Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower is a caution against seeing our new, networked world as an unalloyed blessings. Human history (and NF’s book) is filled with examples of networks and hierarchies, many worth celebrating and equally many worth decrying. NF’s central worry is that our latest networks make us vulnerable to economic and political anarchy. He sees the rise of the internet as very similar in important ways to the print revolution, and no student of history can regard that revolution as smooth and peaceful. So we should be concerned about the sorts of disruption and anarchy our own networky revolution encourages.
We’re naturally wired to form social networks – up to about 150 friends, if the research is to be believed. Human culture, at its core, is just distributed cognition over a social network. Yet humans have also been enthralled to hierarchies which (unlike other networks) have a top and a bottom. How come? NF mentions the advantages of making communal action more efficient, and providing greater social cohesion. I would add that hierarchies make group strategies possible: in a battle, it helps to have a general on the hill whose commands must be obeyed. Also, who can deny that, once a hierarchy forms, it behooves those at the top to preserve and perpetuate that hierarchy, regardless of any benefits that might trickle down? One important question that comes up tangentially from NF’s discussion is whether networks naturally become hierarchies over time: the most densely connected nodes become bosses, just in virtue of the wealth of their connections. But NF is acutely concerned about the opposite transformation, from hierarchy to network: “Hierarchs have long been uneasily aware that fraternizing amongst subordinates can be the prelude to a palace coup” (41).
From his introductory coverage of network theory, NF draws seven insights: 1. No man is an island. 2. Birds of a feather flock together. (Networks are prone toward clusters of homogeneity.) 3. Weak ties are strong (meaning, if there are lots of connections among nodes, the network is strong). 4. Structure determines virality (“some ideas go viral because of the structural features of the network through which they spread”). 5. Networks never sleep. 6. Networks network (when networks confront one another, usually something very dynamic happens). 7. The rich get richer: “Because of preferential attachment [see #2], most social networks are profoundly inegalitarian” (47).
The thickest middle of the book – parts two through seven, or chapters 11-49 – is a long history of various sorts of networks and hierarchies. We encounter the Renaissance bankers, the empires of colonization, the Reformation, the Republic of Letters, scientific societies, the Freemasons, the royal families of the Victorian era, the empires of industrialization, the Rothschilds, Chinese dynasties, networks of spies, the clubs of extraordinary British gentlemen, the transmissions of plague, the Bolshevik revolution, the Nixon-Kissinger White House, and the delicate balance of European powers which, when it fell apart, became WWI. It is a considerable tour de force, and the reader may be excused for finding the particular accounts so fascinating as to forget from time to time whether any sort of overarching thesis is being established.
We eventually arrive at our own doorstep: the internet, Al-Qaeda, the crisis of 2008, ISIS, the rise of FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), and the most recent results of hyperconnected network activity: Brexit, and the election of a baboon to serve as President of the United States. Alongside FANG, BAT has developed in China: Baidu (Chinese Google), Alibaba (Chinese Amazon), and Tencent (Chinese Facebook or Twitter, approximately, as it includes the messaging app WeChat). In a hazy way, the development of these two incredibly powerful systems of networks demonstrates that the injunction to “only connect” does in no way guarantee that connectivity automatically brings democratic free expression in its wake.
Whenever there is networked power unchallenged by any sort of law-governed structure, we should worry. That is fundamentally NF’s point. Hierarchies can accomplish all manner of evil, it is true; but so can non-hierarchical networks. The choice, it would seem, is between the dangers of tyranny, and the dangers of anarchy. NF is alive to both dangers, and the point of his book is to make sure we are too.