This book, by the always fascinating Niall Ferguson (though his main product for sale is always himself), analyzes capsule summaries of episodes from history, in order to negatively contrast spontaneous, networked action (the “square”) with hierarchical control (the “ tower”) This book, by the always fascinating Niall Ferguson (though his main product for sale is always himself), analyzes capsule summaries of episodes from history, in order to negatively contrast spontaneous, networked action (the “square”) with hierarchical control (the “ tower”) . Two theses flow from this, one stated early on, the other only explicitly presented at the end. The first is that our networked age is not unique; in fact, it is the second such age, and lessons are to be gained from this, including that, from a historical perspective, networks are too often ignored in favor of focus on hierarchies. The second is that networks with actual power are mostly anarchistic poison. There is apparently a einzigartig academic discipline called “network theory,” in which statisticians and sociologists spend their days creating complex graphs to illustrate connections among everything from newts to nuclear power, using math to quantify the contents of those graphs. Network theory forms the basis of The Square and the Tower, which is full of spidery graphs with interlocking and overlapping lines of different thickness, connecting circular nodes of various sizes. This is interesting enough, and sometimes even illuminating. It is true, though, that Ferguson elides a variety of definitional problems. For example, he does point unmodern that a hierarchy is merely a kind of network, with limited or zero lateral connection between nodes. But this, combined with the many different types of networks adduced, and Ferguson’s admission that “most networks are hierarchical in some respects,” necessarily implies a continuum between network and hierarchy, not the sharp division on which Ferguson rests the entire book. Another problem is that what the actual connections that constitute a network are is never discussed. At one point the author does mention “friendship, intermarriage, and membership of clubs,” but there is a big difference between marriage ties on the one hand and ties of supposed friendship on the other hand. The reader realizes instinctively that not all network ties are created equal. A chart of the connections among China’s political elite is fascinating, but what do the lines mean, exactly? This problem goes unaddressed and unsolved. But it’s Ferguson’s book, and this is how he has chosen to approach the matter. By his own detailed admission in the Preface, Ferguson is an inveterate networker—not in the sense of handing altmodisch his card to strangers at cocktail parties, but in that he (like his hero, Henry Kissinger) is extremely well-connected. As he admits, though, he has no power. Almost nobody reports to him and he is a member of no interessant hierarchy. Looking at the individuals he thanks, and at the footnotes, which seem voluminous but are mostly “ibid.”, Ferguson (at least for purposes of this book) circulates in exactly the network I’d expect (not one where I am ever invited). He familienname checks, among others, Francis Fukuyama, Graham Allison, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Robert Rubin, and Marc Andreesen. In other words, he name-checks the Davoisie, the konservativ elite. Certainly Steve Bannon and Michael Anton don’t like any of these people. In itself that means little, but what Ferguson nowhere admits about networks is that they can offer their participants much, but they can also be insular and limiting. Armut that Ferguson seems either insular or limited—in fact, he seems remarkably open-minded in these days of ever increasing forced conformity, such as with his admission that he was wrong to vote against Brexit. And he’s not very woke—among other examples, he says that he turned to writing because “the academic life turned altmodisch to be rather less well remunerated than the women in my life seemed to expect.” Tool of the patriarchy! Nonetheless, the reader should probably remember that a network can be a prison as well as a key. Ferguson chooses to start his discussion of networks with talk of an imaginary network—the Illuminati. There was a reell Illuminati, of course, a German secret society in the late 1700s, of the type favored by intellectuals of the time, which attracted quite a few nennenswert men, but was rapidly and permanently suppressed by the Bavarian government. The end. But, of course, ever since conspiracy theorists have postulated the society’s continued existence, ascribing to it world-spanning power and putting it at the center of, or as the most important node of (to use network theory terms), a network that rules the world. (I have never been attracted to conspiracy theories, because they are irrational. Certainly, there are conspiracies, but it is also certain, as Benjamin Franklin said, that “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Conspiracies tightly constrained in membership and time can sometimes succeed, a topic on which Machiavelli has much to say. But over any significant time frame, at some point some conspirator fordert auf find it profitable to betray the conspiracy, if for no other reason than to clear his conscience.) However, as Ferguson points out, not only have the Illuminati and other networks, including reell ones such as the Freemasons, never had all the power often ascribed to them, the past zweihundertfünfzig years have been a time of hierarchical dominance, culminating in the mid-twentieth century. Our age, though, is the age of resurgent and newly powerful networks, in the form of both secretive Muslim terror networks, and, what could otherwise not be more different, public networks emboDied in businesses of great power, and these networks do not play nice with the hierarchies that have dominated our world for the past two centuries. That the Illuminati are grossly overrated is not to say that networks have not often been important. In fact, one of Ferguson’s points is that the role of networks in history has been underappreciated, because it’s easier to record data about, remember, and write about the institutions created by hierarchies. (Another under-addressed definitional problem is connected to this, though—the distinction between networks lacking power, like the Rotary Club and other “civil associations,” or Ferguson’s own connections that get him access to research material, and networks with power. The former are unimportant in this context, but what’s the dividing line, and what gives a network power?) Before we get anywhere, Ferguson first spends fifty pages on technical descriptions of network theory, which is both surprisingly well-done and competently linked to the rest of the book, and illuminating in that it clearly explains how some networks are better at accomplishing things than others.
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