Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Now that I've received invitations to join "LinkedIn" by several mailing lists (I almost said "people" but it's their email lists which really issue the invitation) it's cause to meditate on that thing I'm terrible at: networking.

I define it here as a concentrated activity geared solely toward increasing your connections. Some people do this naturally, others have to work at it. In some recently published audio interviews, Kurt Vonnegut called it "making friends." And, I really think he intended no irony.

Connections are important to people, and important connections are even more important. Growing up Catholic, one became aware of the Ascension of Christ, as he was drawn up into heaven when His post-Resurrection networking days were over. Needless to say, fortunes have been built and wars have been fought over this one proto-important networking event.

Then there are the fringe exploitations of connections, tied into the pathologies of relationships. Crime which occurs in immediate families. Stalking famous people. Being drawn to absolute strangers. Celebrity sightings.

The student-run newspaper of the University of New Hampshire reports a celebrity visitor to the UNH vs. Boston College hockey game on Nov. 10. "Game-goers who saw McCain reported that he was seated on the side of the Whittemore Arena and up in the box seats, high above the stands. 'He was right over there on the side. I saw him. It was pretty cool,' said Allyson Bergendahl, a UNH pep band sousaphone player."

Pretty cool, seeing a political opportunist from a distance. For more on this type of phenomenon, read Verlyn Klingenborg's column in the Nov. 28 New York Times.

There used to be (and probably still is) a fringe network of people who think they are related to Elvis, Jesus, or Robert E. Lee. Is Obama a distant relation of Cheney? Are there six degrees of separation between everyone, or just between you and Kevin Bacon?

Other than relationships with family, people attach a high value to the structured connections of work. Business is a predominant force in any society because it regulates the economic life of that society. Business can also be full of bad relationships. In forming relationships for material purposes (networking?), it's easy to make that a surrogate for a relationship with mankind in general ("I love mankind, it's people I can't stand"), loving one another and trying to bring goodness into the world (most religions), helping to maintain the essential goodness of nature. It's no wonder we often feel unloved in the process of business networking and conducting business. Your value is based on enterprise.

Much of our work is demeaned by the rule of authority, by stripping individuals of power to affect their destiny. To preserve the general populace when relationships go awry, we have the rule of law, which kicks in when relationships break down. In my rental business, I tell tenants when they sign the lease that if things go well, we will never again have to look at this lease.

It's little wonder then, that law and authority produce alienation in the process of trying to alleviate its bad affects. So we seek more connections hoping against hope the next one will be the ticket to something. What looked like a global village from a distance becomes a chance to feel alone in the universe.

In the Landesmuseum in Trier, Germany, I saw an interesting 1545 painting by Peter van Alst, called "Ascension of Christ." The bottom of the painting shows people reaching their arms into the sky. The top half of the painting shows two feet and the hem of a robe sticking out of the clouds. In the middle is open sky. It reminded me of the scene in Wizard of Oz where the balloon heads back to Kansas with Dorothy in it. "I can't stop, I can't stop," yells the Wizard as the munchkins wave their arms in the air.

As I look back at this verbal ramble, I am struck by the number of visual images that come to mind when discussing networking. Relationships are defined by the space between them and America is a big country. If you sleep with 20 other people in the same room or even on the same floor, I doubt that the issue of networking comes up. But without this basic human desire, would there be a YouTube?

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