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Niall Ferguson’s new book is a warning about the pernicious threat of networks

Niall Ferguson is nothing if not well connected. Wherever Anglo-American power, money and letters collide, you can find the Scottish historian with an emphatic opinion to hand. He is a man of Bilderberg, Davos, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Westminster and Washington. His influence even extends to China, where he holds a visiting fellowship at Tsinghua University.

Among his friends he counts politicians, newspaper editors, hedge fund billionaires and Oxford dons. His books are often about powerful people from the near past: bankers such as Rothschilds and Warburgs; a seminal biography of Henry Kissinger. Others are studies of great webs of money and influence such as Wall Street or the British Empire. Each one is a publishing event on both sides of the Atlantic — and of course he writes a column in The Sunday Times each week. Ferguson, in short, is about as networked as they come. His lattice of powerful connections gives him access to the right people, the most essential gobbets of information and the best platforms to promote his ideas.

And yet his latest book, The Square and the Tower, is a warning about the dangers of networks, which he believes have been underappreciated by “intellectually sloppy” historians who focus too much on hierarchies, the stories of “popes and presidents” that they find in the official archives. Written from his new perch as a senior fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, the book is an attempt to “make history a little more savvy” as we live through mankind’s most connected age.

Sudden growth of networks, he argues, tends to bring turmoil with it. And this “applies to Silicon Valley too”, he says, hoping to remind the denizens of nearby Menlo Park that they didn’t invent the social network. It’s time, he argues, that we fasten our seatbelts: “This networked world is not going to be a harmonious one. It will be characterised by polarisation and, frankly, by conflict.”

Imagine a medieval Italian town. At its centre is a tower, the nucleus of government, representing the forces of order and hierarchy. That is where official power resides. But below the tower is the public square, where all the trading and gossiping is done. The square represents another kind of influence: that of networks.

Ferguson sees the interaction between the tower and the square, or hierarchies and networks, as the key to understanding history. When networks become too powerful, chaos often ensues. Name a tumultuous historical moment and Ferguson will point to the influence of networks. The 2008 financial crisis, 9/11, the French and American revolutions, the Reformation, the election of Donald Trump — all these events came about when networks were in the ascendancy, be they groups of revolutionary intellectuals gathering in Paris salons, or al-Qaeda terrorists gathering in online chat rooms. ...

Read entire article at The Times (London)