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The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

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Most history is hierarchical: it's about emperors, presidents, prime ministers and field marshals. It's about states, armies and corporations. It's about orders from on high. Even history "from below" is often about trade unions and workers' parties. But what if that's simply because hierarchical institutions create the archives that historians rely on? What if we are missing the informal, less well documented social networks that are the true sources of power and drivers of change?

The 21st century has been hailed as the Age of Networks. However, in The Square and the Tower, Niall Ferguson argues that networks have always been with us, from the structure of the brain to the food chain, from the family tree to freemasonry. Throughout history, hierarchies housed in high towers have claimed to rule, but often real power has resided in the networks in the town square below. For it is networks that tend to innovate. And it is through networks that revolutionary ideas can contagiously spread. Just because conspiracy theorists like to fantasize about such networks doesn't mean they are not real.

From the cults of ancient Rome to the dynasties of the Renaissance, from the founding fathers to Facebook, The Square and the Tower tells the story of the rise, fall and rise of networks, and shows how network theory--concepts such as clustering, degrees of separation, weak ties, contagions and phase transitions--can transform our understanding of both the past and the present.

Just as The Ascent of Money put Wall Street into historical perspective, so The Square and the Tower does the same for Silicon Valley. And it offers a bold prediction about which hierarchies will withstand this latest wave of network disruption--and which will be toppled.

592 pages, Hardcover

First published October 1, 2017

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About the author

Niall Ferguson

88 books2,841 followers
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, former Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and current senior fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and founder and managing director of advisory firm Greenmantle LLC.

The author of 15 books, Ferguson is writing a life of Henry Kissinger, the first volume of which--Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist--was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History. Other titles include Civilization: The West and the Rest, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die and High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg.

Ferguson's six-part PBS television series, "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World," based on his best-seller, won an International Emmy for best documentary in 2009. Civilization was also made into a documentary series. Ferguson is a recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service as well as other honors. His most recent book is The Square and the Tower: Networks on Power from the Freemasons to Facebook (2018).

(Source: Amazon)

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Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,491 reviews2,722 followers
September 27, 2017
3.5 stars for fuelling debate

More polemic than history, Ferguson has certainly digested a huge amount of material and tries to re-cast the entire history of mankind as a constant struggle between the power of hierarchies and networks. This kind of systematic binary categorisation, however, tends to simplify his vision - as his own narrative makes clear, the boundaries between a hierarchy and a network may shift, dissolve and reform: Russian communism, and Hitler's fascism might both have started as political networks but then both turned into the ultimate hierarchies of dictatorship and centralised power.

Despite this acknowledged outcome, Ferguson's own well-publicised politics lead him to the conclusion that 'the lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy' - and the key here is that 'to run the world', because this is what Ferguson is really concerned with. That his own narrative acknowledges the hierarchies of totalitarianism ('the secret of totalitarian success was, in other words, to delegitimise, paralyse or kill outright nearly all social networks outside the hierarchical institutions of party and state') and then *still* concludes that hierarchy, authoritarianism and centralised control is better than the 'anarchy' of distributed networks is a paradox at the heart of the book and something that I found disturbing.

The early part of the book which summarises decades worth of research on network theory feels overlong and could have been sharpened considerably. The later sweep through all of human history has its predictabilities given the author especially in relation to colonial imperialism ('but is "conquest" the correct term to describe what followed?'). The latter sections on contemporary politics (the rise of radical Islam, the Trump election, the Brexit referendum) are, in some ways, the most impassioned but, at the same time, sometimes lose their connection to the overarching argument about networks vs. hierarchies.

Ferguson is not the most elegant of writers here and his binary vision of power structures across human history is perhaps less radical than the book tries to claim (after all, network analysis has been around for the last 50 or so years) and also more limited and limiting than it should be - all the same, this is provocative polemic that will undoubtedly prompt public discussion and debate - surely the very attributes of the networks which he, ultimately, disses.

Thanks to Penguin for an ARC via NetGalley
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
505 reviews778 followers
January 25, 2018
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 modern 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 out 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 out 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 relevant 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 name checks, among others, Francis Fukuyama, Graham Allison, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Robert Rubin, and Marc Andreesen. In other words, he name-checks the Davoisie, the neoliberal 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. Not 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 out 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 real 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 prominent 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 will 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 real ones such as the Freemasons, never had all the power often ascribed to them, the past 250 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. Quickly enough, though, we get to Ferguson’s first major point—that our networked age is the second networked age in modern history, and so to cast our time as unique is wrong and wrongheaded.

The first networked age, according to Ferguson, followed hard on the heels of the invention and rapid spread in Europe of the printing press, and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century. (Although in a few places Ferguson uses non-Western examples in this book, such as the Taiping Rebellion, non-Western cultures play almost no role in this book, which is not surprising, since they have played no important role in creating any aspect of the modern world.) We bounce around, talking in one chapter about Benedetto Cotrugli’s (I never heard of him either) "Book of the Art of Trade" to, in other chapters, talking about Portuguese trade network expansion, Pizarro and Spanish-Indian mixing, and much more, with point-counterpoint among networks and hierarchies. Woven throughout this, though, is the outline of a subtle theme only later made explicit—that networks often kill.

Printing led to the Reformation, which led to, among other horrors, the Thirty Years War, which the virtuous (and hierarchical) Peace of Westphalia finally ended (Ferguson is a Westphalian to his core, as will become evident). Then the networked crowd and the breakdown of hierarchy led to the Terror, in 1793, and it was only the (hierarchical, and workaholic) Napoleon who finally ended the resultant anarchy. The 1815 (and very hierarchical) Congress of Vienna kept the peace for a hundred years. (Here Ferguson channels Henry Kissinger as if from a fire hose, and he recurs to Kissinger throughout the book—he is writing the second volume of his Kissinger biography, so I assume the man is on Ferguson’s mind. That said, Ferguson does love to shoehorn into his books characters from his other books, from the Rothschilds to Siegmund Warburg, and he constantly drops footnotes to his own works to support his contentions, all of which is a little bit jarringly circular.) Then, to be fair, Ferguson notes that bad hierarchies (especially Stalin’s—Ferguson correctly notes that Hitler had vastly less central control than did Stalin) killed a lot of people in the twentieth century, at the zenith of global hierarchical control—but they originated from networks, and they also controlled a lot of networks (though that suggests, again, an unclear dividing line between hierarchy and network).

In connection with the rise and success of Communism, Ferguson repeatedly recurs to the network of the traitorous Cambridge Apostles, a group which he snarkily calls the “Homintern.” (Ferguson slagged John Maynard Keynes a few years back for naturally not being invested in the future, being an “effete” homosexual who was “indifferent to the long run because he had no children.” Then he apologized, although his statement was inarguably accurate, and generally applicable. Whether or not homosexuals are generally corrosive of society, in times past when homosexuality was not widely accepted, there is no doubt that being a homosexual tended to place such an individual in a position hostile to the traditional pillars of society. Ferguson moreover says that Oxford men are “muscular” and “heterosexual,” as opposed to Cambridge men, who are not. Sure, he’s talking about eighty years ago, but given that he went to Oxford, the reader wonders if this is all some kind of inside joke.) The point of discussing the Apostles, of course, is to contrast the (pernicious) effects of their network with the opposing, ineffectual networks of English counterespionage, as well as more generally of elite Englishmen, and to describe the service of the Apostles to Stalin’s hierarchy. Again, this furthers the general, but not yet made explicit, theme that networks are poison.

The book takes numerous detours that bear tangentially on networks, from a discussion of anti-Chinese policy in nineteenth-century California to a discussion of Alfred Milner’s network of powerful Englishmen. Onwards we go, enjoying the ride, although wondering where we are going. We examine Axis attempts to use the networks of Islam to incite jihad against the British Empire. We examine the British general Walter Walker, who used networks to defeat the Indonesians in Borneo, during the 1950s (his methods could never be used today, though, given that in today’s American military, every time you want to kill someone, you have to get a lawyer to sign off first). The problem is that these vignettes, each of which is interesting, hang together only loosely. For example, there is a four-and-a-half page chapter on “The Triumph of Davos Man,” discussing the World Economic Forum held there (in fact, at this moment being held there—again, I was not invited). The point seems to be the power of networks, but actually most of the discussion is about Nelson Mandela and nationalization of industry. Interesting, sure, but it’s just not clear what the point is, or how this fits in. Ferguson also seems to love the evil little imp George Soros, and he falsely refers to him as “a refugee from Nazism”—in fact, as a teenager Soros eagerly collaborated with the Nazis, including in the seizure of goods from other Jews, and only left Hungary in 1947, so if anything, he was a refugee from Communism, not Nazism.

We get network analysis of Islamic terrorism, including ISIS. We get an analysis of the 2008 financial crisis, alleging that Lehman Brothers was allowed to fold because Dick Fuld didn’t belong to the right networks. What the right networks would have been for Fuld isn’t specified, which is odd, because the answer is obvious—the network centered around Goldman Sachs. This lacuna is puzzling—that network would make, for example, a perfect object of exactly the type of network analysis graph Ferguson offers throughout the book, and it could be done with publicly available information. My guess is that it would be incredibly informative, and incredibly disturbing. But not a word is said about Goldman Sachs in this entire book. Another lacuna is also puzzling—despite repeated mentions of the network of Donald Trump, that network is similarly treated as opaque, when mapping it would be extremely interesting, much more interesting than Alfred Milner’s network, certainly. And, finally, we get detailed thoughts on Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Ferguson waits until almost the very end to explicitly reveal his true feelings, and his second major point—he thinks that networks, at least those with power, are a death-dealing abomination that reinforces bad hierarchies without offering anything good in return. Not for him the optimism of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s "The Chessboard and the Web" (a recent book that got almost zero attention when released, despite the author’s prominence, for reasons I do not understand, though perhaps Ferguson continuously referring to her will help). Ferguson opens up his artillery on the new Lords of the Network. “And when [Mark Zuckerberg] says that ‘the struggle of our time’ is between ‘the forces of freedom, openness and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism, and nationalism,’ he seems to have forgotten just how helpful his company has been to the latter.” Ouch. Ferguson more or less sees Zuckerberg as a nasty combination of the worst aspects of Robespierre and Stalin, and that’s also, for the most part, how he sees the other companies that dominate the modern networked world. (In this he has a lot of commonality with Franklin Foer in World Without Mind, who sees the “GAFA” companies as pretty much the incarnation of evil, though for somewhat different reasons, and I agree.) And they gave us Donald Trump, whom Ferguson doesn’t seem to like much, though he doesn’t spend much time attacking him, merely sniffing here and there in a way that suggests he thinks an unpleasant stench is lurking somewhere nearby, and Twitter, along with Mark Zuckerberg, is to blame.

The specific companies are not the problem, which would exist with other companies with different names and leaders. The point is that networks, whether social and Internet-based, or amped up with robots and artificial intelligence, won’t lead to human happiness and peace, any more than the networks of the Gutenberg era did. Unless we all end up sedated in an Aldous Huxley dystopia, “A more likely outcome is a repeat of the violent upheavals that ultimately plunged the last great Networked Age into the chaos that was the French Revolution.” Ferguson certainly has that Revolution on the brain: “The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins. . . . Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to re-learn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.” By this he explicitly means a hierarchical order of great nation-state powers, not some new order of technology giants, the past sunny optimism of whose leaders Ferguson brutally contrasts to their more recent admissions that the now-arrived future is not what they expected, while he predicts yet worse to come.

The key to much of this is a quote that Ferguson offers early in the book, from Francis Fukuyama, “hierarchical organization . . . may be the only way in which a low-trust society can be organized.” Most of the world has always been low-trust, other than a few ethnic networks, and a few Western countries. But the West is becoming ever lower trust, we can all agree (for reasons on which it is harder to agree), so if it is true that hierarchy is needed in inverse proportion to trust, the future is hierarchical, or it is anarchic. Very importantly, though, these will be new hierarchies. Modern networks have disrupted the old hierarchies, and while nation-states (at least relevant ones) are unlikely to crumble, the hierarchies within them will be almost wholly new. Ferguson makes this explicit in his criticism of the administrative state, which he decries as “the last iteration of political hierarchy, a system that spews out rules, generates complexity, and undermines both prosperity and stability.” In this analysis, the rise of Trump is merely the leading edge of this turnover, and the desperate attempts of neoliberal Democrats and Republicans to stuff the genie back into the bottle, by using hashtags or by using the weaponized Justice Department to maintain their power, are doomed.

Ferguson ends the book by snickering at the new palaces of Facebook, Google, and Apple, and contrasting them to the (unnamed) Trump Tower in New York. The last two sentences of the book are, “On the other side of the United States, however, there looms a fifty-eight storey building that represents an altogether different organizational tradition. And no one individual in the world has a bigger say in the choice between networked anarchy and world order than the absent owner of that dark tower.” It seems unlikely that Ferguson does not realize the echo to Stephen King’s famous novella "The Dark Tower," in which an evil immortal clashes with a hereditary gunpowder knight wielding revolvers forged from the metal of Excalibur (with an awesome opening line, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”). He perhaps does not realize, though, that the dark tower of that novella is actually the structure that holds together the universe, and is a force only for good, attacked continuously by evil. But whatever Ferguson is trying to tell us about Trump Tower, this overrates the impact that Trump, or any one person, can have in forestalling anarchy. Facebook, Google, Apple, and so on have immense power, much more than Trump, and more than the mental and moral midgets in Congress, who represent the decayed political structure of end-stage liberalism (in the Enlightenment sense, encompassing both classical liberals and progressives) and the administrative state. That doesn’t mean the power of those companies can’t be broken, and new hierarchies regain relative power. But Trump isn’t going to do it, nor will chaos among nation-states demolish the Lords of the Network. Something new, and different, is needed, and, I suspect, this way it comes.
June 13, 2020
Staggering political naivete...
... a time when intellectual diversity is the form of diversity that seems to be least valued in universities... (c)
Some among my contemporaries pursued wealth; few achieved it without at least a period of indentured servitude, usually working for a bank. (c)
Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, even when it is unconscious. (c)
To call Weishaupt’s thinking eclectic would be an understatement: his designs for the Order also included elements from the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries and Zoroastrianism (including use of the old Persian calendar). Another source of inspiration was the Alumbrados, a seventeenth-century spiritual movement in Spain. (c)
With the advent of Medici rule in 1434, ‘Renaissance man’ was born, a polymath engaged simultaneously in finance, trade, politics, art and philosophy – ‘part businessman, part politician, part patriarch, part intellectual aesthete’ (c)
Though less well known than the Medici, Benedetto Cotrugli is a perfect illustration of the ways that European networks were evolving in the Renaissance era – ways that created a new cosmopolitan class of interconnected individuals. Cotrugli’s Book of the Art of Trade is, it is tempting to suggest, the fifteenth-century equivalent of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal ...
In many ways, The Art of Trade was Cotrugli’s attempt not just to raise the standard of business education but also to elevate the standing of business itself. Though it is best known to scholars as the earliest work to describe the system of double-entry book-keeping – more than thirty years before Luca Pacioli’s better-known treatise De computis et scripturis (1494) – The Art of Trade is most remarkable for the breadth of its subject matter. Cotrugli offers much more than just practical advice on accounting. He offers an entire way of life. This is not a dry textbook but an exhortation to his fellow merchants to aspire to be Renaissance businessmen. (c)
In addition to promoting rigorous accounting, Cotrugli was an early believer in diversification as a way of managing and reducing risk. He imagines a Florentine merchant entering into various partnerships with merchants in Venice, Rome and Avignon, investing some of his capital in wool, some in silk. ‘Having in a safe and orderly way put my hand to so many transactions,’ he observes, ‘I will gain nothing but advantage from them, because the left hand will help the right.’6 And again: ‘You must never risk too much on a single throw, by land or by sea: however rich you may be, at the most five hundred ducats a shipload, or a thousand for a large galley.’7 (c)
Cotrugli was a node in a burgeoning commercial network of credit and debt – hence his condemnation of ‘those that keep only one column of accounts, that is how much is owing to themselves and not how much others are expecting from them’, whom he calls ‘the worst type of merchant, the basest and most iniquitous’.8 ‘A merchant,’ writes Cotrugli, ‘should be the most universal of men and one that has the most to do, more than his fellows, with different types of men and social classes’ (my emphasis). Consequently, ‘everything a man might know may be helpful to a merchant’, including cosmography, geography, philosophy, astrology, theology and law. In short, The Book of the Art of Trade can also be read as a manifesto for a new society of networked polymaths. (c)

By the end of the war, a quarter of the British workforce was in uniform, 18 per cent of the American workforce and 16 per cent of the Soviet workforce. (c) How about saying no to trashy history? 34.5 mln people of USSR (Russia + republics) served in WW2.
Total population of USSR in 1940 was 194.1 mln.
34.5/194.1 = 17,77%.
One has to know that workforce is not 100% of the population and therefore was far lower than 194.1 mln. => So, the % of workforce in uniform is far higher than 16%...

the three-level pyramidal structure of the Soviet planned economy (c) I'd really love to know the source of this designation. From what I know, one can call it any number of level-economy, since the procedures were slightly different for different republics and at different times and for different parts of planning. I.e. planning milittary stuff and planning socks production were likely done via different procedures.

The twenty-first century increasingly looks like the fulfilment of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘The Library of Babel’. In it, he imagines a library containing not only all the books ever written, but all the books that ever could be written. With an infinity of information at their disposal, men swing swiftly from euphoria to madness. Some are seized by a ‘hygienic, ascetic furore’ to ‘eliminate useless works’, leading to the ‘senseless perdition of millions of books’. Others seek the one book that is ‘the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest’ – or they seek the librarian who has read that book and is therefore ‘analogous to a god’. In some parts of the vast library, men ‘prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter’. In other parts, ‘epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population’. The twenty-first-century world often seems like a vast realization of Borges’s vision. (c) Love this description. Pretty much what we got.

One of the few central bankers to appreciate the importance of this structural change was Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England, who argued that a complex adaptive system had been created that tended to amplify cyclical fluctuations. Haldane’s insight drew on the work of John Holland and others on complex systems which, unlike merely complicated systems, have the tendency to change in unpredictable ways. These ‘emergent properties’ were the thing missing from the Fed economists’ model. Quite simply, standard macroeconomics omitted network structure. No one had quite noticed that the global financial network had become connected enough for distress to cascade rapidly from one institution to many, but sparse enough for many institutions to be poorly diversified and inadequately insured against the failure of a counterparty. (c) Yep.
Profile Image for Kuszma.
2,274 reviews171 followers
February 16, 2020
Elöljáróban csak annyit, hogy sokat köszönhetek Fergusonnak. A Civilizáció számomra olyan élmény volt, ami után kicsit másképp szemléltem a történelemtudományt: rájöttem, lehet lendületes, sodró elbeszélés, nem kapirgálás a levéltárban, hanem rock&roll, nem száraz krahácsolás, hanem harsány hallali. Persze ma már jobban látom ennek a harsányságnak a hátulütőit is, de tartom, Ferguson világmagyarázatai, éles okfejtései egy fancy tudomány képét sugározták magukból, és ez jó. Azt hiszem, pont ezért fogom – talán igazságtalanul, átesve a ló túlsó oldalára - lehúzni ezt a könyvet. Mert becsapva érzem magam.

Pedig imádom a monokauzális világmagyarázatokat, és Ferguson kötete pontosan ilyesmivel szolgál. Van ugye a tér és van a torony. A tér a hálózat metaforája: olyan horizontális közösség, ami alapvetően egalitárius, rugalmas és dinamikus. A torony pedig a hierarchiát jelenti, jellemzően merev alá-fölérendeltségi viszonyokra épül, centralizált, vezérelvű. Kettejük folyamatos konfliktusa alakítja a történelmet – hol a hálózatok profitálnak a technikai változásokból, megfosztva monopóliumuktól a hierarchiákat, hol a hierarchiák használják jobban az erőforrásokat, és sikeresen árnyékolják a hálózatok kommunikációját, ezzel fojtva meg őket. Egyik sem jó vagy rossz önmagában, hisz a hálózatosodás éppúgy lehet egy demokratikus közösség eszköze a diktatúra megdöntésére, mint egy terrorszervezeté a demokrácia aláásására, a hierarchia pedig, ha nincs ellensúlya, a zsarnokság melegágya. A legjobb talán – és itt lelövöm Ferguson üzenetét -, ha kiegészítik egymást, megtalálva az anarchia és a diktatúra közötti kényes egyensúlyt.

Nagyjából ennyiben össze lehet foglalni ezt a könyvet. Persze a dolgok bonyolultabbak ennél, ezt a szerző sem tagadja. Kezdjük azzal, hogy a két elem nem mindig válik el világosan. Hisz végtére a hierarchia is egyfajta hálózat, és a hálózatok is valamilyen szinten (kevés kivételtől eltekintve) hierarchikusak. Arról nem is beszélve, hogy sok szervezet nem egyik vagy másik a két fogalom közül, hanem előbb hálózat, aztán ha hatalomra jut, hierarchikussá válik – ezt a sémát felfedezhetjük a kereszténységben éppúgy, mint a marxizmusban. (És ez egyúttal választ ad arra is, hogy az autoriter államok vagy közösségek miért üldözik tűzzel-vassal a hálózatokat, legyenek azok eretnek szekták vagy civil kezdeményezések: mert emlékeznek, hogy egykor maguk is hálózatként kezdték pályafutásukat, és hálózati eszközökkel ástak alá egy merev hatalmi struktúrát.)

Mint említettem, bonyolult dolgok ezek, elmélyedést kívánnának. De mintha Ferguson inkább elkenné az egészet, mégpedig ravasz módon: a példák áradatával. Egymás hegyére-hátára pakolja őket, talán saját anekdotázó kedve ragadja el. (Nincs nehéz dolga, hisz bármilyen eseményt citál elő, az óhatatlanul vagy a hierarchiával, vagy a hálózattal hozható kapcsolatba.) Még csak nem is arról van szó, hogy túl sok példát hoz fel valaminek a bizonyítására, amit az olvasó már megértett húsz oldallal ezelőtt, hanem egyszerűen elmaszatolja a sok dumával az eredeti állítást – mintha maga is félne attól, hogy határozottan ki kelljen nyilvánítania valamit. Nem az a baj, hogy unalmas, sőt! Hisz Ferguson remek előadó, napestig hallgatnám, és amit mond, az jobbára felettébb érdekes is – önmagában. De a könyv egyes periódusaiban minden fejezet mintha távolabb vinne minket a szöveg eredeti célkitűzéseitől.

Hjaj-jaj, sopánkodom magamban, de jó könyv lehetett volna ebből. Feltéve, hogy a szerző rövid pór��zra fogja az elméjét, nem ötven példát sorol fel, hanem kiválaszt két gócpontot (mondjuk a 15-16. századot, és a 20. század második felét egészen a jelenkorig, a Web 2.0 forradalmáig és Trumpig), és azokban időzik el, azokat bontja ki, majd veti össze. Ha így tett volna, kapunk egy harmadekkora, de kristálytiszta, mellébeszéléstől mentes szöveget, amitől beájul minden könyvgourmand az asztal alá. De nem így történt, talán mert Ferguson az Ferguson, és nem más. Így viszont, bár egyes részek kiemelkedőek, túl sokszor ütötte meg az orrom olvasás közben a kamuzás halványzöld dohszaga.

(Megjegyzés, zárójelben, bátortalanul. Néha még olyan gyanúm is támadt, hogy Ferguson önkényesen hajlítja a tényeket, csak hogy az jöjjön ki a végén, aminek szerinte ki kell jönnie. Egy alkalommal például kifejti, hogy amelyik XVI. századi városban nyomdát alapítottak, az sokkal dinamikusabban fejlődött, mint a többi. Szerintem viszont lehet - sőt: valószínűbb -, hogy azokban a városokban alapítottak nyomdát, amelyek dinamikusabban fejlődtek, egyszerűen mert ott kedveztek a feltételek egy ilyen vállalkozásnak. És nagyon nem mindegy, hogy melyik az ok és melyik az okozat.)
Profile Image for Osred.
25 reviews14 followers
May 15, 2018
I am a big fan of Niall Ferguson's writing. He has the gift of being able to explain a complex subject in a lively, entertaining but intellectually responsible way - perhaps nowhere more so than in his wonderful 2008 book, "Money: a financial history of the world".

I therefore looked forward to reading "The Square and the Tower". In fact, I was biased toward it before I even opened it. The fact that I can only give it three stars is an indication of my disappointment. This book has a feeling of being "rushed", as if to fulfil a contractual deadline.

At times Ferguson appears to contradict what he has written elsewhere, but without explaining the new evidence that has caused him to re-think - such as his account of the rise of the Rothschilds, which seems very different to the account he gave in "Money". At other times he breathlessly introduces fascinating material, which he equally breathlessly leaves hanging - such as his comments about excessive White mortality rates in the U.S. - on page 363 in my edition.

But it is his sins of omission that particularly disappointed me. Perhaps the best example of the rise and fall of a powerful political network in recent times has been the Afrikaner Broederbond, which dominated South Africa for several decades. Since the consequences of the fall of apartheid are still with us, I would have expected at least an entire chapter on this particular power network. It isn't even mentioned.
2,285 reviews33 followers
October 10, 2019

2.5 Stars!

“Successful networks evade public attention; unsuccessful ones attract it, and it is their notoriety, rather than their achievement, that leads to their over-representation.”

The preface of this is a fairly nauseating mix of humble bragging and profound lack of self-awareness, which is typical of someone who moves in the circles Ferguson does. He talks of meeting the son of a distinguishing banker at a tea party at the British consulate “By sheer good luck” and this really sets the tone.

One thing that you can say for this book is that it is an easy enough read, with many chapters only being two or three pages long. Ferguson covers many interesting topics, and makes some compelling revelations, but often only to a shallow and meaningless extent, so that many of these micro chapters read like orphans, which were somehow forgotten to be cut out before it went to print.

Whether he means to or not Ferguson wears his sympathies heavily, phrases like “military action in Cambodia” which is Ferguson’s way of describing the secret and illegal war the US waged on a dirt poor nation of peasants, which killed many innocent men, women and children and maimed thousands with UXOs for decades to come.

He delights in marvelling over the conquests of a nauseating cast of lying, greedy capitalist pigs. Egotistical vampires like Kissinger, Soros, Zuckerberg, the Rothschilds and the British Empire are spoken about as if they have done wonders for the world instead of exploit it and take vast amounts from it at the expense of the many who had to suffer as a result.

“That evening, while theatre goers (amongst them this author) enjoyed Verdi’s The Force of Destiny at the English national Opera, Lamont called an impromptu conference in the Treasury’s central courtyard to announce that the UK was ‘suspending’ its participation in the ERM.”

What a pompous ass. What has his visit to the opera got to do with any of it?...He brings this up as if he was somehow an integral part of it all. It’s this sort of tripe that makes him so hard to warm to. But it isn’t all bad there were many interesting parts to this and I certainly learned a thing or two, for instance I had no idea that the Chinese civil war between 1850-1865 directly or indirectly caused the deaths of between 20-70 million people.

There were quite a number of really silly and blatant typos in here that really should have been swept up. How can the word “thrid” not come up in a spell check?...And since when does stalin not get a capital letter? These two examples are from the same paragraph. There are many more.

You can throw as many complex graphs, charts and other data into the mix, but none of this detracts from his superficial treatment of the subjects. Too many ideas lack proper analysis and fully developed arguments. They just hang there. This is entirely consistent with the rushed and whimsical feel of this book. The vague, scattergun approach of short, rushed chapters and woolly arguments that really lacked discipline and focus, leaves you a bit puzzled by the end as to what exactly he was driving at?...The weak conclusion doesn’t help much either.

Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
495 reviews80 followers
June 7, 2023
“Is it better today to be in a network, which gives you influence, than in a hierarchy, which gives you power?”

The visible structures of society tend to be hierarchical, the Tower in Niall Ferguson’s book, while informal groups are the Square. Why does it matter? History tends to be written from the point of view of hierarchical Tower structures: armies, corporations, and governments, but an argument could be made, especially in today’s Age of Networks, that real influence spreads horizontally through peer to peer contacts. The book was a best seller when it was published in 2018, and has been extensively reviewed, critiqued, and analyzed, with most people either agreeing wholeheartedly with the author, or insisting that he has an overly simplified view of society that is not supported by the evidence he provides.

Ferguson is very good at taking complex ideas and distilling them into easily understood comments, and for that reason, instead of trying to weigh the pros and cons of Tower versus Square, I am going to let him speak for himself, quoting some of the points that he made which I found interesting or informative.

- [A] dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

- In traditional societies, the advent of market forces disrupts often hereditary networks, and as a result promotes social mobility and reduces inequality. Meritocracy prevails. But when networks and markets are aligned, as in our time, inequality explodes as the returns on the network flow overwhelmingly to the insiders who own it.

- When a distributed network attacks a hierarchy, the hierarchy reacts in the ways that come naturally to it. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush and the key members of his administration with responsibility for national security made a series of decisions that could scarcely have been better calculated to make the Islamist network grow.

- as Francis Fukuyama has argued, the very legitimacy of democratic politics is being corroded because ‘interest groups . . . are able to effectively buy politicians with campaign contributions and lobbying’.

- The world by 2010 was on the brink of two revolutions, each driven to a significant extent by the effects of information technology. The first was a revolution of rising expectations in the developing world. The second was a revolution of falling expectations in the developed world. The former was the result of falling inequality in the world as a whole. The latter was the result of increasing inequality within a number of important countries, notably the United States.

- The problem with conspiracy theorists is that, as aggrieved outsiders, they invariably misunderstand and misrepresent the way that networks operate. In particular, they tend to assume that elite networks covertly and easily control formal power structures.

- when hierarchy is the order of the day, you are only as powerful as your rung on the organizational ladder of a state, corporation or similar vertically ordered institution. When networks gain an advantage, you can be as powerful as your position in one or more horizontally structured social groups.

- If you ‘report to’ someone, even if it is only to a board of directors, then you are in a hierarchy. The more people report to you, the further you are from the bottom of the heap.

- not before 1980 was ‘network’ used as a verb to connote purposive, career-oriented socializing.

- Apart from the inherent appeal of political freedom, more inclusive polities seem to be associated with more sustained economic development. They are also better able to cope with complexity as populations grow and technologies advance. And they are less vulnerable to decapitation: when one man rules, his assassination can bring the entire hierarchical system crashing down.

- The number of steps between the revolutionary crowd and the totalitarian state has more than once proved to be surprisingly few. By the same token, the seemingly rigid structures of a hierarchical order can disintegrate with astounding rapidity.

- Because of their relatively decentralized structure, because of the way they combine clusters and weak links, and because they can adapt and evolve, networks tend to be more creative than hierarchies.

- Networks may be spontaneously creative but they are not strategic. The Second World War could not have been won by a network, even if superior networks (of atomic scientists or cryptographers) played an important part in the Allied victory. Not only that, but networks are as capable of creating and spreading bad ideas as good ideas.

- Cities with at least one printing press in 1500 were significantly more likely to adopt Protestantism than cities without printing, but it was cities with multiple competing printers that were most likely to turn Protestant.

- Between 1450 and 1500 the price of books fell by two thirds, and the price continued to fall thereafter. In 1383 it had cost the equivalent of 208 days’ wages to pay a scribe to write a single missal (service book) for the bishop of Westminster. By the 1640s, thanks to printing, over 300,000 popular almanacs were sold annually in England, each roughly 45–50 pages long and costing just twopence, at a time when the daily wage for unskilled labour was 11½ pence.

- In many ways, the constitution that emerged from the [American Constitutional Convention] deliberations in the 1780s was intended to institutionalize an anti-hierarchical political order. Acutely aware of the fates that had befallen republican experiments in the ancient world and in early-modern Europe, the founders devised a system that both separated and devolved power, greatly circumscribing the executive authority of their elected president.

- The map of the world by 1900 was an imperial jigsaw, with eleven Western empires controlling disproportionate shares (58 per cent, in all) of the earth’s territory, not to mention its population (57 per cent) and economic output (74 per cent).

- By the eve of the First World War, Great Britain – a kingdom with a population of 45.6 million and a land surface of just over 120,000 square miles – ruled over more than 375 million people and 11 million square miles.

- Throughout the Empire, officials thirsted after membership of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, whether as CMG (‘Call Me God’), KCMG (‘Kindly Call Me God’) or, reserved for the very top tier of governors, GCMG (‘God Calls Me God’).

- In the days of sail it had taken between four and six weeks to cross the Atlantic; with the introduction of steamships that was reduced to two weeks in the mid-1830s and just ten days in the 1880s.

- By 1880 there were altogether 97,568 miles of cable across the world’s oceans, linking Britain to India, Canada, Australia, Africa and Australia. Now a message could be relayed from Bombay to London at the cost of four shillings a word in the space of as many minutes.

- Poverty alone is seldom enough to drive mass emigrations. What is needed is political upheaval at home and the prospect of a more stable habitat within affordable reach.

- [In 1914] neither of the other two powers, France and Britain, could conceive of arguments strong enough to dissuade the others from going to war over the Balkans: the French because they had become uncritically wedded to their alliance with Russia, the British because they could not see a way of deterring Germany that would not egg on Russia and France.

- It is now well known that fewer people were killed in the October Revolution than were killed in the shooting of Sergei Eisenstein’s tenth-anniversary film about it.

- By defining the slightest grumble as treason or counter-revolution, the Stalinist system was in a position to send whole armies of Soviet citizens to the Gulag.

- At the height of the Gulag system, there were 476 camp systems scattered all over the Soviet Union, each composed of hundreds of individual camps. All told, around 18 million men, women and children passed through the Gulag under Stalin’s rule. Taking into account the six or seven million Soviet citizens who were sent into exile, the share of the population who experienced some kind of penal servitude under Stalin approached 15 per cent.

- One after another, the men and women who had been in the vanguard of the Revolution were arrested, tortured and interrogated until they were induced to confess to some ‘crime’ and to denounce yet more of their comrades, and then shot. Between January 1935 and June 1941, there were just under 20 million arrests and at least 7 million executions in the Soviet Union.

- In 1937–8 alone, the quota for ‘enemies of the people’ to be executed was set at 356,105, though the actual number who lost their lives was more than twice that. Of the 394 members of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in January 1936, 223 had fallen victim to the Terror by April 1938, as had forty-one of the sixty-eight German Communist leaders who had fled to the Soviet Union after 1933.

- Stalin’s power consisted of three distinct elements: total control of the party bureaucracy, total control of the means of communication – with the Kremlin telephone network as the central hub – and total control of a secret police staffed by men who themselves lived in fear.

- Total military deaths in the Second World War II were around 30 million (though the civilian death count was even higher). Roughly one in four German servicemen lost their lives; the mortality rate in the Red Army was almost as high.

- Trapped in intolerant hierarchical chains of command, afraid to join social networks that might be construed as subversive, the average mid-century man sought solace in bottles. In Soviet Russia the drug of choice was vodka. In Nazi Germany, where alcohol production was sacrificed to rearmament, more exotic drugs were favoured, such as Pervitin (methamphetamine) and Eudokal (a morphine derivative).

- In the United States after prohibition, spirits were consumed in volumes that today seem astonishing. The generations of the world wars also smoked tobacco with suicidal frequency.

- Rather than being a cause of the late twentieth-century crisis, the Internet appears to have been a consequence of the breakdown of hierarchical power.

- By the 1940s, however, the British Army had learned through bitter experience that a different, more dynamic kind of leadership was needed. They had seen, in the course of two world wars, that the exceptional effectiveness of the German army depended not on the rigid implementation of battle plans but rather on decentralization of decision-making and flexibility amid the fog of war.

- As the physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam has argued, ‘a group of individuals whose collective behaviour is controlled by a single individual cannot behave in a more complex way than the individual who is exercising the control’.

- As Melvin Conway pointed out in 1968 – in a seminal paper entitled ‘How Do Committees Invent?’ – there was a kind of law about the way systems of communication were designed: ‘Organizations which design systems (in the broad sense used here) are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.’

- David D. Clark, the Internet’s chief protocol architect: ‘We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.’ In that bright and hopeful morning, few computer scientists or software engineers paused to ask what exactly they would do if the Internet became a crime scene.

- According to a widely cited study by the anti-poverty charity Oxfam, the richest 1 per cent of people now have more wealth than the rest of the world combined. In 2015, according to Oxfam, just sixty-two individuals had the same wealth as 3.6 billion people – the ‘bottom half’ of humanity.

- Median US household income in 1999 was $57,909 (in 2015 dollars). In 2015 it was $56,516.4

- All over the developed world, mortality rates are declining and lifespans are lengthening, but not in (non-Hispanic) white America, and especially not amongst those middle-aged white Americans whose education did not extend beyond secondary school. For this group, aged between forty-five and fifty-four, the mortality rate from poisonings (mostly drug overdoses) rose more than fourfold between 1999 and 2013, from 14 to 58 per 100,000, while mortality from chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis rose by 50 per cent, and the decline in mortality from heart disease stopped.

- By 2012 Americans were checking their mobile phones 150 times a day. By 2016, they were spending an average of five hours a day on their phones.

- Globalization is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. Technology meanwhile marches inexorably ahead,

- The cruelties of ISIS seem less idiosyncratic when compared with those of some governments and sects in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

- Russian hackers and trolls pose a threat to American democracy similar to the one that Jesuit priests posed to the English Reformation: a threat from within sponsored from without.

- Cyber defence lags ten years behind cyber-attack, not least because of a new version of the impossible trinity: ‘Systems can be fast, open, or secure, but only two of these three at a time.’

- the European political elites now effectively rely on US companies such as Facebook to carry out - censorship on their behalf, seemingly oblivious to the risk that Facebook’s ‘community standards’ may end up being stricter than European law.

- it is no longer a mere possibility that this network can be instrumentalized by corrupt oligarchs or religious fanatics to wage a new and unpredictable kind of war in cyberspace. That war has commenced. Indices of geopolitical risk suggest that conventional and even nuclear war may not be far behind.

- Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to re-learn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.
Profile Image for Drtaxsacto.
580 reviews47 followers
February 22, 2018
This is a big book in many ways. Niall Ferguson is a British historian who takes on complex issues. In this book he attempts, mostly successfully, to describe the characteristics of networks and hierarchies. He begins with a discussion of the Illuminati - there is a lot of confusion about who the Illuminati were - a small group of German intellectuals in Bavaria who thought that with the right amount of thinking almost any problem could be solved. Like most of their like they were a) secretive and b) assuming that their ideas were the one right way to make the world right. Ferguson then goes through a fascinating narrative about the Masons and how networks in various parts of history changed things in remarkable ways.

He makes a couple of points which should not be lost. First, technology at many points in our history had a profound effect on changing major portions of life - often destroying hierarchies. For example, with the invention of moveable type the effect on economies at the time was greater than the technology revolution we are experiencing at this point. We all know about Moore's law and the declining costs of technology - but Gutenberg's invention reduced the cost of printed materials by a larger amount - the effect on economies at the time was significant. Books dropped in price by something close to 90%.

Second, he does a review of world history from the Peace of Metternich which relates networks and hierarchies. In a series of chapters he covers a lot of history and offers some interesting conclusions on the \ tensions between hierarchies and networks and how those tensions influenced developments in Europe, Asia and the US. He reminds American readers of the comments of DeTocqueville about the propensity of Americans to form voluntary organizations and that inhibiting effect on the growth of government. He argues that there was a determined effort to change the American approach to social services with some significant consequences.

He then offers some comments on the role of networks in our current era - especially the effects of Facebook and Twitter on how we communicate. He presents some amazing statistics on how effectively Clinton and Trump used networks in the 2016 election (Hint - Clinton was not as adept as Trump was).

This is the kind of book that one should read and then re-read. It is worth the second time, to make sure that all of his arguments are pulled in.

The final section offers some of his comments about how we should use both hierarchies and networks in the current environment. I am not convinced of many of his conclusions. That being said I should repeat this is a profound book.
Profile Image for M(^-__-^)M_ken_M(^-__-^)M.
347 reviews78 followers
March 21, 2020
The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson, Networks (The Square) Tower (Hierarchies) interestingly Ferguson points out that networks historically thought of as the powerless unwashed masses did in fact disrupt Hierarchies throughout history on a regular basis for instance "The French American and Russian revolutions" to name a couple, even Henry Kissinger the consummate professional powerless as an individual but then hired by the US Presidential office and suddenly master in the tower of power. Filled with interesting insights about the Illuminati (lets deflate the hype) some more on genetics of Queen Victoria's children and grand children (Kings, Queens and Emperors of most of pre-world war one Europe, another notable network touched on Pizzaro and his small band of brothers who destroyed the ruling Inca Empire. what did I learn don't under estimate the single human individual and beware of the ruthless self interested leaders in power. As we move fully into the instantaneous digital information age, just take notice of your own political landscape that surrounds you and make sure you and your community is safe.
Profile Image for Artak Aleksanyan.
244 reviews80 followers
December 31, 2021
Ֆերգյուսոնը միջդիսցիպլինար աշխատություն է ներկայացնում՝ երբեմն չափից դուրս մանրամասն, երբեմն՝ շատ հեռվից գալով, բայց ընդհանուր առմամբ ունի կուռ տրամաբանություն և շատ հետաքրքիր դիտարկումներ։

Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews592 followers
May 11, 2018
Drawing on the best modern scholarship, this book seeks to rescue the history of networks from the clutches of the conspiracy theorists, and to show that historical change often can and should be understood in terms of precisely such network-based challenges to hierarchical orders.

In both the Introduction to and the Afterword following the meat of The Square and the Tower, author Niall Ferguson invokes the image of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Tuscany – a medieval square that hosts informal and public events in the town – and the adjacent Torre del Mangia; a literal projection of secular power that looms over the townsfolk as they gather. Ferguson's thesis for this jaunt through history is that scholars have traditionally concentrated on the doings in the tower (if only because the big names in history tended to do their work there and were, therefore, recorded) but that the major upheavals always start in the square; in other words, Ferguson's goal is to concentrate on the networks that challenged and overthrew hierarchies throughout Western history. As I understand from other reviews, this isn't exactly groundbreaking historiography, but as we seem to be in a period of ever-dependent networking, and as I haven't read enough history to be bored by yet another overview of the Reformation, the World Wars, the 2008 Recession or Brexit, I found it all very interesting (if sometimes dull in jargon and repetition).

There is a lot of history in this book and I'll just record here some of the things that I found interesting. It's not surprising that Ferguson pretty much begins with Gutenberg – the printing press unleashed the first networked age, and when Luther came along, his treatises brought down the centuries-long dominance of the Catholic Church. What's interesting, to me, was the idea of the power vacuum this left – the ensuing cycles of hierarchies and the networks that took them down that has continued to our own time. We travel through the Age of Explorers and the birth of truly global trade. We learn that Paul Revere was one of several midnight riders that fateful night, but it was his superior networking (technically explained with nodes, and edges, and degrees) that has kept his personal legend alive. The French had a different kind of Revolution: networking brought down the aristocracy, allowing for the rise of Napoleon, which networking among the people brought down again. Ferguson explains how the British Empire employed networking to keep the peace amongst its vast holdings with minimal supervision. During WWI, Germany attempted to call the world's Muslims to jihad; exhorting them to drive the British out of the Middle East. And while that might have spurred the fervent defense of Gallipoli, it was the British superior gift for networking (Lawrence of Arabia, et al, on the ground) that eventually gained the local Muslims' trust and support. At the same time, German cells were trying to interfere in Russia's governance: To an extent that most accounts still underrate, the Bolshevik Revolution was a German-financed operation, though it was greatly facilitated by the incompetence of the Russian liberals. This statement is eventually followed up by the claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 80's began in the East European regimes that had been forced to borrow heavily from Western banks; which were by this point relying on new information technologies from Silicon Valley and international networking at Davos. In this way, German networking brought about the Soviet hierarchy (and through “blowback”, their own descent into autocracy) and the networking of international finance brought it down. From the Cambridge Apostles to Cambridge Analytica, George Soros breaking the Bank of England, the inability of the Coalition Forces to defeat al-Qaeda until they realised they would need to build a network to fight a network: there is so much history here that I can't possibly record it all.

Also unsurprisingly, Ferguson claims that the rise of the internet has brought about a networking revolution on par with Gutenberg and his printing press – and he doesn't necessarily find that to be a positive in our modern age. Not only have we made ourselves incredibly vulnerable to cyberattack, but we've created new and powerful hierarchies by transferring all of our money to the internet billionaires who don't answer to anyone, and we spend our networked time communicating with each other uncivilly and untruthfully. Developing countries are more likely to use the internet to spread terrorism than autocracy-busting revolution, and developed countries use the internet to confirm that we're missing out on the good life. In response to a decline in perceived quality of life, President Obama brought in measures (from ACA to Dodd-Frank) that strengthened the administrative state and added untold layers of bureaucracy and lawyer-fattening compliance regulations, leading to:

Intergenerational inequity in public finance, hypertrophic growth of regulation, deterioration in the rule of law and corrosion of educational institutions – taken together these lead to a “great degeneration” of both economic performance and social cohesion. In short, the administrative state represents the last iteration of political hierarchy: a system that spews out rules, generates complexity, and undermines both prosperity and stability.

In addition, the American government used anti-terrorism legislation and the ubiquity of the internet to spy on its own citizens (as proved by WikiLeaks, Assange, Snowden, etc):

To an extent that disturbs libertarians on both left and right, the US government exerts control and practises surveillance over its citizens in ways that are functionally closer to contemporary China than to the America of the Founding Fathers.

With this oppressive overreach of the hierarchy, how could the networks in the fringe corners of the internet not respond? Ferguson calls Brexit “a dress rehearsal for the US presidential election of 2016”; both cases in which networks of opposition took down entrenched hierarchies – the Leave vote thwarting the will of the elected government in London, and both Bernie Sanders shaking up the Democrats and Donald Trump opposing the will of the Republican Party; Trump himself prevailing over (the hierarchy's choice) Hillary Clinton with a superior network of supporters who could take his message from the internet to the pub. (Although he didn't have confirmation at the time of the book's release, Ferguson presciently suggests that Cambridge Analytica probably had as much of a role in targeted advertising via Facebook in America as it had in Britain.) So, all of this would seem an argument in favour of networks further disrupting the oppressive hierarchies, no?

The lesson in history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy...unless one wished to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some sort of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.

From the Pentarchy of nations that kept a stable peace in Europe after the Thirty Years War to the UN's Security Council that has so far prevented a third World War, Ferguson argues for the efficacy of a truly global hierarchy (instead of our current, dangerous, opposing spheres of influence) because, after all, a hierarchy is just a special kind of network in which nodes communicate up and down but never connect laterally. And while Ferguson might be right in this conclusion, I don't know if he proved it. Still: I really enjoyed the history lesson; this felt quite long, sometimes dull, but somehow vital.
Profile Image for Ганна Кузьо.
Author 1 book53 followers
February 3, 2022
Ледь дочитала. Автор крутий, як на мене, оперує величезною кількістю інформації на тему історії, політики, економіки, фінансів. Але читати його тут було важко. Він дуже заглиблюється в розбір якихось окремих історій, які ледь-ледь з’єднує докупи. Деякі розділи я так і не зрозуміла, до чого було вкладати в книгу. Тому читати складно, а іноді й нудно.

Тема цікава, дещо нова для мене. Автор розкриває розвиток різноманітних мереж, адже вони зовсім не новий витвір людського суспільства. Мережі існували здавна, просто технології змінилися. Колись були таємні ілюмінати, які вербували членів товариства особисто, революційні мережі поширювали листівки та усні повідомлення, реформаторство та поширення протестантизму стало успішним завдяки книгодрукуванню. Автор частково протиставляє їх більш традиційним ієрархіям-державам. І якщо спочатку здається, що мережі явно мають перевагу та позитивний вплив, адже вони є більш демократичними, то ті з них, які проіснували довго показали свою неконтрольованість й підводні камені.
“Революційна мережа може дуже швидко перетворитися на жорстоку ієрархічну систему. Це гарно видно на прикладі червоної революції”

Ви тут прочитаєте про реформаторство, про колонізацію, про розвиток міжнародної торгівлі, наполеонівські війни, відновлення монархій, фінансові оборудки Сороса, політику Гувера та 100500 історичних постатей, подій, рішень. Це все плетиво заплутане, як самі мережі, про які розповідає Фергюсон.
Не все так просто з мережами, словом.
А на завершення розділи про загрозливий розвиток соцмереж, кібератаки та кібервійни, від яких ми взагалі не захищені, бо традиційні ієрархії-держави не встигають адаптуватися до стрімкої еволюції мереж.
Похмура книга яка наче пророкує, що ці всі технології до добра не доведуть.

Не беруся судити про те, як Ніл Фергюсон трактує історію, але саме ця книга далеко не найкраща серед тих, які я читала. Тут наче й багато всього цікавого, але воно якось недоладно з’єднане і серед того всього губиться думка автора. Тож не раджу, на жаль.

Profile Image for 11811 (Eleven).
662 reviews144 followers
April 18, 2018
Every time I read this guy I walk away with a new perspective on history. He does mostly economic history but has a true gift for seeing the big picture in the evolution of human progress as a whole. ‘From the Freemasons to Facebook’ is an apt subtitle. It presents a healthy comparison of current social networking trends to the traditional networking of the past and gives a good idea of what to expect in the future, including possible future wars in Cyberia (I love that word.) Fascinating stuff. Highy recommended.
Profile Image for Edmond Dantes.
373 reviews28 followers
July 10, 2018
Chicca Imperdibile per amanti della storia, saggistica e sociologia applicata alle organizzazioni complessse, partendo da una acuta osservazione di Churchill, per cui, per vedere molto lontano nel futuro occorre guardare molto lontano nel passato...
Lettura veramente interessante ed acuta, facendo notare come la rete altro non sia che un diverso tipo di gerarchia, un internet delle persone e cogliendo nella rivoluzione della stampa di Gutenberg l'unica paragonabile a quella di internet con il dubbio di quello che potrebbe succedere dato Che :
rivoluzione stampa : riforma protestante = internet : X
Poi reazionari e sognatori riempiranno quella X con quello che ognuno vorrà vederci...
Una Nota - qui il titolo originale
""The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook ""
Commercialmente più accattivante dell'Italiano
""La piazza e la torre - Le reti, le gerarchie e la lotta per il potere: una storia globale ""
ma legare la massoneria (che nel '700 era una specie di Facebook per colti) a Facebook stesso avrebbe dato molta stura ai complottisti di ogni colore.....
Profile Image for ⚫Matin(Immortal Persian)⚫.
382 reviews8 followers
November 7, 2022
I came to this book with high expectations and found it to be utterly disappointing!
To be perfectly honest with you, this book was far from perfect at least in my perspective.
I wasted both my precious time and money on this terrible/Bizarre/nonsense/Ultra-Boring BOOK.
the first half was terrible and the second half as well :/ haha
I still cannot understand how poorly it is written
Profile Image for Joshua.
248 reviews51 followers
February 22, 2018
I enjoy reading Ferguson's books, and this one was no different. However, it was not my favorite from this author. The science and history behind networks was fascinating, and it was interesting to see how the interaction between networks and hierarchies shaped history. However, I would have liked more depth and a wider variety of historical examples of the hierarchy vs. network struggle. I do not think that a couple of pages dedicated to each historical event was enough to persuasively make the author's point. Further, the conclusion seemed to indicate that society has more to fear from wild networking than from hierarchies, but I am not convinced of that at all.

Overall, I recommend the book because it takes you on a fun and interesting ride through history from the dawn of man to the 2016 election. It is easy to read and the author opened my mind to a new aspect of several historical eras with which I thought I was intimately familiar.
Profile Image for Nilesh Jasani.
1,020 reviews157 followers
October 25, 2018
Let's say I write a book. I claim that entire history is all about "tools" (or "beliefs" or "egos" etc). Suppose I take this enormously broad term and at most break into two or some more categories - the tower equivalent could be "tools used to dominate" (other human beings or elements) and the square equivalent could be "tools used to cooperate". I pick a few dozens of random events from thousands of years of human history - let's say from the time of Hamurabi through to the rise of three monotheistic religions, episodes from Chinese and Indian histories before the Renaissance and the wars and the technology boom but also including some truly random ones like the Cambridge Five, the Pound ERM attack etc. I use wiki-length discussions of episodes I choose to suit my definition of "tools" and roles played by them. Imagine this book where I do all this to claim that history is all about "tools" from rocks to guns to pens or computers.

Mr Fergusson, one of the best historians of our time, has done something similar in this book to justify the effect of a massively loose term "network" (and "hierarchy") on history. The historic episodes sketched are handpicked and treated staggeringly perfunctorily. The network effects were never explained in details but almost always declared. Since almost all historical events involve more than one human being, and with some at least cooperating, the author's use of network encompassed almost all interrelations and interactions that are not completely adversarial. The ridiculous "tool" example above could easily be used as the history-shaping object in the same manner in which the author uses "networks".
Profile Image for Anton.
302 reviews88 followers
October 17, 2017
Incredibly rich account. The first quarter of the book is truly captivating. Great summary of the network analysis theory and insightful applications to different pivotal moments across the historical timeline. But then it gets a bit repetitive and overwhelming with misc details (?).

Having said that Niall Ferguson is a powerful non-fiction writer and a man of incredible erudition. So providing you can keep up with Niall as he leapfrogs from one century to the next, from one luminary to another - you are in a great company.
Profile Image for Olena Severin.
54 reviews5 followers
July 27, 2020
Прочитавши цю книжку, можна ненароком дізнатись, чим же насправді були ілюмінати, чому Ротшильди і Саксен-Кобург-Готи рулили половиною світу, чим реально відрізняються Оксфорд і Кембридж, чому Трамп переміг, а брекзіт стався і купу всього іншого - без теорій змов, але по слідах уважного історика. Не хочеться вірити песимістичному прогнозу автора про перспективу ієрархій і безнадійність мереж, але в цілому книжка блискуча. Перші сторінок 50 мені видались нудними й на якийсь час змусили відкласти книжку. Але вона з таких, до яких справді треба дозріти. І, певно, до тих розділів, які я трохи прогортала по діагоналі, теж я ще повернусь. Тут менше легкості стилю, як у Харарі, але це таки ґрунтовна і по-своєму захоплива книжка, яку радила б мати на поличці.
193 reviews
December 25, 2019
I greatly enjoyed Ferguson's previous books, Civilization and The Ascent of Money, so I was looking forward to this one but it's a thumbs down I'm afraid. The idea of contrasting hierarchies with networks and putting this into an historical context must have seemed like a awfully good one for a book but actually there just isn’t' enough flesh on the bone. It hasn't stopped him from doing a staggering amount of research - a third of the book is given to notes, bibliography and references - but it feels like he's tried to squeeze in every single bit of everything he's read on the subject and it's produced a convoluted and dry book without any coherent narrative. It won't stop me checking out his future books but this is not one of his best.
Profile Image for Stela.
946 reviews355 followers
May 9, 2019
I received Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower as a gift from my best friend and I have to confess that when I first read the title, I thought it was a checkers metaphor - but no, actually it is inspired by two architectural designs, one medieval and the other contemporary.
The medieval one is a landscape from fourteenth century Siena with its Torre del Mangia of the Palazzo Pubblico shadowing a popular market and meeting place named Piazza del Campo. The tower’s height, matching the height of the city Cathedral on the hill was meant to symbolize “the parity of temporal and spiritual hierarchies”.

The second one is an imaginary juxtaposition eliminating the distance between Silicon Valley and New York City’s 5th Avenue, to re-enact the same symbolism of the market shadowed by a tower that Trump has always falsely claimed it has 68 floors, instead of 58:

Silicon Valley prefers to lie low, and not only for fear of earthquakes. Its horizontal architecture reflects the reality that it is the most important hub of the global network: the world’s town square.
On the other side of the United States, however – on New York City’s 5th Avenue – there looms a fifty-eight-storey building that represents an altogether different organizational tradition. And no one individual in the world has a bigger say in the choice between networked anarchy and world order than the absent owner of that dark tower.

The central theme of the book is therefore the ancient rivalry between two orders, hierarchy and networking: when, how and why one of them had the upper hand at one point or another of the history. The author stresses that social networks have always been far more important than historians gave them credit for, dominating especially two historical periods: from Gutenberg revolution to eighteenth century, and from Silicon Valley revolution to nowadays. Before and in-between we have the hierarchical institutions that ruled by shutting down or co-opting the social networks.

The book has a very inciting beginning, with an analysis of the network of the Illuminati, that secret fraternity founded in the 18th century Germany, whose objective was, according to the founder, Brother Spartacus, “to give reason the upper hand”. The group developed quickly, from a mere 60 members, to over 1300, among who Goethe and Herder, together with a lot of German princes. Even though by the end of the century they ceased to exist, banned by the Bavarian government as hostile to religion, their notoriety grew and conspiracy theories began to rise, inter alia that they had links with the Rothschilds, the Round Table and of course George Soros. In the author’s opinion, the Illuminati became notorious only because they were infiltrated by the Germanic mason lodges. They were not an important movement nor omnipotent, and, despite some theories, they did not cause the French Revolution:

But they became significant because their reputation went viral at a time when the political disruption precipitated by the Enlightenment – the achievement of a hugely influential network of intellectuals – was reaching its revolutionary culmination on both sides of the Atlantic.

After this promising start, however, the book becomes a little too technical for a profane reader like me 😊, a little too inflexible in its emphasis on the idea of the historical impact of networking, and the narrative rhythm is sometimes broken. Moreover, many of the diagrams that accompany the text are difficult (literally) to read because of the editorial choice to reduce them in order to gain space I suppose.

However, there are many interesting (or funny, or both) facts and information that make the book worth reading, some of them listed below:

• in the casta classifications of the 18th century, together with the mestizo and mulatto you could find the moorish (a person born from a Spaniard and a mulatto woman) and the calpamulatto – (a person born from a mulatto and an Indian);
• even though the printing had been used in China long before its discovery in Europe, they hadn’t been able to create a new economic sector from it;
• during the World War II a group of highly educated, rich and powerful English men became what was called in Moscow The Magnificent Five, an elite network (more than five) who put themselves in the service of Russian intelligence (and were so successful the Soviet paranoia began to doubt of them) and were never tried for treason;
• Mafia’s name derives from the adjective mafiusu (swagger or bravado, etymology unknown) used first in an obscure play I mafiusi di la Vicaria (The Mafiosi of the Vicaria). The Sicilians preferred however the term Onorata Società (The Honored Society);
• FANG is the investors’ (so meaningful!) acronym for Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.

Finally, there are at least two quotes with no comment needed, one about George Soros and the other about Facebook.

That George Soros is a hub in a large and powerful network has often been claimed by conspiracy theorists. According to one breathless account, he ‘is the visible sight of a vast and nasty secret network of private financial interests, controlled by the leading aristocratic and royal families of Europe, centred in the British House of Windsor… and built upon the wreckage of the British Empire after World War II’. This network allegedly extends from the Queen and the Rothschilds all the way down to ‘indicted metals and commodity speculator and fugitive Marc Rich of Zug, Switzerland and Tel Aviv, secretive Israeli arms and commodity dealer Shaul Eisenberg, and “Dirty Rafi” Eytan’. This is nonsense. The real network Soros belongs to – the ‘larger and more intricate economic web’ he alluded to in an interview – is a network of hedge funds seeking to make money in similar ways.

Like anything that is very popular, Facebook has its detractors. ‘Facebook sells the attention of users to advertisers all over the world’, the journalist Jonathan Tepper wrote, shortly before deleting his account, ‘and Facebook knows almost everything about their lives, their families and their friends… It is also a platform built on exhibitionism and voyeurism, where users edit themselves to exhibit a more flattering side and they quietly spy on their friends…’ Far from increasing friendship, Tepper argued, it actually cheapens and displaces genuine friendship. Certainly, the economics of Facebook are a far cry from its utopian ideology. It has been likened to a sharecropping economy, ‘which provides the many with the tools for production, but concentrates the rewards into the hands of the few’. Put more crudely, on Facebook ‘the user is the product’.

One of the prophecies the book ends with is similar to the one formulated in Harari’s excellent Homo Deus (I wrote about it here): that artificial intelligence would eventually save the planet by eliminating the humans. Other is that our civilization will crumble because network has been infested by a corrupt hierarchy and a new war is being prepared in the cyberspace. One way or another, I suppose we will get what we truly deserve since we have already chosen to inhabit the missing floors of the dark tower.
Profile Image for Sarah Clement.
Author 1 book105 followers
April 24, 2018
This is a classic Niall Ferguson book, meaning that he takes a really wide, sweeping view of history over a very long period and tries to synthesise it under a particular theme. It is this skill in synthesis and accessible narrative that is his strength, as his books are built on the work of others, rather than his own original research. In this case, the synthesis is directed by academic understanding of networks. The book is ambitious and makes some interesting points, but it suffers from a very typical problem when you superimpose a theory ex post facto. The book is well written but the narrative frequently forced, and the efforts to present events of history as fundamentally about networks can be contrived. The book is also far too long, and if it was written by anyone else, I suspect the editor would have asked for large sections to be cut. His personal infatuation with the superiority of the West is also evident, but you shouldn't expect anything else if you're going to read a Niall Ferguson book. If you like Niall Ferguson's work, then you will probably like it, but I wouldn't say it's anything revolutionary. I think presenting the idea of networks within history as something no one else has done is really disingenuous, and only works if you are defining both "history" and "network theory" very narrowly. Historians understand and write about networks all the time, even the brute empiricists. Just because they aren't talking about nodes, density, structure, etc. does not mean they aren't talking about networks. They just understand and discuss them in a different way and don't pretend to be quantitative about it.
Profile Image for Tim Pendry.
1,016 reviews373 followers
October 4, 2019

The central purpose of this book is quite simple and worthwhile - a re-exposition of international history in terms of the ongoing dialectic between networks and hierarchies and, as such, it is enlightening and useful.

Being a popular account from a very prolific historian who doubles up on occasions as public intellectual, you can detect a lot of magpie activity - cherry picking from work already done and then making it useful to the thesis - so do not expect over much original research.

The book opens with an introduction on the history and content of network theory. Do not be put off by its dense attempt to offer something 'scientific' without enough clear exposition and explanation - it is, after all, just one of nine parts and you can return to it later.

This beginning is not particularly successful because it has to pack material that might serve for a much larger book into under 50 pages. I was not always convinced that the author was doing more than trying to summarise a whole field in order to boondoggle us into believing what follows.

The bulk of the book (parts II to VII) are much more in Ferguson's natural line - classic old-fashioned and plausible history - even if the final parts are less plausible as he collapses into the role of public intellectual with opinions on the modern world (this is now 'de rigeur' nowadays).

Why is the bulk of the book so interesting? Because his evidence for the role of networks and their relationship to hierarchies as central to the history of the West is not merely plausible but explanatory. There are important insights not least to the study of 'conspiracy theory'.

There are two prevailing views of conspiracies - that there is no substance to them (the standard elite view) and that they explain the world (the populist view). Ferguson rather brilliantly gives us a third: that they exist as historical movers but have much less substance than is attributed to them.

This middle position has always struck me as the most sensible one - after all, it was Adam Smith himself who pointed out the tendency of business to conspire and politics is no different and yet it is logical that the power of deliberate intentional networks can do little in absolute secrecy.

For example, Ferguson gives fair accounts of the story of the Illuminati and of the power of Jewish bankers in the nineteenth century but also points out the limitations of such networks - after all, it took just a simple exercise of political will by the Nazis to destroy Rothschild power.

The history he tells is one of networks, both tight and loose, based often on nodal points which, if removed, might have killed or at least delayed a 'revolution' yet capable of underrmining inflexible and ignorant hierarchies even if hierarchies clearly have a certain stickiness.

Effective networks can overturn States but effective States can degrade and subvert networks. The history often reads as a struggle in which networks arise to exploit weakness or where networks weaken the cause they support when they operate within States.

There are so many possible versions of the network-hierarchy dialectic that I doubt if there can ever be any general laws to be drawn from it other than that we will always be surprised by the future - evidenced by a consideration of how we all saw the world in 2007 or 2015.

Ferguson thus offers a middle position on a classic explanatory debate - the Carlylian hero is not an island and the class action of social forces requires interconnected agents of influence and action to effect change. The great man thesis and the Marxist thesis might be synthesised in network theory.

History is, of course, far too complex for single explanations ... it is a process rather than a succession of discrete events ... but Ferguson does not at any time over-claim to promote his thesis (in itself a welcome relief) but simply shows that the network-hierarchy dynamic is important.

The bulk of the book works successfully as a narrative history (at least Parts II to VII do) but specialists in any number of specific historical events, the Protestant Reformation, British Imperialism or the American or Russian Revolutions, can profit from specific chapters.

There must be 40 or more short chapters on nodal points of international (mostly European and Anglo-Saxon) history. Every one of them strengthens his thesis that networks matter and that hierarchies can fall to them if they do not understand how they work.

He is also good on balance of power issues where he seems to owe a great deal to his study of that classic 'realist' Henry Kissinger, notably the account of the settlement of 1815 and how it collapsed into a war that destroyed hierarchies that themselves depended on family and financial networks.

Kissinger is also offered as a case study on how informal diplomatic networking enabled the resolution of issues that formal hierarchical diplomacy could not resolve.

The real test of a general popular history book, of course, is - does it tell you not just facts that you did not know (this book probably does) but does it also enable to see things you thought about in a new light? This one does.

Yes, Ferguson's right wing Atlanticist prejudices seep through periodically and the history is not a full one so that social forces of the Marxist kind and some comprehension of the psychology of power is lacking but that is for the reader to correct in both cases.

He also usefully brings the story right up to the age of Facebook and Google although he is on less sure ground towards the end. That necessity to have an 'opinion' on the world today starts to intrude. This flaw (no doubt driven by audience expectation) helped lose a fifth star.

But even here he offers insights. His account of the post 9/11 rise of the administrative state is one which should be circulated to every citizen since new technologies may make this development one of existential importance to all of us very soon if it is not already the case.

The book also has a fine selection of charts and illustrations, necessary to explain the text, but a note of criticism is necessary here. I had the large hardbook version and many charts had print far too small to follow with no full explanation of their precise and specific meaning, flow and context.

This has to be down to publishing costs because what the book demanded was the inclusion of expensive pull-outs. A warning is required because the paperback edition is going to make that readability issue even worse.

On the other hand, Ferguson writes well and clearly (excluding the foreshortened technicalities of Part I) and, as narrative history, each chapter is an illuminating gem that genuinely enhances our understanding and appreciation of history.
August 23, 2021
Trashy if I am being brutally honest. I have read bad books previously, but this "brain vomit" is on a whole new level.

Niall is keen to show the reader how educated he is and how much research was put in writing the book. So, he made sure to include the names of every single person he read about, regardless of their significance. While reading, I had to pause and read over the names multiple times to ensure that I can recall them when they will be mentioned again, but most of them are there just to fill the void. If I wanted to thoroughly inspect the Habsburg family tree, I would have gone to Wikipedia and focused on one individual at a time instead of having to read a 4-page chapter full of names without understanding the relevance or the significance of all the mentioned names.

Also, Ferguson is a huge colonialism apologist and is not afraid to show it. He chooses to downplay the number of parties involved in WW1, how WW1 unfolded and the aftermath of it. Instead, he turns his sole focus on how the Ottoman empire was allied with the Germans, thus justifying the colonisation of vast areas of the Middle East as an uncontested right. Naturally, he went on and glorified how the British-French colonial project, which spanned from Eastern Asia to Africa, brought all these uneducated peasants into civilisation they should be grateful for.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,030 reviews1,165 followers
August 18, 2019
Ferguson presents here a brief introduction to network theory accompanied by illustrations of its application ranging over the last 500 years but focused on recent events such as the internet explosion, 9/11, the 2007/8 crash and the 2016 presidential election. His viewpoint is globalist Establishment (from a very Anglo-American perspective), Henry Kissinger apparently being at the forefront of his role models, and deeply pessimistic as he contemplates the interaction of old hierarchical networks, such as most states, with the more diffuse, rapidly evolving networks associated with the digital revolution.

For myself, the most interesting part of this book was the beginning and his treatment therein of the Bavarian Illuminati within the context of the European Enlightenment. So too I found his paralleling of the print revolution of the 16th with the current digital revolution intriguing. As regards current politics, however, his own, often rather obvious, prejudices had me taking much of what he wrote cum grano salis.
444 reviews9 followers
May 3, 2019
Ferguson is glib & erudite. One should not hold it against him that he is read by the rich & powerful altho one is tempted. In this work, he reviews all of recorded (or reconstructed) human history in terms of recurring cycles of dominance of hierarchies vs networks. Furthermore, it should be noted as the author does that a hierarchy is a specialized form of a network. Anyway, the book is entertaining & surely covers a lot of ground but it left me wondering if Ferguson didn't cherry pick his facts to suit his hypotheses. Further, in the long run, it doesn't seem to me that anything was proven or even shown to be verifiable.
Profile Image for Matt Esterman.
8 reviews2 followers
January 26, 2018
Niall Ferguson manages to deeply explore the intricacies of social networks and their political and economic contexts whilst also creating a highly readable historical account. His voice is clear & unapologetic about his conclusions and his methods - the use of social network analysis - to demonstrate the power of relationships & communication by various people in different contexts builds a powerful argument that our obsession with social networks today is built on a familiar story played out in previous generations.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
621 reviews2,037 followers
May 27, 2018
Amazing. Creative. Fresh. Slightly messy. Great book about Hierarchy and Networks and how they function in regards to political and economic power.

NOTE: The author is a Kissinger bigropher and actually says nice things about him. That came as a surprise to me as I have never even heard of that. At least not from a reputable intellectual. Admittedly, I don't read many conservative intellectuals (not any in fact). But jeez, out of all the guys to defend, Kissinger?

That's interesting if nothing else.

Unless you're Cambodiean in 1967.


This is a fuckin' cool book.

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