Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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The Square and the Tower #network #power

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!  

 

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Smiles for Sale – “Lotus” – a novel by Lijia Zhang

LOTUS is the first novel of Chinese writer Lijia Zhang, who began her working life at 16 in a factory that produced intercontinental missiles, taught herself English by listening to the music of The Carpenters, and now works as a journalist and social commentator in Beijing.

I’ll be interviewing her on Monday on Impact on BBC World News (1330 BST).

“Lotus” is about prostitutes in steamy southern Shenzhen, the city just north of Hong Kong. What they are like, why they do it, and how they came to be there. Zhang says it’s a myth to think the lives of all sex workers are all misery.   At best, they can earn and live for themselves. But at worst – and what an awful worst –  they’re raped and constantly exploited. And that is how many begin.

Like Lijia Zhang’s own grandmother. The novel is rooted in a story revealed on a deathbed, the family secret of her grandmother’s past, sold to a brothel when she was just fourteen.  Continue reading


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Olivia Sudjic’s “Sympathy” – Alice in her online Wonderland.

When does life online shift from broader horizons to tunnel vision?

A new novel called “Sympathy” sends us tumbling down the rabbit hole like Alice. And like her, it makes me feel somewhat nauseous. I might even have to say I dislike the story. That’s not to say it isn’t good – and powerful.   I look forward to interviewing its author Olivia Sudjic on BBC World this week.  Continue reading


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“No Need for Geniuses”. A rather surprising book about history and science.

I interviewed Steve Jones at the Write on Kew literary festival on Sunday. He is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London and from the evidence of his books a very curious author.  

He’s written extensively on evolution and genetics – how did we come to be who we are? – and this book No Need For Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine  – sweeps through a series of fantastic stories about an extraordinary moment in history, a time and a place, revolutionary France, when a host of academic explorers made tremendous strides – across scientific fields from biology, chemistry and physics to astronomy, meteorology, and ologies I didn’t know existed (like metrology, which has literally changed our world).

When we think about Paris we often think about the arts. That is literally only half the story. As Jones put it, “The scientific landscape of the French capital is, without doubt, the richest in the world”. Continue reading


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Whose #Detroit is it anyway? a story of #Race and #RealEstate

“This is a kind of self-obsession”.

He is self obsessed.  Annoying.  A thirtysomething Yale graduate drifting through life.  A white outsider who stumbles his way through this claustrophobic drama set in a semi-derelict stretch of Detroit.

But his story is a very good read.

The narrator of “You Don’t Have to Live Like This” is Greg Marnier.  He doesn’t know where he stands between insiders and newcomers, dispossessed and profiteer, above all between black and white.  Mostly, ‘Marny’ doesn’t want those “sides” to exist at all, and the reader has to decide whether he’s simply naive or somehow stoking the tensions as the story builds to its racially charged climax.  Continue reading


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Books – a reckoning

In this financial year…

I have LOST time. Extra minutes stolen before running to the tube for work. Guilty pages on the broken bench outside the fitness centre. Secret hours clocked up between sofa and shutters, home alone before shift work with no-one to account to.

I have GAINED so much – from the inside of other peoples’ heads.

Note to self. Try to be more mindful, more measured, less greedy a reader. Here are words to jog memories, from the books I’ve inhaled. An audit, of sorts.

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“The New Middle East” – an eyewitness account.

Trying to take the long view on the fallout from the Arab Uprisings?  Here’s my holiday reading.  Paul Danahar’s “The New Middle East”  uncovers the forces behind the turbulence – religious, economic, historic.  

It also reads in part like a geopolitical thriller because, for much of the time, he was there  – in Tahrir Square with the revolutionaries; in Libya talking to Gaddafi and then seeing the dictator’s brutalized body; witnessing the horror, hatred and hunger that’s destroying Syria.

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