Saturday, March 08, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 V

David Weinberger: Why the Web Matters

Weinberger is co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a contributor to World of Ends, and author of Small Pieces, Loosely Joined. Here is a rough transcript of Weinberger's remarks:

The Web does matter. Every time you hear somebody say, "The bubble is over," what they're really saying is that the Internet doesn't matter. They're just wrong. I want to go through seven or eight ways in which the Web really matters.

The first is that I have 10 times as many friends than I used to have. There are 100 times as many people than I knew before. There are 1,000 times as many people that I can call. Every imaginable interest has its spot on the Web. Anybody can find a set of people who are interested in the same sorts of things.

We take for granted that we can get more information about anything. If you don't like Cheerios and their marketing messages, there's a world out there online that can give you a perspective and the information that you're looking for. Truth doesn't have to have the voice stripped out of it. That link is gone. It's not just happening in Web logs. It's happening in the adult journalism world, too.

Every day I get a link to stuff that matters to me. And it comes from young people who are 18 steps removed from me. When I was growing up, to learn meant to be on a one-to-one relationship with a book. When my kids are on a computer using a word processor, they have nine IM sessions going, and they're working together. The teachers probably think it's cheating. It's not. It's learning.

The Web matters because if you're a 13 year old in Hong Kong or a 12 year old in Florence, you take it for granted that you can speak and the world will listen. I grew up believing that the world consisted of countries separated by borders.

The Web matters. I don't know why people dismiss it. They want to take something that's impressive and make it dull.

The Web is like Michael Jackson. The more you see and the more you know, it gets weirder and weirder. The weirdest thing about the Web is its success. What is the Web for? 600 million people don't know what it's for. Something big is happening. It's weird because we're looking at a 2-D screen, yet we talk about it as though it's spatial.

The Web is also familiar. But what does the Web remind of us? The spoiler here is that there's a default philosophy. What does it mean to be a human among other humans? We live in an age of deep alienation. Our ideas of what it means to be a human are deeply out of whack with the way we live our lives. Your understanding of what you are determines who you are.

My motto for today is: Our attraction to the Web is proportional to the depth of our alienation. I'm going to look at this in two ways. The first has to do with Ray Kurzweil's "Age of the Spiritual Machine." If we can move ourselves into silicon, we can escape our bodies. There's nothing magical about silicon. It's just fast and cheap. What if we didn't do it with computers. What if we did it with beer cans?

I was in a wheat field last summer. Take the motions of the wind and the movement of animals. If you kept track of left-leaning stalks as off and right-leaning as on, there's Ray again.

It's an odd idea that we can take brain states, model them in another material, and have something that resembles human consciousness. Why spend so much time knocking the highly intelligent doer of good deeds Raymond Kurzweil? We're really alienated in our beliefs if we think this makes any amount of sense.

Has anyone worked for an organization whose tag line was "We deliver the right information to the right people at the right time"? The idea that good input leads to good outcomes is fine if you're a robot. What does making a decision consist of? It consists of making a decision which inputs to make sense of. We had the causality backwards. We're not software. We've got time backwards.

What I want to suggest is that that's not the way information appears on the Web, and that that's extremely appealing to us. How does information look on the Web? Most commercial Web sites are valueless marketing crap. When I was looking for a washer and a drier, I googled Kenmore, Maytag, and discussion, and I got this site, which is extremely ugly. But I found exactly the model I was looking for. I posted a question, and within a couple of hours, a guy named Jim replied. Jim wouldn't lie to me. If I went into Sears to look at a Kenmore, the salespeople wouldn't tell me about the buzzer being too lous. On the Web, it's contextual. There's a physicist of lint hanging out on the Web waiting to answer someone's questions.

What do we get out of this knowledge? Smarter customers? That's not really the goal here. Knowledge used to be fat and chewy. Over time, that evolved into a quest for certainty. We started looking for the certain and knowable based on the statements themselves. That's the skinniest approach to knowledge. We've become anorexic in our knowledge. We've also become a cult of precision. That helps explain our obsession with bits. What's really important is that atoms and the analog world are messy and sloppy, and bits and the digital world are extremely sharp and precise. We're missing ambiguity. The world is not precise. The Web is the counter to the overly precise world of bits.

We also seem to have the idea that the world is perfectly precise and that's it's just our measuring devices are lacking. If I ask you what's real, you're going to give me a rock. A rock doesn't change. It changes very, very slowly. If I were to say to you that three rocks make up a triangle, you would say the rocks were more real. If you move the rocks, the triangle goes away, but the rocks remain. The triangle is dependent, and dependence is weak. Our default philosophy is individualism, but without groups, we cannot be individuals. Individuals don't come first. We only become individuals because of gifts from groups.

Relationships among humans are not obvious, but they are on the Web because relationships are links. Here's Doc Searls. Here's his blogroll. To be on the Web means to be linked. The Web is made up of links. Would you rather be well linked or well read?

You often hear about the abundance of the Web. 20 billion pages, 100 billion links. I can't find an attribution for the 20 billion pages, and I made up the 100 billion. But it's not about the abundance, it's about the generosity. The people who made the Web, and the people who make the pages. The Web's architecture is about links. Every time I put a link on my page, I'm telling people to go somewhere else. Every link is an expression of selflessness. The Web is an architecture of generosity.

When are humans at our best? We're at our best when we're out of ourselves and involved with others. When we're being generous. That's reflected inevitably in the Web. Every time we're on the Web, we're engaged in that.

What does the Web remind us of? It reminds us of our selves, and of ourselves at our best.

No comments: