The Square and the Tower Book Summary - The Square and the Tower Book explained in key points
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The Square and the Tower summary

Niall Ferguson

Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

4.3 (70 ratings)
42 mins

Brief summary

The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson explores the dynamic relationship between hierarchies and networks throughout history, arguing that networks have often been more influential in shaping events than those in power would like to admit.

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    The Square and the Tower
    Summary of 13 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 13

    History is shaped by the push and pull of hierarchy and networks, two phenomena that share some basic traits.

    Some people view history as a kind of pyramid. At the top are the great kings and queens, with a vast hierarchy of knights, priests and peasants below them. Others emphasize the role of clandestine networks such as the Illuminati or the Freemasons, groups of people who, though acting behind the scenes, pull all the strings.

    But can either of these models really explain the historical process?

    In fact, both hierarchies and networks have molded most of our history. While hierarchies have usually had the final say, networks have long played a vital role in driving historical change and transforming societies.

    Take the global economic networks that emerged with the advent of steamships and railways, or the more recent changes precipitated by the emergence of communication networks centered around telephones or the internet. And social networks have also played a key role in change. The French Revolution, for example, was facilitated by the salons of eighteenth-century Paris, where different groups could meet to discuss their ideas.

    Networks and hierarchies also share a number of traits.

    Think of what a network really is. Simply put, it’s a set of interconnected nodes. These nodes can be people, trading ports or family members. And, because of homophily, our propensity to form networks with people similar to us, these nodes tend to be connected by some commonality.

    What unites us with others can be a shared status – such as ethnicity, class, age or sex – or a set of shared values derived from education, religion, occupation or other interests.

    A good example of this is the early twentieth-century Bloomsbury group. Consisting of authors and artists, the group took shape around a series of shared ideals concerning art, life, sexuality and politics. The connections between group members were sometimes even formalized through marriage. Indeed, these individual nodes were connected in so many ways that if you were to draw a line signifying each connection, you’d end up with a pattern similar to a spider’s web.

    The author Virginia Woolf, for example, married Leonard Woolf but was in love with the famous gardener Vita Sackville-West. At the center of the network was the economist John Maynard Keynes. Because he was connected to virtually every other node, he was the network’s hub or central node.

    Hierarchy works like this, too. The difference, however, is that the connections all run down from the top. The “central” node is in fact the apex of the pyramid.

    Everyone is connected to the top, with varying degrees of separation. But, as you proceed down the pyramid, there are fewer and fewer horizontal connections between individual nodes.

    So, although hierarchies and networks share similarities, networks are more interconnected. In the following blinks, we’ll dig a bit deeper and explore how networks function.

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    What is The Square and the Tower about?

    Our networked lives are often seen as a product of the recent past. After all, didn’t the internet, social media, globalized trade and international terrorist networks first emerge in the late twentieth century? Renowned historian Niall Ferguson begs to differ. Providing a sweeping overview of Western history, from the birth of the printing press to the election of Donald Trump, The Square and the Tower (2018) offers a compelling argument that networks have been a key driver of historical change for a very long time and will only become more important in the future.

    The Square and the Tower Review

    The Square and the Tower (2017) by Niall Ferguson is a thought-provoking examination of the hidden networks that shape society. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Offers compelling insights into the power dynamics between formal hierarchies and informal networks, shedding light on how history is shaped.
    • Provides a fresh perspective on familiar historical events, revealing the influence of secret societies, social media, and other networks on the course of history.
    • Engages readers with intriguing stories and well-researched analysis, making complex concepts accessible and presenting a captivating narrative of human social interactions.

    Best quote from The Square and the Tower

    Man with his unrivaled neural network was born to network.

    —Niall Ferguson
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    Who should read The Square and the Tower?

    • History buffs who love grand theories about the past
    • Anyone who’s befuddled by recent political events
    • Social media professionals keen to learn how networks can change the world

    About the Author

    Niall Ferguson is a British historian as renowned for his scholarly range as for his ability to provoke debate with his controversial public interventions. A research fellow at Oxford and Stanford, Ferguson is a contributing editor to Bloomberg television and the author of several popular history books, including Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011). He was also an advisor to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.

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    The Square and the Tower FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Square and the Tower?

    The main message of The Square and the Tower is the importance of networks and hierarchies throughout history.

    How long does it take to read The Square and the Tower?

    The reading time for The Square and the Tower varies depending on the reader, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Square and the Tower a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Square and the Tower is worth reading as it offers insightful analysis of power structures and their impact on society.

    Who is the author of The Square and the Tower?

    The author of The Square and the Tower is Niall Ferguson.

    What to read after The Square and the Tower?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Square and the Tower, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • Civilization by Niall Ferguson
    • Why The West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris
    • Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra
    • The Idea Is the Easy Part by Brian Dovey
    • Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman
    • Empire by Niall Ferguson
    • The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
    • The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson
    • Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
    • The Iliad by Homer