In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany distinguishes between two types of human interaction: networking and contact. Networking is more planned; he uses writers’ conferences as an example. People set out to meet and communicate with each other in a chosen environment for a specific purpose. Contact is more serendipitous. Delany describes walking into a print shop shortly after discovering his vacuum cleaner is broken, and running into a stranger there who happened to be carting around a vacuum for sale; or later, starting a chance conversation in line at the supermarket, with a woman who turned out to be an academic who told him about a new paper that proved helpful to his work at the time.
(I should note that the book is a recounting of Delany’s experiences having public sex in the adult theaters that dominated Times Square for a few decades, and a compelling argument that the theaters played a worthwhile role in maintaining New York City’s psychological health. It’s not an especially explicit book, and if you’re interested in being convinced of the serious benefits imparted by an phenomenon our culture considers unequivocally unhealthy, I strongly recommend it, as I do all of his bibliography that I’m familiar with. I’d recommend finding a copy, too, if you’re interested in a better explanation of networking and contact than I will surely offer here.)
It’s important to point out that the lines between networking and contact can blur, and that Delany doesn’t draw any sort of moral distinction between the two — one isn’t necessarily better than the other. But our culture is increasingly weighted toward networking, and that has serious consequences.
By its nature, networking tends to be a more homogenous experience. If you go to a writers’ conference, you’re going to mostly associate with writers there; and not just writers, but writers who can afford to attend conferences (i.e., of a certain economic class) and who are interested in attending conferences (i.e., of a certain social bent). Networking also lends itself to a certain distribution of power: Generally, you’ll find a lot of writers at a conference who need something — to initiate valuable industry relationships, to win awards, to get published. A minority of attendees (the guests of honor, editors looking for new talent) will have the power to help that needy majority.
Because contact is much more random (not totally; obviously it is influenced by factors like what neighborhood you live in, what haunts you frequent), it is both less homogenous and less competitive. If you simply run into someone who has the power to help you, the chance is greater they’ll be able to than if you’re one of dozens of people seeking their help. In fact, Delany’s opinion is that, contrary to popular belief, networking offers very little chance for the less powerful to increase their standing; he cites his experiences as a young novelist who won awards and made potentially valuable contacts at several conferences, and saw little material benefit due to either (and says colleagues’ experiences are of the same order). He contrasts that with the apocryphal tale of how a young, unknown Ray Bradbury encountered esteemed critic Charles Isherwood in a bookstore, which served to launch Bradbury’s career.
The internet as a technology seriously privileges networking over contact. For starters, it discriminates hugely and obviously in favor of that class of people that can afford the apparatus necessary for internet access. Beyond that, it offers users the option to seek out, say, news media and communities that conform to their personal biases. To reiterate, this is by no means an unequivocal negative. But Delany’s larger thesis is that a society’s health depends on regular personal interaction between, especially, people of different economic classes. He points to the example of his grandmother (I think; I don’t have the book with me), who wasn’t especially wealthy and rented an apartment from a landlord of substance. Twice a year, the landlord made a personal visit to the premises to check out the condition of the space and to talk about how things were going. The simple fact of those two meetings helped forge a social contract, and helped generate an amount of empathy, that made it possible for problems to be worked out in a more or less humane manner. This is a far cry from a housing project where tenants submit checks each month to a faceless corporate entity. And the drawbacks don’t just lie on the tenants’ side — they lack a visceral incentive to keep their dwelling space in good shape, without any sense of a real owner who suffers when the property is abused.
Again, I’d recommend locating the book for a more convincing account of the ideas I’m presenting here. But I am pretty sure Delany was on to something, and that the problem he stipulates has only been exacerbated by the speedy rise of the internet since Times Square Red was published in 1998. Certainly a significant portion of our society seems to increasingly favor the networking mode — gated communities, charter schools, social media (where I would argue most people communicate chiefly with others known to them, and definitely others like them, despite the supposedly democratizing nature of the tools). Even things like ATMs and online banking, and Google Maps, limit our opportunities for encounters with people not of our choosing. That means that more and more, we don’t really know ourselves as a people. And I would imagine that self-knowledge is as vital to a society’s well-being as it is to its individuals’.