Dear Commons Community,
I have just finished reading Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook. Ferguson is an historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. We live in the Internet Age and it is natural that we study and examine how networking technology has affected much of what we do especially our political, social and economic systems. Ferguson takes a dive into history to make the case that networks of one type or another were always with us and that they have vied with traditional hierarchical power structures. Ferguson provides many examples from history to demonstrate this thesis. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times Book Review:
“A new book by prolific historian Niall Ferguson, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook” (Penguin), goes a long way toward redressing this pervasive lack of perspective to a concept central to the contemporary technological “revolution”: networks.
The internet itself is a network of networks. The ability to communicate and transact across its vast reach is indeed unprecedented and represents the basic infrastructure of what has been termed the “network society.” Mr. Ferguson’s book does far more than simply track the use of the word “network” from its introduction in English language publications in the late 19th century, when it “was scarcely used,” to the modern day, when he points out that it appeared in 136 articles in The New York Times during just the first week of 2017. Rather he seeks to reframe the entirety of human history as an endless tug-of-war between eras in which powerful hierarchical institutions predominate (the Tower of the title) only to be undermined by the influence of emerging networks (the corresponding Square). In Professor Ferguson’s telling, these networks are invariably co-opted by reconstituted hierarchies and the process begins again.
For instance, Professor Ferguson argues it was the printing press that was largely responsible for three “network-based revolutions — the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.” These were followed by a hundred-year period of hierarchical international order dominated by five hubs (Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia) leading up to the First World War.
The new industrial, financial and communications networks that emerged during this time did not, however, overturn the hierarchical nature of things. This dominant structure survived both world wars, according to Professor Ferguson, with the mid-twentieth century actually representing the “zenith of hierarchy.” His account shows how the ability to navigate and influence these and other nascent networks determined which empires thrived in the reconfigured hierarchical orders.
One does not have to completely buy in to the book’s reframing of key social and political turning points to find the narrative both captivating and compelling. Whether describing the surprisingly ineffective 18th century network of the mysterious Illuminati that continue to be the subject of crank conspiracy theorists or the shockingly effective 20th century network of Cambridge University spies working for the Soviets, Professor Ferguson manages both to tell a good story and provide important insight into the specific qualities that power successful networks.
The important lesson of “The Square and the Tower” is that the existence of a network, or network effects for that matter, should be the beginning not the end of the analysis. The critical questions relate to the network’s key characteristics and how it interacts with other networks and hierarchies.”
I recommend this book for all those interested in the power of networks on society. Be aware that Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and leans a tad right at times.