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The Future of Networking

by Theodore Zeldin

The growth of interest in networks is responsible for one of the principal changes in work today. Our research has confirmed its importance. But we think the idea of networking needs to be greatly expanded. Successful networking so far have been the privilege of a minority. But what about all those who have boring jobs, authoritarian bosses, sexist and racist colleagues, and who feel powerless in organisations paralysed by bureaucracy? What do we offer those excluded from the achievements and the networks which we have celebrated? What is there new in what we say to the isolated or despairing individual in search of courage? Or to all those who feel that they are bores? It is not enough to repeat the old refrain: Model yourself on those who have succeeded. .Failure is more common than success, and imitation often ends in parody Traditionally, we have tried to blot these painful facts from our memories.. Our method has been either utopianism (but utopianism is now discredited, because it has always ended in disappointment) or cynicism, which protects against disappointment and can pretend to be humour (but it means we can have no purpose in life).

So I wish to describe a different approach, which rejects complacency and which tries to cope with the element of failure inevitable in any enterprise. There is a way to avoid being disheartened by the superficiality of many forms of success. Let us take a specific problem, networking, to see what a new attitude can do.

We cannot claim that networking is a peculiarly British phenomenon, or that we know some secret about it that others do not share. We can remember that networks have not always been instruments of liberation from powerlessness. In the 18th century, when privileged corporations ruled, they were usually closed cliques which prevented the majority from enjoying equal rights We could argue that networks are a German idea, in that the sociologist Georg Simnel was (perhaps) the first to vaunt their merits, as a remedy for the loneliness of the city. Or that they are an American idea, because it was in the US that the psychotherapist Jacob Moreno invented 'sociometry' to measure the patterns of communications between individuals. He gave an impetus to a phase in the 1940s and 1950s when some people began to claim that economic and political structures were less important in practice than structures of communication, the links which people created among themselves.. It was certainly American business management gurus who have turned networking into a popular buzz-word, and made it the key to a successful business career.

Networking is today still regarded by most people as a method for giving the individual a competitive advantage among professionals who are otherwise equal in education, competence and experience. The most successful networker is supposedly the one who can not only reinforce his own skills with those of others,, but who has links with people who are not themselves linked to one another. This idea has been dignified into the theory of structural holes, which means that the ideal network is one in which there are many holes, i.e. gaps between the individuals comprising it.

But every idea is open to corruption. Networking can become selfish or narrow, manipulating others for personal advantage.. If the successful business networker is a bore, he cannot be a model for the next generation. So the question I wish to answer is: Where will networking go next?. The new goal is to give networking an ethical, aesthetic and intellectual dimension.

That can be done by anyone who looks at networking from a perspective which goes further than business management theory. Archeological anthropology, for example, has revealed that in paleolithic times people were already using a form of networking to make alliances to overcome the danger of local famines and periodic food crises. Archeological finds in Russia reveal that such networks covered areas of as much as 400 or 600 kilometres, as a kind of insurance among people unrelated by kinship, but able to see the advantages of offering hospitality to others in times of abundance, in the expectation of reciprocal generosity when they were in difficulties themselves. But more recent history shows how easily links of this kind can deteriorate into exploitation and clientelism. Networking that is not based on a global view of human insecurities is only a euphemism for privilege..

Animal biologists have something to contribute to the discussion too. They have studied networking among primates, who establish relationships to diminish the inconveniences of competition among themselves. In the course of their struggle for survival, and in their efforts to feed and reproduce, apes spend about twenty per cent of their time grooming each other, stimulating the production of endogenous opiates which encourage harmony. It is interesting to have a figure put on the amount of time that it is 'natural' to devote to networking. However, it has been claimed that as groups grow larger, more time has to be devoted to grooming, until a limit is reached, at 150 individuals, beyond which the system begins to break down. The lessons from apes are not simple. Apes compete for allies. There are losers as well as winners. The growth of population eventually destroys or transforms the quality of personal relationships. 'Nature' does not offer a satisfactory model of justice for human networkers. .

Our very existence, nevertheless, depends on what could be called nature's version of networking, the process of symbiosis, by which different species get together for mutual advantage. . Bacteria combine with leguminous plants to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, which is one of the most vital sources of fertility. The way some species become more productive through symbiosis is illustrated by the humble bean aphid, which has learnt to value the company of the garden ant: When they meet, the ant caresses the aphid, which is thus stimulated to exude from its anus a drop of honeydew, which the ant eats. In return the ant protects the aphid. Without the caress, the production of honeydew is much diminished.. Symbiosis exists in nature between individuals, between individuals and societies, and between entire societies. But among humans it is still limited.

Once we begin to see networking as more than a business strategy, as more than a device for creative media free-lancers, or a rescue package for redundant executives, we are on our way to a more comprehensive vision of the future. Most of the population does not fit into these categories. Networking will not realise its full potential until it benefits everybody, leaving no one out. Otherwise, we remain stuck in the rut which infuriated our ancestors , that the networks of the privileged were inpenetrable by ordinary people.

So I shall describe four kinds of networking which still need to be developed, and which can be our goal for the future, part of our vision of the next century.

The most important networks are those of the imagination, which cross from the conventional to the unconventional, refusing to accept that what exists is the only thing that is possible. The most important skill, which underlies all creativity and all scientific discovery, is the ability to find links between ideas which are seemingly unconnected. How is this skill acquired? It does not come naturally. People normally prefer the customary and the familiar, using the minimum of effort to achieve their aims. Intellectual laziness and obstinacy are formidable deterrents against invention. and the making of genuinely innovative contacts. But fortunately, you do not have to be a genius to be imaginative, all you need is courage. Courage comes from curiosity and empathy. (My Intimate History of Humanity explains how they develop.) A networker who always more or less repeats the same procedure is a spider stuck in its own web. But courage on its own can be foolhardy if it ignores experience.

So, secondly, we have to cultivate new networks of memory, to enrich our memories with the experience of all civilisations, and not just of our own family or nation. Freeing the imagination, indeed, requires a wholly new attitude to the past, so that one no longer feels that one can never forget one's personal history or one's economic and political status,, perpetuated by inherited forces and institutions strongly resistant to change. We have to put aside the antiquated idea that life is a series of battles for supremacy, and that wisdom means joining the group most likely to win. Networks which make that assumption are not innovative but oppressive, because they give no thought to the unsuccessful We should fill our memories instead with a broader view of our heritage, a realisation that life has been a constant search by individuals for others with whom they can sympathise and feel comfortable with, a search for what humans have in common. We need to extend our memories to the efforts of all civilisations. Our goal then becomes the discovery of compatibilities, and the weaving of networks between cultures that wrongly imagined they were totally different. And from these memories we must develop strategies which are beautiful as well as efficient, because efficiency without beauty is no longer inspiring.

Thirdly, we need new kinds of networks in private life. All that used to be demanded of people was that their private lives should be outwardly respectable, more or less conformist. But that is no longer enough. The great adventure of the present generation is the attempt to create equal respect between the sexes. The most effective way of achieving this is not by legislation (necessary though that is) but by changing mentalities and attitudes. That means creating new kinds of links between men and women, with conversation between them playing a crucial role, conversations in which they treat each other as having an equal dignity, and through which they develop friendships that are not simply sexual, Networks of friendships which override gender, racial and national stereotypes are indispensable to any satisfactory vision of the future.

Fourthly, we need new networks of experience. We have most of us become specialists in a minute branch of knowledge, but that means we speak a jargon which other specialists cannot understand. Business networking is one answer, enabling specialists to combine to provide services none can offer alone. But this implies a sacrifice in human terms. Specialists have direct experience of only a small fraction of life. .The world, after having been divided up into nationalities, is being cut up again, with professional qualifications as the new passports. But the barriers between nations are coming down, and the barriers between professions are not as strong as they appear. A good portion of the new generation is refusing to lead the narrow life which many jobs demand. It is no longer wholly satisfying to be for example an architect who does nothing but build virtually identical council housing. Architects increasingly wish to participate in the whole process of making life more livable, in being themselves designers of interiors, of landscapes, of cities, of the art of living, to be present whenever space and desire interact Every profession with intelligent people in it will want to be more

I see networking as part of the process by which we try to rearrange our lives so as to become the sort of human being we would like to be. That is why I am now focusing my efforts on a plan to make it possible for young people to be not just professionals, but generalists too. The idea is to give them an opportunity to work in five or six different professions, for say a couple of months each, so that they become familiar with the language and way of thinking of each, acquiring a network of experience which would give them a broader view of what it means to be alive. That way we can reinvent the Renaissance man, but with even wider sympathies, with more compassion, perhaps in the shape of a Millennium Person.