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The Square and the Tower

Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

By Niall Ferguson
22-minute read
Audio available
The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson

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.

  • 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

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

Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

By Niall Ferguson
  • Read in 22 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 14 key ideas
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The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson
Synopsis

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.

Key idea 1 of 14

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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