the square and the tower

In The Square and The Tower, Niall Ferguson presents us a detailed series of examinations of the struggle between networks and hierarchies in managing society since the advent of writing. A central theme of the book is “that the tension between distributed networks and hierarchical orders is as old as humanity itself.” For example, he looks at how the wave of Chinese immigration to the USA was blocked in the late 1800’s by local racism, “Just as global networks of communication and transportation [telegraph & steamship] had made the mass migration of the late nineteenth century possible, so political networks of populism and nativism sprang into life to resist them”. Networks give and take away, as do hierarchies. Historically they appear to be in constant flux.

Another theme in the book is how the advent of the internet and the printing press have certain similarities.

“There are three major differences between our networked age and the era that followed the advent of European printing. First, and most obviously, our networking revolution is much faster and more geographically extensive than the wave of revolutions unleashed by the German printing press … Secondly, the distributional consequences of our revolution are quite different from those of the early-modern revolution … The printing press created no billionaires … Nevertheless, few people foresaw that the giant networks made possible by the Internet, despite their propaganda about the democratization of knowledge, would be so profoundly inegalitarian. A generation removed from the conflict — the baby boomers — had failed to learn the lesson that it is not unregulated networks that reduce inequality but wars, revolutions, hyperinflation and other forms of expropriation … Third, and finally, the printing press had the effect of disrupting religious life in Western Christendom before it disrupted anything else. By contrast, the Internet began by disrupting commerce; only very recently did it begin to disrupt politics and it has really only disrupted one religion, namely Islam.”

This book supports many of the aspects of the TIMN model, developed by David Ronfeldt, as well as my addition of new dominant communications media being the trigger for how we organize as a society. It was electricity that started the modern network era and interestingly Ferguson notes that “the word network appeared at the same time as electricity”.

This is a comprehensive book written by a historian. It is not a business book. It provides excellent background information to make sense of our current era, which is why I would recommend it. Even with a degree in history and continued reading in the subject, I learned a lot. For example, I learned that the Nazi party replaced the doctrine of original sin with that of a heroic Nordic man fused with post-Enlightenment ideologies. No wonder it appealed to such a broad spectrum of society, inside and beyond Germany. At the same time, both Hitler and Stalin succeeded by destroying all social networks, political or not, and developed systems of strong but competing hierarchies. Even with the demise of the Third Reich, the world continued to organize as national and corporate hierarchies after the Second World War, so that “the mid-twentieth century was the zenith of hierarchy”.

Networks have different effects, depending on the social and economic circumstances. For instance, “Globalization brought the market to the workers and peasants of China, who had hitherto been disconnected from the world and trapped in in the rigid hierarchy established by Mao.” America was a different story. “But in the United States networks and markets were complementary, as the best-connected Americans collected most of the profits of globalization …” In China, globalization empowered a new middle class. In America, globalization weakened it. The constant tension between hierarchies and networks is a complex relationship.

There are no easy answers but we need to understand these systems if we are to avoid a dystopian future. The internet is the town square, while control is exerted from the overlooking tower. We need to understand both. Looking at the example of the Trump election victory in 2016, Ferguson shows that while the social media campaigns were important, it was the local networks, like people having drinks together in a bar, that sealed it.

“The Internet proposed; the saloon bars disposed.”

In our fascination with online media, let’s not forget that real human relationships, hierarchical and networked, are still strongest.

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