Three years ago this obscure wilderness village could claim about as much in common with the Himalayan highlands of Nepal as the great Maine moose has with a Nepalese mountain goat.
But ever since native son Bill Ellis bumped into Ron MacLeod at a Rangeley dinner party, western Maine and Nepal have been planetary cousins.
Dr. Ellis, a physicist and former science adviser to the US government, had just returned from Nepal, vividly aware of the Nepalese desperation to save the crumbling waterwheels along their mountain landscape.
Mr. MacLeod happened to have been investigating the abandoned waterwheels that once powered the industrial revolution in New England. He had just rediscovered a once-famed, but forgotten, turbine built for landscapes not unlike those of Nepal.
Ellis instantly had waterwheeler MacLeod in touch with the Asians in Lamjung, Nepal. They pooled ideas. And before anyone back in Rangeley could say ''Moose ahead!'' a spunky new breed of Nepalese waterwheel was born, four times more powerful than the old.
Rangeley became a near household word in Lamjung.
These days, linkups like the Rangeley-Nepal connection are far more than haphazard conversations. They're part of a conscious wave of global ''networking ,'' a revolution of social spidering that is weaving webs of planetary cooperation that were inconceivable even a decade ago.
In one sense, networking is as old as the art of human cooperation. Culinary enthusiasts do it when they exchange recipes; spelunkers when they collaborate on their favorite caves; physicists when they compare equations. Wherever people at a distance have wanted to collaborate over time - whether by messenger or mail, smoke signal, or teleconference - networking has been a human possibility.
But observers tracking the emerging global networks think a new page is being turned in the history of the social enterprise.
The stage had been set for it in the 1970s. Planetary prophets were warning that the rising needs of burgeoning local populations could not be met by the overweight, slow-footed government bureaucracies. Communities in rich and poor countries alike searched for more local self-sufficiency. Many found a ready resource through networks of idea-sharing that linked up their regions.
In the '80s, networking has gone global.m If a community development project can benefit from idea-sharing at the local level, the logic goes, why cannot it also be plugged into idea-flows across nations? Even professionals steeped in traditional government and the United Nations seem to be getting into the act.
Physicist Bill Ellis, for one, spends his working hours lubricating the info-channels between groups that adapt technology to local community needs. His ''Transnational Network for Appropriate/Alternative Technologies'' now links nearly 10,000 groups in countries rich and poor. His monthly newsletter TRANET keeps the networkers in touch with the latest news on inventions, books, and happenings in the field.
Japanese economist Akio Matsumora, on the other hand, has hitched up a thriving network by which congressmen and members of parliament in 144 countries brainstorm on population problems.
Next spring a new ''Mayors North-South Network'' convenes in Ottawa. Realizing that over 50 percent of the world's people will live in cities by the year 2000, mayors of the world's 35 largest cities want to start talking about how to prepare.
To address women's issues, architect and city planner Fran P. Hosken coordinates the Women's International Network (WIN) out of Lexington, Mass.
Meanwhile, on the hunger front, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research coordinates an enormously successful network of research centers around the world. The centers, which produced the green revolution's miracle seeds, are collaborating to extend the benefits to the poorest rural regions.
Not least, the burgeoning antinuclear network in the United States continues to strengthen its ties with the regional nets of Europe.
As quickly as networking lists have grown into directories, so has sociologists' astonishment grown. How, they ask, can such vast, loosely knit associations survive in an age in which tightknit, centralized bureaucracy is supposed to reign king?
Perhaps nothing turns the theory of power-organizing on its head quite like the modesty of the networkers' central headquarters. Visit most any center (''coordinating node'' in networkspeak) and you find no large office block. No vast pools of support staff and secretaries. No pretensions of setting up shop for time immemorial. For all their global reach, networks seem to pride themselves on outmaneuvering bureaucratic trappings.
The parliamentarians' population network, for instance, is coordinated out of a lean, single-secretary office on the fringe of the United Nations complex in New York.
Others, like Bill Ellis's TRANET, are coordinated quite happily at sites totally removed from the centers of international trade. Even while isolated in the backwoods of Maine, Ellis delights in proving that a man can coordinate the multitudes while sitting in the comfort of his own country home.
Rangeley, a logging-resort town with a population of 800, lies a mere 20 miles from Maine's wooded western border with Canada. It is 50 miles from the nearest major human habitation; 40 miles from the nearest Xerox machine. Talk with any two citizens and they're likely to be cousins. Moose are constant road hazards.
When this reporter visited Ellis's TRANET headquarters, he was looking appropriately frontier - denim field suit, cheeks ruddied from the outdoors, hair and graying goatee ruffled from the wind.
On the day before, he had entertained a Guatemalan technology expert who was passing through Rangeley on his way back to Central America from a visit to China. In a few days Ellis was expecting the British head of a self-help housing network. This afternoon he was relaxing after a day of culturing the backyard soybeans, rhubarb, and other vegetables he hopes will see him through the Maine winter.
''We first got this idea for TRANET in 1976 at the United Nations Habitat meeting in Vancouver,'' says Ellis, leaning on a post beside the homemade wooden TRANET sign that hangs on his front porch.
''Appropriate technology (AT) people came to Vancouver from all over the world with their displays of self-help housing, biogas, kilns, pumps, watermills - all kinds of AT.
''We realized then that all sorts of related local self-help technologies were surfacing simultaneously around the world, even at the lowest village levels. We determined to stay in touch with each other. But we didn't want a big organization. We were looking for a non-organization - a network.
''TRANET started with a modest 50 AT groups. In a few years there were 10,000 people plugging into the network, volunteering items for the newsletter, putting each other in touch with people they needed to meet.
The summer 1982 edition of TRANET, for instance, lists everything from a capsule summary of a new Worldwatch Institute study on building a sustainable society to juicy AT tidbits from networkers around the world. Subscribers also could read up on the latest cheap biogas generators and conferences in Bermuda and Rio de Janeiro on low-energy alternatives and local self-sufficiency, to name a few.
''I just got a call from an Indian touring the US who asked if I could find an AT expert to start up a farm in Bombay. We get these requests all the time,'' Ellis said.
Indeed, the TRANET office itself is stacked (albeit neatly) with forests of requests and correspondence from the planetary AT community, directories of AT centers, back copies of the newsletter. Wall posters portray how Paris, Vienna, Woodley in England, and Winona, Minn., would look if transformed with '80 s-appropriate technology.
''You know,'' he says, ''I sit up here and people say, 'Bill, how can you be so happy? The world's falling apart. We could have nuclear disaster tomorrow.' Yet, in this AT network, everybody I run into is so incredibly positive. All I hear about is people doing things to evolve a positive new world order.''
Why is it, sociologists ask themselves, that networking has such growing appeal as an alternative to bureaucratic ways of getting things done? One wife-and-husband team, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, have been grappling with the question. They examined 1,500 national and global networks in preparation for their recent book ''Networking: The First Report and Directory'' (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982).
The appeal, they argue, lies in the balance networks strike between linking groups with common interests and their strict preservation of the independent decisionmaking those diverse groups require. That kind of balance is a rare commodity in the world of modern bureaucratic organizations.
''The networks are webs of totally free-standing participants,'' explains Mr. Stamps.
''The networkers are, to be sure, linked by shared values,'' he says. ''But that sharing is still based on a respect for the individuality of each node - each person, group, or ecosystem. You find no one network leader, but many, and many levels of decisions going on all across the networks. Information flows from the bottom up as much as from the top down.''
The desired fluidity also brings its limitations, according to Stamps and Lipnack. Networks operate in a certain uneasy equilibrium between a few agreements on shared values and many disagreements on how to carry out goals. They can become a ''babble of equivalent voices that leaves a network vulnerable to the impotence of factionalism.''
Even trying to characterize such a fluid, amoebalike, form-shifting, multiheaded organism as the network has proved a very slippery task indeed. SPINS is the acronym coined by sociologists Virginia Hine and Luther Gerlach of the universities of Miami and Minnesota - short for ''segmented polycephalous integrated networks.
Behind the surface fluidity of form, however, networks are held together by a certain ideological glue. Curiously, that glue never seems to come from a single central charismatic leader. Instead it comes from the sharing of common concerns, a sharing that is being spontaneously generated among peoples quite distant from each other. A possible explanation, says John Platt, professor of government at Harvard University, is that mass communications are simply making people in one place aware that they share concerns with people thousands of miles away.
Whatever the technological basis, the fluid, decentralized networks could begin to restore the citizens' self-determination and communitasm that got lost in the onrush of large-scale centralized bureaucracies.
''The industrial revolution centralized our organizations, and increased dependency of their parts on the whole,'' says Jessica Lipnack. ''But the information revolution and networking are building into our systems a force for decentralization, for reducing dependency of parts on the whole. They could in a sense even embrace the bureaucracies and balance out their tendencies to separate people and nations.''
Sitting crosslegged over a steaming lunch of Shabu Shabu at a Japanese restaurant near his office in downtown Manhattan, networker Akio Matsumora insists he is not an opponent of bureaucracies, big government, the United Nations.
''Not at all,'' he says in short, crisp tones. ''But as I looked at world government, I saw that the bureaucracies are only one of the key levels. You also have private organizations, spiritual leaders, and a fourth level seldom recognized for its importance: the congressmen and members of parliament. They represent citizens at the grass roots; they also influence bureaucrats above. We have only begun to see how valuable it is for these people to collaborate across national borders.''
In a mere five years, this enterprising, determined Japanese economist has materialized a pulsating network of parliamentarians from 144 countries. The network allows the parliamentarians to collaborate on the pressures of world population trends. Each then may take further steps by proposing legislation in his own country.
Last year the Asian ''wing'' of the network met as a group for the first time in Peking - one of the rare all-Asia gatherings. The Africans met later in Nairobi. The Europeans, including a Soviet ''parliamentarian,'' met in Paris. In December the North and South Americans meet in Brazil.
Mr. Matsumora began developing his own vast population contacts in the early '70s while working for the International Planned Parenthood Federation.Later he joined the UN Fund for Population Activities. In 1977 he and Sen. Joseph Tydings of Maryland staged the first consultation on population among Japanese and American legislators. Two years later a global conference was held in Sri Lanka. Regionwide networks took off from there.
This year the Global Committee of Parliamentarians on Population and Development was begun in New York. It is advised by former heads of state and prominent community leaders, and the committee gives parliamentarians a vehicle for feeding their population views into the UN system.
''In our world there is only one top of Mt. Everest, one highest of goals: achieving peace,'' reflected Mr. Matsumora. ''That is too heavy a burden to be left only to the bureaucrats. Beyond population issues themselves, this peace is the ultimate reason why we're bringing the parliamentarians together.''
As network coordinator, Akio Matsumora has also tried to keep deliberations on a totally nonpolitical footing. But last year political tensions threatened to blow apart the Asians' meeting in Peking.China and India were at loggerheads over border disputes. A few weeks before the scheduled meeting, Matsumora had to make seven trips to China and several to India before finally getting permission to go forward.
''We had to stress over and over,'' he recalled, ''that this would not be a meeting of the United Nations or representatives of governments, but an academic meeting of parliamentarians talking about population. This is the ground on which we could finally get permission to go forward.
''I think we also convinced everybody that this gathering could stand as one of the few real symbols of the unity of Asia.''
The success, Matsumora is convinced, could hint at a wider role the parliamentarians' network could play in future world crises.
''In future crises it may not be possible to achieve a spirit of peace and cohesion through formal diplomacy,'' he says. ''Here, the parliamentarians may prove very significant. Resolving disputes ultimately comes down to trust between the parties involved. I think the parliamentarians' have begun to build some real trust.''
Meanwhile the speculation about the long-term networking potential goes on. Some networkers are waxing Utopian in their visions; others are far more cautious and ambiguous.
The more optimistic, at least, think the networks are becoming a kind of second level of world governance, taking over numerous functions now performed by nation-states.
Lipnack and Stamps suggest that networking could eventually link nations in a solidarity of shared values that supersedes the United Nations system in its influence, yet still avoids coercive authority.
For at least one voice in the wilderness of western Maine, it comes down to a cry for a more humane planetary order.
''We're going to create a positive future,'' said Bill Ellis, ''regardless of whether governments get stupid or smart.''