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Friday, August 03, 2018

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from Freemasons to Facebook (2018) by Niall Ferguson


Book Review
The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from Freemasons to Facebook (2018)
 by Niall Ferguson
Published January 2018 in the USA by Penguin Press


  There are no more than a handful of authors who can can get away with publishing grand historical works of synthesis, where they develop a theme and then use all the resources of the modern university system (notable components: amazing libraries and amazing research assistants) to write lengthy thematic tracts about their subject, by necessity a broad one, about  The History of Europe in the 20th Century, as a generic example, or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to use an older example.  Because of the lack of original research, this particular category of books can almost be read as literature: The writer is developing a specific viewpoint via his or her narrator, supported by research, and there is usually a broad resolution at the end.

  Here, Ferguson, a broadly conservative historian, is co-opting the literature of the social science discipline of "network theory"- human network theory- which has been developed by left leaning social scientists almost exclusively, and then traces through a half millennia of western history to show that networks ain't always good and that hierarchies are also a kind of network, and that hierarchies aren't always bad, neither.

  His method involves the metaphor of a sandwich, which two eras of network freedom: One beginning with the dissemination of the printing press, with a hierarchical reaction that extended through the 19th and 20th century, and then a new era of network power, brought about by the personal computing revolution of the mid 20th century.   This broadly reflects the thesis/antithesis/dialectical approach that has been a favorite of both right and left historians, and lends an air of guidance to an otherwise wide ranging discussion.

  Ferguson is best in his grasp of mid level world history- he develops the history of freemasonry, the Rothschilds and has a memorable chapter where he contrasts the British Empire success in Borneo to the American fiasco in Vietnam as the example of how a hierarchy can adapt to a network approach with great success or, as in the case of Vietnam, fail to adapt with great failure.   

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