So now I’m thinking back on all those connections Cacioppo witnessed in Grand Central. “Other species, like penguins, they rely on huddles for survival,” he told me. “In terms of collective structures, they’re pretty minimal and boring. But people have the capacity to make all kinds of transient connections. New York has an infinite number of them.”
He was describing the ballet of the train station. But his description could just as easily have applied to the Internet. Think about it: Serendipitous encounters between people who know each other well, sort of well, and not at all. People of every type, and with every type of agenda, trying to meet up with others who share that same agenda. An environment that’s alive at all hours, populated by all types, and is, most of the time, pretty safe. What he was saying, really, was that New York had become the Web. Or perhaps more, even: that New York was the Web before the Web was the Web, characterized by the same free-flowing interaction, 24/7 rhythms, subgroups, and demimondes.
Hampton says he views the Internet as the ultimate city, the last stop on the continuum of human connectedness. I’d argue that New York and the Internet are about the same, in the way that a large bookstore feels like it offers just as many possibilities as Amazon.com—maybe slightly less inventory, but more opportunities to stumble on things you might not have otherwise. Whichever the case, what the Internet and New York have in common is that each environment facilitates interaction between individuals like no other, and both would be positively useless—would literally lose their raison d’être—if solitary individuals didn’t furiously interact in each. They show us, in trillions of invisible ways every day, that people are essentially nothing without one another. We may sometimes want to throttle our fellow travelers on the F train. We may on occasion curse our neighbors for playing music so loud it splits the floor. But living cheek-by-jowl is the necessary price we pay for our well-being. And anyway, who wants to ride the subway alone?