The Square and the Tower

Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I think I put this on the get-at-library list after listening to Jonah Goldberg interview the author, Niall Ferguson, on his podcast back in 2019. Eventually, some slow reader returned it to Portsmouth Public Library, and here it is.

Consumer note: as I type, the hardcover is available at Amazon for a mere $9.82. Good deal.

Ferguson's general method here is to view history through "networks" and "hierarchies". (A hierarchy being a special case of network: top-down with implications of authority.)

In that sense, networks/hierarchies are everywhere, and always have been. In this book, there are a lot of those labelled boxes/ellipses/circles connected with various kinds of lines (thick/thin, curved/straight dashed/dotted/solid,…) Does illustrating various historical episodes this way bring insight? I can give you a definite "maybe"!

That's OK. I read history books at a not-even-a-dilettante level. Or a "picking up facts I may be able to regurgitate if I ever get on Jeopardy!" level. And Ferguson has a lot of good, entertaining, thoughtful stuff herein, even if the network interpretive view didn't bring a lot of additional insight for me.

The book is wide ranging in time and space. And coverage is somewhat idiosyncratic. Example: Chapter 17 has a ponderous title, "The Economic Consequences of the Reformation". I steeled myself to deal with that weighty topic… only to turn the page and find the chapter ending after a total of three paragraphs. OK, they were long paragraphs, but still.

I did make a connection when listening to the Reason Interview podcast with Nick Gillespie interviewing Ted Henken about Cuba. Henken made the point that social media driven networks can be pretty effective at knocking things down (like dictatorial regimes). But they haven't had much success with driving improved situations. For that, you need something more hierarchical. (An example: the beginnings of the American Revolution were aided by the colonial networks of the day, and the initial outcome was kind of a mess. But the adoption of the Constitution was largely driven by a hierarchical elite.)