The Square and the Tower | Niall Ferguson

Summary of: The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook
By: Niall Ferguson


In ‘The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook’, Niall Ferguson explores the balance between networks and hierarchies throughout history. From the economic networks created by steamships and railways to the influence of communication networks like the internet, this book examines how these interconnected nodes have shaped societies and driven historical change. By understanding the connections running through the nodes in networks, their importance, and the weak links between networks, readers get a glimpse into the functioning of these complex structures. More importantly, this book highlights the ways networks and hierarchies share traits and how they shape different aspects of social and political life.

Hierarchy vs. Networks

History is not just shaped by hierarchies at the top, but also the interconnected networks of people and ideas. While hierarchies usually have the final say, networks have played a crucial role in transforming societies and driving historical change. Networks are sets of interconnected nodes, whether they be people, trading ports, or family members, connected by commonalities such as shared status or values. Homophily leads people to form networks with those similar to them. Both hierarchies and networks share similarities, but networks are more interconnected. By exploring how networks function, one can gain insights into how historical change occurs.

The Power of Connected Nodes

The effectiveness of a network depends on the interconnectivity of its nodes. There are different ways to measure the importance of nodes, including degree centrality, betweenness centrality, and closeness centrality. Nodes with high centrality, or those that are better connected, are considered as hubs. Strong and direct connections are essential, but weak ties between different networks are also necessary as they serve as bridges that connect different social worlds. Brokers can also step in as intermediaries when weak ties are missing. The women who ran the literary salons of Paris did this by hosting Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries from different groups, thus facilitating a dialogue between groups that created the conditions for the French Revolution.

Networks that Changed the World

In the 16th century, the world was ruled by powerful individuals and top-down hierarchy. However, two networks emerged that would challenge this order: Spain and Portugal’s global trading network and Gutenberg’s printing press. The trading network, fueled by new technologies and shared knowledge, challenged traditional hierarchies wherever it went. Meanwhile, the printing press allowed books and texts to become more affordable and widely available, sparking new information networks across Europe. Printing houses became the hubs of this network and people flocked to them in search of knowledge. Together, these networks transformed the world and set the stage for a new era of connectivity and information exchange.

The Printing Press and the Resilience of Networks

The rise of the printing press revolutionized not only the pricing of books but also the circulation of written materials that challenged hierarchies. Martin Luther’s Reformation was an excellent example of how the printing press helped him disseminate his theses attacking the Catholic Church swiftly. German printing houses published 5,000 editions throughout the century, and eight out of ten were in German, opening up access to regular people. The spread of Protestantism was viral, thriving where books were abundant. However, the popularity of the new creed prompted a ferocious rearguard action from the Catholics, hoping to suppress Protestantism. Despite attempts to eliminate the core individuals advocating for the new faith, the movement remained resilient due to the even distribution of centrality across its members. The triumph of the Reformation eventually undermined the Catholic dogma, enabling people to think outside the box, thus paving the way for the seventeenth-century scientific revolution.

The Role of Networks in Revolutionary Movements

The establishment of printing presses, the Reformation and the scientific revolution were threatening the order of the hierarchical societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Networks came to play a vital role with regards to spreading revolutionary ideas. The American Revolution, for instance, relied on several associational networks that helped spread these ideals. Boston, in particular, had five associations that played central roles in the revolution, with brethren from the Freemasons making notable contributions. The men who were part of these organizations helped to promote revolutionary thought by serving as weak ties between different networks. They also helped to establish interconnected networks that helped spread revolutionary ideas to the thirteen colonies. Enlightenment and the French Revolution also relied on the same key philosophies. Voltaire and Rousseau were important nodes in the latter, using letter writing to connect different thinkers and promote republican thought. However, France was more hierarchical, so the French Revolution was more brutal, and the Jacobins tried to replace the king’s hierarchy by imposing their own order, leading to a new European hierarchy with the advent of the Napoleonic empire.

Networks and Hierarchies in Europe

After the French Revolution, Napoleon spread his hierarchical model across Europe, which caused his enemies to band together in a pentarchy that ruled for a century. Their interconnected hierarchies in this network effectively maintained peace and order because all nations accepted their final say in any matter. This system was so effective that there was not a single occasion in which all five powers went to war before 1914.

British Empire’s Rise

The British Empire rose to global dominance in the nineteenth century by incorporating local hierarchies in its imperial network, investing in technology and transportation, and establishing the foundations for globalization.

In the nineteenth century, the British Empire emerged as the world’s most powerful nation, building a vast empire and ruling the waves. The British Empire’s success can be attributed to its ability to make use of existing hierarchies in its imperial network. For instance, the British colonial administrator, Frederick Lugard, pioneered the “indirect rule” system that incorporated local hierarchical institutions into the empire’s own structures. This system devolved power to chiefs and sub-chiefs and granted them a limited amount of freedom to work for the empire.

The technological advancements facilitated by the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of strong capitalist networks of banks were critical to the empire’s rise. Railroads, telegram networks, and improved shipping soon connected the far-flung corners of the empire. For example, in nineteenth-century India, more than 25,000 miles of railroad were laid, connecting the country like never before. The transatlantic telegraph cable, constructed with imperial products such as Malayan rubber, laid the foundations for globalization and the unprecedented mass movement of people.

Improvements in shipping were also significant. The cost of shipping between Liverpool and New York, for example, fell by 50 percent between 1830 and 1880, making travel faster and less expensive. This established the conditions for the first mass migrations of the modern era. Between 55 and 58 million Europeans left the old world behind and set sail for the Americas, while another 50 million Indian and Chinese people sought their fortunes across Southeast Asia, along the eastern shores of Africa, and Australia.

However, this period was tumultuous, and the arrival of migrants led to a populist backlash. Rising nationalism and racism were closely linked to this trend. Chinese migrants on the West Coast in the United States were badly mistreated, while German populist politicians railed against Eastern European Jewish migrants. The condition established in this era became the foundation for globalization and the modern world as we know it today.

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