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Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

by Niall Ferguson

Pub Date: Jan. 16th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2291-5
Publisher: Penguin Press

Renowned economic historian Ferguson (Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, 2015, etc.) draws on insights from network theory to examine disruptions across time.

Governments and other hierarchies are stable, suggests the author, building on insights by Henry Kissinger, to the extent that they are flexible in the face of changing conditions. So it was that, for instance, mid-19th-century Europe enjoyed several decades of unwonted peace, having reached a way of accommodating “the old hierarchies of hereditary rule and the new networks of globalization.” As political stances became entrenched, with a unified Germany in constant opposition to France, the inflexibility reduced political and diplomatic maneuverability, and war followed. As Ferguson notes, networks have tended to disrupt hierarchy even though networks do not necessarily possess much power themselves. Writing about his own situation as a well-placed intellectual with affiliations to places like Harvard and Stanford, he notes that he doesn’t even have the authority to decide who gets into his classes. What is more important is the structure of the network, with gatekeepers who, in essence, determine what information is admitted and what information is released—information that sometimes has revolutionary, hierarchy-breaking capabilities. Ferguson, a noted conservative, is refreshingly evenhanded. In discussing the viral qualities of conspiracy theory, for instance, it’s clear that he regards conspiracymongers such as Alex Jones as noxious twerps while admitting, “this may be lunatic, but lunacy that appeals to more than a fringe.” It is also clear that the author admires networkers more than hierarchs such as the current president—who, as he points out, insists, “characteristically,” that his New York tower has 10 more floors than it really does. By the same token, Ferguson is scornful of hierarchs who use the tools of networkers ineptly, such as the data mavens who botched the Affordable Care Act computer systems.

Making profitable use of information science, Ferguson offers a novel way of examining data that will be highly intriguing to students of history and current affairs.