A Unified Theory of the Web, & the World

August 6, 2008

Recently, I read Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web by David Weinberger. I don’t read tech stuff, or even technology and culture type books, hardly ever, but when I started blogging a few months ago, this title seemed particularly apt. Partly because it fits with the idea of a blog – each post being a “small piece” – “loosely joined” by theme on my blog – and likewise, it would apply to the blogosphere and web, by extension.

I found his book to be not only highly readable, but insightful and entertaining as well. An example of the latter and his sense of humor: spam is “annoyance marketing”.

He studies the web as a communication medium, and among other things, feels that the web is primarily a written universe. Not just written computer code, but written words. Contrary to Luddites’ views of the web being the death of literacy, Weinberger makes a convincing case that to the contrary, the web enables people to communicate. Not only that, but it enables them to communicate with people with shared common interests, regardless of geography, economic or social class, or other barriers that exist in the “real” world. The vision that Weinberger concludes with is a blissful universe made possible by the passion and self-fulfillment born of shared interests. He says it allows us all to connect with our truest nature.

“Everyone’s an expert” is another benefit to the web. We learn how to discern reliable voices through their persistence and the advice they give, like regular contributors to newsgroups and forums. So if in my off-time I enjoy helping others learn to navigate the new digital universe, I need not work for Microsoft or some other large software corporation – I can simply make my contributions through the web’s own forums.

One of the biggest points Weinberger makes is the social nature of the web. When this book was published in 2002, blogs were out there, but I don’t think they were quite the big thing they’ve become over the past few years. (I could be wrong about this, being new to the blogosphere myself), but I find much of what he talks about to be very applicable to what is called today “Web 2.0” – with Facebook, myspace, and others.

Weinberger’s commentary ultimately goes beyond the Web, however. Because the Internet is so much a part of our daily life, much of what he writes about the Web is equally true about the World. Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web – is really a Unified Theory of the World, too. The case he makes is a promising one, full of optimism and hope.

© writingreading, 2008

Fact, Fiction, or something in between?

August 3, 2008

It’s odd how recently, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve encountered a number of things that have blurred the line between Fact and Fiction. I’ve encountered them often enough, that it seems like it is one of those “themes,” – where the universe is trying to tell me something – and like always, I’m pretty clueless about what that might be.

For starters, of course, there’s my writing group. There, the line between the two is deliberately blurred, with such intent that it is a ground rule. “Everything is assumed to be fiction” – even if it is not. Even if the author herself proclaims it to be fact. We still treat it as fiction. This is one area where I am used to the lines being blurred, and am comfortable with it that way. It serves its purpose within the group, and we all agree on the same “rules.” It works.

However, other things have popped up lately. A book that appears to be a WWII memoir – but when you read the fine print in the introduction, the author advises “treat this book as fiction.” The fact that there are photographs, battle reports, and other things which lend an air of authenticity to it make the author’s statement even more jolting. So – perhaps the maps and scenes shown are not of the fighting in France after all. Maybe they are from an Armed Forces Day mock battle instead. Who knows? This blurring in this particular case was alarming to me, because unless the reader slows down to take the time to read the disclaimer at the beginning, the book could easily pass as fact. And, to be truthful, it does seem like much of the book is factual, maybe even 80%. But because there is no clear “THIS CHAPTER IS FICTION” or “THIS CHAPTER IS FACT” notice, one never knows where the line is, so everything is suspect.

I encountered a similar situation maybe a month or so ago, as well. This time it was a made-up Civil War diary. Again, interspersed throughout were quotes from reliable historical sources, such as the Official Records and other works, and what also were probably legitimate excerpts from actual historical letters. Still, and again, the author said near the beginning, “I have fictionalized Joe’s (whatever the soldier’s name was) thoughts and feelings based upon my readings of what others wrote at the time.” or something like that. As one who reads and researches in Civil War history all of the time, not only did I feel cheated, but I had to dismiss in its entirety the entire book. That was truly disappointing, because until I had it in my hands where I could read and look at it closely, it had initially appeared to be a very valuable resource to my research. Instead, it was a waste of time, and I had to consider the entire work as totally unreliable.

I read mostly history, so that’s where I’ve encountered this situation the most, lately, although there have even been things in my casual reading where the line between fact and fiction has been deliberately questioned or blurred. As it relates to history, I’m not sure why people feel the need to insert fictionalization into situations where the “real” story has its own significance and worthiness. Someone writing about their own experiences during WWII, or an ancestor’s letters from the Civil War? What’s wrong with that? Is not the fact that the individuals served and wrote about their experiences sufficient? Why feel the need to embellish?

Perhaps such hybrid works are entertaining to read. Maybe they have their appeal to people who read W.E.B. Griffin or other historical novelists. But for someone who is looking for “true” accounts of historic events, they are worthless, since the reader never knows what is fact or what is fiction.

Remember a while back the outcry over the “fake” memoir by James Frey? And why was there such an uproar? Because it was embellished, more fiction than fact.

Just as we have the term “docu-drama” in TV, when a true story is taken and embellished for “dramatic effect” – so too, do we need a new term for these written works which mixup the previously separate worlds of non-fiction and fiction. Perhaps the terms “factual fiction” or maybe more accurately, “fictional fact” might be in order.

I am grateful, however, that at least the first two authors that I mentioned had the courtesy to inform their readers that fiction had entered their stories, though one had to read the front matter closely to catch this distinction. Mr. Frey, in contrast, did not admit his fictionalization until he was exposed. So it seems there are varying degrees even to this matter.

Reader beware. What passes for truth – or even one individual’s perception of the truth – may be nothing but a fabrication.

© writingreading, 2008