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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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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The Shape of Revolutions?

How much do we mistake the technology for the story?

I’m always fascinated by the way in which social media networks connect activists and amplify their voices. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – how about this observation by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik ?

“Twitter, spitting out its brief public messages, is given credit for making revolutions – and certainly, throughout the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian and Iranian near-Springs the instant news shared by its tweets raced around the crowds and helped order its actions. But in truth, every popular social revolution since at least the French one has followed (I think) the same pattern – a government weakened by war or financial crisis or both meets popular resistance, which for the first time takes in members of the elite and the masses. They find a meeting space – it could be Tahrir Square or a French real tennis court – and occupy it. Then, in the crucial moment, the army, called on to disperse the mob, identifies with the cause and refuses. The government is forced to surrender. Then, time after time, the best organised of the militant minorities takes over – and then, in 18th Century France or 21st Century Egypt, there is a contest to see if the militant minority can dominate the army or if the army will destroy the militant minority. Whether texted and twittered or papered and pamphleted, the shape of revolution is about the same.”

It’s part of his BBC essay this week – on why HE doesn’t tweet.

 

 


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When it’s not good to be followed

I love talking on Twitter. I love being followed on Twitter. But I’m realising that more doesn’t always mean better.  Which is why I’ve just cut my numbers.  

Am I behind the curve here? I wonder how many of you already act to filter out fake follows.  

I noticed on Tuesday that something odd was going on. Continue reading


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#Trials on #Twitter – the #Stephenlawrence case

I’m not a legal expert. I’m not even a regular court reporter. But I was one of the BBC team assigned to cover the Stephen Lawrence murder trial at the Old Bailey in November.

I am also the BBC broadcaster who used Twitter to present “breaking news” programmes about the verdicts and sentences given to  Stephen Lawrence’s killers this week.

This is not a polished article. It’s my attempt to reflect on the uses – and perils – of using Twitter in our courts. Thank you for your comments on the issue; do keep the feedback coming!

A little about me first. I love using Twitter as @PhilippaNews. It keeps me in touch with stories & contacts around the world, and I enjoy what we’ve come to call the curation of news – sharing links on everything from London life to Arab Spring politics to the US election campaign.

But this was the first time I’d used the social media channel as another form of broadcasting. Continue reading


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Send the BBC your views today on “Technology – the pace of change”

Hi there – I’m very excited to be a first time presenter on the fantastic World Service radio programme “World Have Your Say” at 1800BST today. It’s a programme that belongs to the audience, and I’m asking YOU to give me insights that I can read on air.

Here’s the idea. Can you imagine living in a world without the iPod? Using a computer without Google? Sorting out your social life without Facebook? Or your news without Twitter?
Or imagine a world where you didn’t have to hear about them all the time?

Well it’s not long ago that none of us had heard these names. Today marks a number of BIRTHDAYS – ten years since the iPod was unveiled, thirteen years since the launch of Google. And it seems every day brings us a new product launch – Amazon’s Kindlefire? – or a social media makeover – like the new look Facebook.

SO I’m using the moment to ask how this whirl of invention has changed YOUR life. What does it make you think about the way we communicate, the way we share, how our behaviour has changed

Are you excited about living in a world where it seems every day brings us a new product launch or a social media makeover?
Is it a lifestyle you aspire to?
Or is the world of Apple and Google and Amazon unreal and irrelevant – or one that makes you excluded and frustrated?

You can comment here – or tweet to @PhilippaNews or @BBC_WHYS – I’ll try to get as many of your thoughts as we can into our hour on air.