new ways of acting and reacting to others. Early studies of on-line behavior showed that people spent less time with their friends and family, but more recent studies show exactly the opposite - suggesting that users have integrated the newness of the web into their selves - and, to boot, are watching less television! Weinberger discusses this and other social issues, saying, “The problems we have finding the new lines between public and private are part of the more general problem of understanding how to coordinate the two worlds, one real and one virtual.” For this is indeed what the web has done to us: it has shown us a new world, where the old mores no longer have currency. We are all beginners in this new world, even though new customs and mores are slowly developing.
In 1997, I examined, for a Masters’ dissertation in applied linguistics*, the way a group of people, united by their shared profession, interacted by e-mail in the presence of a “crisis”. I discovered that many people acted in ways they would never have acted if the people they were addressing were physically present. Actually, they hid behind their online personas and allowed their deepest feelings to rage forth unchecked, undaunted, because once you press the Send button it’s too late to take it back. This form of anger is one of the most negative aspects of the internet, and is part of the enigma of on-line activity. Weinberger gives a list of similar cases of anger, bad manners, and criminal activities: sending rude e-mail, copying pirated software and music, viewing pornography, or playing ultra-violent on-line games. What is it about the internet that brings both the good and the bad to paroxysm? Well, the author suggests that “the real problem we face with the web is not understanding the anomalies but facing how deeply weird the ordinary is.”
Egad! Reality check! Is the web really just a mirror of ourselves? Is it any different from the books we read - after all, look at the violence of popular thrillers, the sex contained in many romance novels, and the curious political nature of some underground literature. Could the web just be a mirror, showing the best and worst of everything? If you look hard, you will probably notice that 95% of what is on the web is banal, ordinary, the digital equivalent of 8mm home movies. So why focus on the unique? Because it titillates; because it excites.
David Weinberger raises some interesting issues about the nature of the web, how it is affecting our lives and business, and the type of changes it is bringing about. The web has changed the way we think about space and time, it has created new approaches to human interaction and business, it has decentralized and delocalized some of the institutions that are at the very heart of our existence.
“The web is just another set of string and tin cans,” says the author. “But the web is ours.”
Kirk McElhearn (email@example.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.