Hierarchies rule but networks innovate.
Historian Niall Ferguson’s new book “The Square and the Tower” looks at how these two forms of power have co-existed through the ages.
His point? In recent years we’ve celebrated the ‘network’ in many different guises. The first few examples that spring to mind for me are the Cathedral and the Bazaar – the ideal of the “netizen” – the easiness of eBay – the dawn of the Arab Spring. You’ll have others. We all do.
Ferguson asks some hard questions about what network power is actually doing for us, or to us? What are the historic implications of living in the age of Facebook, Weibo, computer malware and the distributed IS terror network ?
First, the theory. Hierarchies are the stuff of official history – it’s their world that fills our conventional archives – and forms the structure of our government. But think about Google or Netflix or Alibaba – it’s the networks which now spill into the smallest corners of our daily lives.
Ferguson gallops through the centuries. He tells us the first “networked era” followed the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the late fifteenth century and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century. The second – our own time – dates from the 1970s.
This book is his attempt to give due attention to the buzz of the networks, the public square: because we’re in a phase of history where we can really see their power – for good or for ill.
In Western terms, he sums up some of the new network powers as FANG – we’re talking about Facebook, Amazon (and Apple), Netflix and Google. The internet age was heralded in idealistic terms. It could / should have been about openness, transparency, democracy, freedom. But Ferguson focusses on data gathering, commercial power, and the huge income inequalities between the owners and users of the Silicon valley networks.
“The global social network is itself owned by an exclusive network of Silicon Valley insiders”.
It’s worth thinking again about the question, who profits? And does it have to be that way?
He contrasts EU attempts to tax and to regulate (but not really innovate) and then looks east to the Chinese version of the big networks – BAT – Baidu, Alibaba, TenCent. He told me today on BBC World TV that “the Chinese got the internet right” : he sees the Chinese authorities embracing successful network formulas (as opposed to accepting the actual Googles and Facebooks on their own terms), building their own versions, and using the data they bring – not least for the surveillance of dissent. He adds that we underrate Chinese political power structures. They work laterally more than we realise, utilising the leverage of “mentoring” relationships, not just centralised hierarchical structures.
There’s a lot more. These are just a few of the points I’ve underlined in a 48 hour reading marathon.
The backlash against the big social networks. AS NF puts it, Facebook or Fakebook, Twitter or Twister? EU states are saying Google and Facebook should censor the unacceptable. Should they?
Just how fragile networks can be. The international financial network was nearly brought down by the failure of one investment bank in 2008. The global computer system was badly hacked by the WannaCry ransomware this May.
The networking of terrorism. ISIS learned from Al Qaeda, not to let itself be decapitated or throttled as happened with the US-led Anaconda Strategy in Iraq. Go viral, be networked, go from top-down control to cells to calling for ‘lone wolf’ rampages.
And he touches – but not much more – upon the advance of AI. From carbon-based neural networks to cerebral silicon power? That’s a whole other story, being written by a whole lot of others right now.
To me, it makes for gloomy reading.
Other books that have impressed me on the power of networks, celebrate their potential, or their proven worth as human safety nets. I’m thinking, for example, about Robert Putnam mourning the decline of community networks in “Bowling Alone” and “Our Kids” or Clay Shirky celebrating the revolutionary impact of online networks in “Here Comes Everybody”.
Is there still a place for idealism? Ferguson quotes the question, ‘can the “good actors” join together in a new kind of geopolitical network, pitting their ‘webcraft’ against the bad actors?’. Some current thinkers like Anne Marie Slaughter hope the US will gradually “find the golden mean of network power”. He thinks that’s unlikely.
When I interviewed Niall Ferguson today on BBC World TV, I put it to him that I feel he finishes in praise of hierarchy – having warned us the networks are just as controlling, just as dangerous, and perhaps less accountable. Here’s another of his lines:
“The world today frequently resembles a giant network on the verge of a cataclysmic outage”.
But perhaps the quote that will stay with me longest from ‘The Square and the Tower’ is this, the three rules of computer security he tells us were devised by the NSA cryptographer Robert Morris Sr:
“RULE ONE: Do Not Own a Computer.
RULE TWO: Do Not Power it On.
RULE THREE: Do not use it.”’
I’d rather not be defeatist. But this book doesn’t help!