David Weinberger

A web visionary and author of The Cluetrain Manifesto talks about the cultural transformation brought about by the internet

October 23, 2009

Few have been able to capture the essence of the Internet Age like David Weinberger. In 1999, he coauthored The Cluetrain Manifesto, which took a seemingly radical approach to the web as a vehicle for cultural interaction, in a time when the media focused on the web’s commercial aspects. Recently released in a 10th anniversary edition, Cluetrain somehow seems more relevant today than it was then. In 2007, Weinberger wrote Everything Is Miscellaneous, which is dedicated “To the librarians” and challenges us to think about metadata in entirely new ways as information scales on the web. Weinberger talked with American Libraries October 3 during ALA ‘s Library and Information Technology Association National Forum in Salt Lake City.

Ten years ago in Cluetrain, you seem to predict what we now know as the “Web 2.0.” Did you know the social web would become so commercial?
David Weinberger: Sort of the opposite of a prediction. Much of the media coverage of the web at that time seemed to focus on the commercial possibilities, but it seemed to us that everybody who was already enthusiastic about it already knew that what was driving the web wasn’t primarily commercial. They were using the web to speak with one another, to have conversations. We were simply articulating what they already knew. And that’s how it was taken. The ones who liked it said, “Good job saying what we already knew.”

Your writing seems to suggest that the web brings with it a total transformation in culture. “Total transformation” is a little strong. But nevertheless, an epochal change occurred. It’s not just that Marshall McLuhan was basically right-that media changes our way of understanding ourselves; it’s also what Andy Clark points to in a book called Being There. He makes a really obvious point that’s only obvious once he says it: that our species externalizes consciousness. Take away a physicist’s whiteboard, and she can’t do her work. She can’t think. So thinking is an external process, and if you change the external tools with which we think, then you also change the way that we think.

How do those tools change? The web is an unusual medium. It lowers the barrier of entry, and it changes the basic techniques we have for scaling up knowledge. And we’ve been very good at scaling up knowledge.

We had a system of experts and a system of authority. We know orally who the experts are-they have degrees, they publish books. So we have a whole system of authority. It scales very well, but it doesn’t scale the way we now need it to. Ultimately the system of authority was a way to give you a stopping point. If you want to know how many planets are in the solar system, you ask somebody who has credentials, and then you stop your inquiry. That’s a very good way of scaling knowledge, but it presumes you’re looking for stopping points. That reflects the limitations of paper, not of inquiry. In a hyperlinked world, inquiry is invited to continue, not to stop.

Books and web publishing both seem to reappropriate the same model—the oral tradition. What’s the difference really? Books scaled the oral tradition and gave us far more knowledge than we could have had orally, but they don’t scale as far as we would like. On the web, hyperlinks are a fundamental challenge to this authority. With books you can’t get to the source, and on the web, you can’t help yourself. With books, we think of a topic as being settled, but on the web, things are never settled.

How does Everything Is Miscellaneous change the way we think about organizing information? For thousands of years, we’ve assumed that there’s a single right order. Librarians have been much less plagued by this than most because of their pragmatic approach, but now the web allows us to have multiple, simultaneous ways of organizing things. To the old way of thinking, that’s messiness. To the new, that’s order.