Management Innovator’s Bookshelf: Small Pieces, Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web by David Weinberger (2002)

A few weeks ago, in my review of Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control, I contrasted hierarchical command structures with biological systems that are networks of cooperation. In Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, David Weinberger, co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, examines how the World Wide Web provides the ideal infrastructure for networks of cooperation in today’s global information society.

Those of you who are following the Management Innovators Bookshelf series may have noticed that I skipped ahead to #7 on Gary Hamel’s essential reading list. I think you’ll agree the complementarity between Out of Control and Small Pieces justifies my choice. I’ll return to Hamel’s #3, the Age of Heretics by Art Kleiner later in the series.

Like a reflection in a mirror, Web infrastructure is ideal because it takes the same shape as the networks of cooperation that use it. Both the Web infrastructure and these networks of cooperation self-organize. And if we drew a picture of self organizing systems, whether physical or biological, they would have surprisingly similar shapes. Although we might assume they’re random, they are very efficiently organized in a shape called scale-free. And they both look like Figure 1.

Figure 1

scale free network

Like Kelly, Weinberger is hopeful. As we read in the final chapter of the book, Weinberger writes “The Web will have its deepest effect as an idea. Ideas don’t explode, they subvert. They take their time. And because they change the way we think, they are less visible than a newly paved national highway or the advent of wall sized television screens.” But Weinberger is also worried. He acknowledges disappointments like the dot-com bust, and he also recognizes that the Web can generate unrealistic expectations about the pace of change: “[…] answers can come quickly. The Web is indeed speeding up the pace by enabling ideas to be heard and discussed faster than ever before, but it takes more than a meme, or an idea virus to work through the implications of a change in bedrock concepts. It can take generations to transform our understanding of ourselves and the world.”

Weinberger writes that identity, space, time, perfection, togetherness, knowledge and matter all shape our experience on the web. And that experience defines a networked culture of cooperation whose collective behavior, like Kelly’s bee hive, is adaptive, distributed and organic. The group seems to possess a knowledge that surpasses the individual intelligence of any one member. While at the same time we preserve and even celebrate our individuality on the Web.

The Web is what we make it and we are what it makes us. The Web is a MirrorWorld. And Weinberger’s unified theory of the Web is a reflection of our culture in the Web.

We are Small Pieces, Loosely Joined.