In the early days of the world wide web, most links to external sites were, in my opinion, "legitimate" rather than contrived. My first site dated back to 1994, and consisted of a landing page along with some samples of my academic writing. Back then, besides having no Wikipedia (but a plethora of Usenet newsgroups to refer to), I was able to mainly browse and select what I considered to be quality sites to which to link, and I gave no thought to soliciting inbound links from those destinations.
Since there is so much content on the internet, I do understand that the mindset of "if you build [quality content], they will [link to you]" has to be paired now with keyword awareness. But the idealist in me still hopes that people would seek out useful and well-presented material to link to, regardless of the (un)likelihood of gaining an inbound link themselves.