Networks and Hierarchies

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Order vs. Chaos: How We Choose

(The Towers of San Gimignano)

Below is a thought-provoking essay by historian Niall Ferguson examining the fluid structure of societies that swing from hierarchies to decentralized networks.

Anyway, this is a subject dear to my heart, as it is the overriding theme of several of my fiction books. See interjections below…

In Praise of Hierarchy – The Wall Street Journal
https://apple.news/A3UEyEvI-SnuHNdt8fLLjzg (paywall)

The Saturday Essay
Established, traditional order is under assault from freewheeling, networked disrupters as never before. But society craves centralized leadership, too.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.

Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.

But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?

True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.

Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”

Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.

Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza.

DSC_1483_2

Siena’s torre

This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

COM2014-tiny FB cover

The epic story of chaos vs. order during the Savonarola-Machiavelli era, foreshadowing Martin Luther.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.

Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.

In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere.

IGWT Cover12 6x9 large 2017

Freemasons in today’s Washington, D.C.?

At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.

 

Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.

Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.

Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.

The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.

The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.

It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.

Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.

There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.

Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.

We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.

Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.

 

Why You Should Play Music

 

Following text excerpted from The Ultimate Killer App: The Power to Create and Connect   Chapter 3.

…Music is a bewitching art because it seems to engage areas of our brain that integrate emotions, memory, language/communication, and motor skills. Music not only stimulates more areas of the brain, it resonates to the very core of our physical being, especially when we dance and sing.

Through the ages philosophers and artists have often argued over which of the arts is preeminent and most venerated.[i] The ancient Greeks lauded poetry, Leonardo da Vinci exalted painting, and Michelangelo favored sculpture as the most sublime art of all. I have to side with philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s judgment that music portrays the inner flow of life more directly than the other arts,[ii] and Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said “Without music, life would be a mistake.” With music we dance, we sing, we communicate, we synchronize and coordinate, we contemplate, we remember. Sometimes we even fall into an otherworldly trance. Reggae icon Bob Marley perhaps puts it most simply when he sings, “One good thing about music, it gets you feeling okay…”

schopenhauer

Reflect, for a moment, on how we interact with music: how we remember and respond to certain melodies over time; how a particular song or melody can replay constantly in our mind’s ear, even to the point of distraction[iii]; how particular melodies and harmonies can make us feel joyful or sad, fearful or fearless; how some individuals can see musical pitches as colors; how a particular shuffle rhythm can make us relax with a resting heartbeat, or an up-tempo straight beat can make our hearts race. Interestingly, humans are unique among primates in being able to tap their feet in time to a rhythm, an activity that involves a process of meter extraction so complicated that most computers cannot do it.

E.O. Wilson argues from an evolutionary perspective that creating and performing music is instinctual, one of the true universals of our species. Anthropological studies of tribal cultures show the extent to which singing and dancing is a natural activity in various communities, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone.[iv] In many of the world’s languages, the verb for singing is the same as the one for dancing; there is no distinction, since it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.

Functional brain imaging shows that playing and listening to music involves nearly every region of the brain and nearly every neural subsystem. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of our brains, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. One neuroscientist [Harvard’s Gottfried Schlaug] has shown that the front portion of the corpus callosum—the mass of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres—is significantly larger in musicians than in non-musicians.[v]

Music is also powerful in its impact on human feeling and on perception. This is why movie soundtracks have the sublime capacity to enhance our multisensory experience. Music is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms. We have all experienced the pleasures of music and neuroscientists have found that music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system through the release of dopamine.

The emotional power of music is also reflected in that most time-honored form, the romantic love song. One researcher who analyzed the lyrics of the year’s 10 most popular songs listed in Billboard for two eras, 2002-2005 and 1968-1971, found that 24 of the 40 songs in the modern era — 60 percent — and half the songs of the classic era were devoted to the subject of love and relationships.[vi]

In The Descent of Man Darwin surmised that “musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus, musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively.” Beyond love and sex, music in politics and revolution can become a national anthem, a rallying cry, or a military march. In a communal celebration, such as Mardi Gras, music becomes an expression of collective joy and celebration.

Music is a language, not only an aural language but a written one. Music invokes some of the same neural regions as language but, far more than language does, music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward, and emotion. The mental structure in music requires both halves of the brain, while the mental structure of language only requires the left half. In this sense, music is even more powerful than spoken language and is its likely precursor. Music may have prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become human. Singing and instrumental activities might have helped our species to refine motor skills, paving the way for the development of the exquisitely fine muscle control required for vocal or signed speech.

Not surprisingly, studies have found that children who take music lessons for two years also process language better. Music therapy using listening and instrument playing has been shown to help people overcome a broad range of psychological and neurological problems. Patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, in whom movements tend to be incontinently fast or slow, or sometimes frozen, can overcome these disorders of timing when they are exposed to the regular tempo and rhythm of music.

In This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin offers evidence to support the view that musical ability served as an indicator of cognitive, emotional and physical health, and was evolutionarily advantageous as a force that led to social bonding and increased fitness. Levitin writes:

The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about…connections.[vii] (emphasis added)

Medical research into two specific neuro-developmental disorders reveals an interesting neurological link between music and social development. Williams Syndrome (WS) is a rare genetic disorder that causes physical and cognitive deficits, such as heart defects, stunted physical development, brain abnormalities, low IQs, high levels of emotional anxiety and various learning disabilities. However, WS individuals also exhibit high levels of sociability, gregariousness, and an affinity and talent for music. In contrast to WS are the family of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), such as Asperger’s syndrome. Individuals with ASD exhibit deficits in sociability and an inability to empathize. In general, they also display no emotional affinity for music. As Levitin explains, complementary syndromes such as these, which neuroscientists call a double dissociation, strengthen the putative link between music and social bonding.

Historically and anthropologically, music has been involved with social activities. People sing and dance together in every culture, and one can imagine them doing so around the first fires a hundred thousand years ago. This observation dovetails with E.O. Wilson’s narrative of the campfire as the focus of social and community development cited in Chapter 1.

In Music and the Mind, psychologist Anthony Storr stresses that in all societies, a primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together. As Storr explains, in modern culture the choice of music has important social consequences. People listen to the music their friends listen to and people who listen to the same music form friendships. Particularly when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or with whom we believe we have something in common. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music. It becomes a mark of our chosen identity. This ties in with the evolutionary idea of music as a vehicle for social bonding and societal cohesion. Music and musical preferences become a mark of personal and group identity and of distinction.

As a powerful biological, psychological, emotional, and communicative medium, music reinforces the ties that bring us together and then bind us. Think of two musicians playing together, jamming, or playing a structured piece – the music is heard as one indivisible expression. A duet can become a trio, then a quartet, a quintet, and finally a full orchestra or big band. The possibilities for creative variation multiply with collaborative input. There is nothing more enjoyable to jazz aficionados – players and audiences alike – than an artful improvisation on a theme that becomes a new musical exploration of the unknown. Philharmonic audiences, likewise, are thrilled by the grandeur of an orchestra that plays as one.

I have deliberately highlighted the role of creativity in music because it provides strong evidence for the synergistic power of creating and sharing (connecting). The power of creative art is that it connects us to one another, and to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

music

[i] Granted, this judgment may be largely influenced by the era in which the art is technically applied. Certainly film has been a dominant art form of the 20th century, while others claim that virtual gaming will be the preeminent creative art form of the near future. Nevertheless, I will stick with the universality and simplicity of music.

[ii] See Schopenhauer on the “Hierarchy among the fine arts.”

[iii] For some inexplicable reason as I write this, the song “Winchester Cathedral” keeps repeating in my head. A song I most certainly have not heard replayed for at least 50 years, and yet, there it is playing back in my memory. Not my first choice!

[iv] This points out the modern travesty of dividing communal music performance between virtuosi and the rest of us listening in the audience. The communal drum circle is much more in tune with our nature.

[v] Gottfried Schlaug, “Musicians and music making as a model for the study of brain plasticity.” Prog Brain Res. 2015; 217: 37–55.

[vi] http://news.ufl.edu/archive/2007/05/love-still-dominates-pop-song-lyrics-but-with-raunchier-language.html

[vii] Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, p. 188. For a lovely graphic illustrating the myriad brain functions that music engages, which I cannot print here due to copyright issues, go to http://www.fastcompany.com/3022942/work-smart/the-surprising-science-behind-what-music-does-to-our-brains?