Local networks keep us civilised

Updated: Oct 13

Local networks, networks of place, cultivate the civility in our common life.

Networks are about self-interest and reciprocity.

Networks serve our self-interest. They give us emotional support, practical help and good advice. But what holds a network together is reciprocity. We take and we give, and the deal is that, over time, it works for both parties in the transaction. Julie offers me her leftover garlic seedlings, and at a different point in the seasons, I offer her the excess of my abundant kale.

When we mostly met locally, self-interest and reciprocity we held in balance, but since the 1990s, digital connections have super-charged the self-interest side of networks. Reciprocity is hard to find, and it is reciprocity that creates culture.

It's not what you know, but who you know' has ever been the mantra of the ambitious, but in the 1990s, 'networking' suddenly became a thing. There were books on networking; tea breaks at conferences became 'networking sessions'.

There was an economic driver behind this: mobility between jobs, and mobility in where you lived, were both rising. You had to make connections around your new job, and at the same time, build up the connections that might lead to your next job. You had to get to know the social territory of your new town. You had to network.

Then digital platforms super-charged networking. Facebook gave us a low-cost, lowest common denominator way to connect - thumbs up / thumbs down is crude but it is easy. LinkedIn became an outlet for retailing bodies for hire. A personalised web presence became a must-have.

The constant projection of the self, the craft of making up how you come across online, and the self-interested intent in that, have become second nature to digital natives. Twitter, YouTube, Instant Messaging, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok - the platforms proliferate. We've learned how to make ourselves up.

Now Mailchimp stuffs our in-trays with sincere but exhausting calls on our attention (and our cash) from the good causes and interesting shops where we have blithely handed over our email address. We've all snapped up Google email accounts, but, oh dear, welcome to Surveillance Capitalism, where every digital move is data on-sold to marketers. In return, they offer us what we yearn for at precisely the times we are most vulnerable and in need of the soothing balm of a purchase. This fusion of commerce and greed wired to our once-private lives is not looking good for the planet, or the human species. Collapse of civilisation the most likely outcome, says ANU's Will Steffen.

I tried to keep up with the digital platforms for a while. I had a go at LinkedIn, Facebook, and my own website, but it was hard work when basically nothing came back. I was speaking into a void. No reciprocity. Now my LinkedIn profile is years out of date, likewise my Facebook account, and I've forgotten the other platforms I signed up for.

Instead of shoving stuff out into a void, I've settled on just a couple of places to write about things that matter to me. I like writing: it's good for thinking, and writing for people I know gives writing a point.

But away from my desk, I find am valuing more and more the connections that have slowly built up in the town and region where I live. I was going to say 'the connections that I have built', but in truth, it's as much the connections that others have initiated that have created my social network.

The local level secures reciprocity in networks. I give you a hand, and I trust that you will give me a hand when I need it. That's a commerce of sorts, but without cash, and close at hand. Wider networks bring in new ideas and alternatives to business-as-usual.

Relationships across the country or the globe are exciting, but how deep do they run? They move information and idea fast, but for the feeling of conviviality and for depth in understanding, nothing beats standing on the street outside the post office nattering, or catching up at the local market. Local networks create culture.

And by culture I don't mean just the arts, but the unspoken social agreements about how to live and behave. These agreements are in play (and in contention) in our intimate relationships - our private space - but it's in our networks of place that these agreements on how to behave well as humans are confirmed, affirmed, and sometimes, renegotiated.

In the street, in the friendly give-and-take of social life, reciprocity is in the foreground. Self-interest is still there, but in the background. And that's a blessed relief!