This is a review of British historian Niall Ferguson’s new book titled The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power. It’s interesting to take the long arc of history into account in this day and age of global communication networks, which might seem to herald the permanent dominance of networks over hierarchies. That history cautions us otherwise.
Ferguson notes two predominant ages of networks: the advent of the printing press in 1452 that led to an explosion of networks across the world until around 1800. This was the Enlightenment period that helped transform economics, politics, and social relations.
Today, the second age of networks consumes us, starting at about 1970 with microchip technology and continuing forward to the present. It is the age of telecommunications, digital technology, and global networks. Ours is an age where it seems “everything is connected.”
Ferguson notes that, beginning with the invention of written language, all that has happened is that new technologies have facilitated our innate, ancient urge to network – in other words, to connect. This seems to affirm Aristotle’s observation that “man is a social animal,” as well as a large library of psychological behavioral studies over the past century. He also notes that most networks may reflect a power law distribution and be scale-free. In other words, large networks grow larger and become more valuable as they do so. This means the rich get richer and most social networks are profoundly inegalitarian. This implies that the GoogleAmazonFacebookApple (GAFA) oligarchy may be taking over the world, leaving the rest of us as powerless as feudal serfs.
But there is a fatal weakness inherent to this futuristic scenario, in that complex networks create interdependent relationships that can lead to catastrophic cascades, such as the global financial crisis of 2008. Or an explosion of “fake news” and misinformation spewed out by global gossip networks.
We are also seeing a gradual deconstruction of networks that compete with the power of nation-state sovereignty. This is reflected in the rise of nationalistic politics in democracies and authoritarian monopoly control over information in autocracies.
However, from the angle of hierarchical control, Ferguson notes that failures of democratic governance through the administrative state “represents the last iteration of political hierarchy: a system that spews out rules, generates complexity, and undermines both prosperity and stability.”
These historical paths imply that the conflict between distributed networks and concentrated hierarchies is likely a natural tension in search of an uneasy equilibrium.
Ferguson notes “if Facebook initially satisfied the human need to gossip, it was Twitter – founded in March 2006 – that satisfied the more specific need to exchange news, often (though not always) political.” But when I read Twitter feeds I’m thinking Twitter may be more of a tool for disruption rather than constructive dialogue. In other words, we can use these networking technologies to tear things down, but not so much to build them back up again.
As a Twitter co-founder confesses:
‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,’ said Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter in May 2017. ‘I was wrong about that.’
Rather, as Ferguson asserts, “The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins.”
Ferguson is quite pessimistic about today’s dominance of networks, with one slim ray of hope. As he writes,
“…how can an urbanized, technologically advanced society avoid disaster when its social consequences are profoundly inegalitarian?
“To put the question more simply: can a networked world have order? As we have seen, some say that it can. In the light of historical experience, I very much doubt it.”
That slim ray of hope? Blockchain technology!
A thought-provoking book.