Like Ian Bremmer, I am a big Niall Ferguson fan. I love his work on not only western civilization, money and previous world wars, but also his contrarian way of viewing the world. If you want some great Niall, take a listen to his podcast interview with Sam Harris – this one covered a lot of ground from his new book, to inequality, to social media. You can find it here.
Ferguson’s most recent book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook, is a deep historical cruise from biblical times to modern day, examining the role of hierarchies and networks in the events and trajectory of the world. His general premise is that the creation and retention of power throughout history has ebbed and flowed between network structures (i.e. Trump supporters) and hierarchical structures (i.e. monarchies, formal governments, militaries, etc. ).
I have always like Ferguson’s work because it has taken some complex topics and distilled them down into something understandable in generally layman’s terms. However, Square didn’t do that. Perhaps it was the depth into which he went historically through history, particularly earlier human history, that lost me. Part of the challenge of this book is that he worked with network analysis to show how ideas, power and influence moved through time and place, which is an incredibly complex task to do, and in doing so requires some in-depth discussion of people, places and movements. To be honest, I got lost in the minutiae and the details in much of the first half of the book. Once he got to the late 19th Century, an area of history that I have an increased familiarity with, it got easier and better, but it was tough going for the first half of the book.
Once he gets to WWI and II, it gets easier and the reference points of history are easier to grasp. Ferguson spends a great deal of time on Henry Kissinger, someone who he has written extensively about, and uses his network map to show how Kissinger was one of the most connected people in history. Topics such as #occupy, #metoo, the 2016 US Presidential elections, ISIS and the current failures of social media are also explored. I found the latter half of the book to be quite informative and interesting. He takes aim at a number of technologies and their role in creating a world of conflict and their role in altering the shape of powers.
His ultimate conclusion: Ferguson is worried about the use of technologies and their role in shifting power and the threat of AI. His view “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….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.” He closes with the consideration to re-imagine institutions such as the UN, and that the Security Council look to find a common cause to rally behind for the purpose of good – that, he feels, is the defining question of our time.
Verdict: Recommended, but go in knowing the first half is like walking in peanut butter; it’s slow going.