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A careful history examines pivotal moments and the networks that made them possible

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press
607 pp.
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What was the cause of Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Was it the peculiarities of the electoral college? Voter resistance to three-term rule by a single party? Anxiety about illegal immigration?

As Niall Ferguson explains in The Square and the Tower, the answer lies largely in one word: networks. Specifically, without the cyber infrastructure that facilitated Russian interference, the “alt-right” networks that churned out memes and “fake news,” and the social media that gave them wing, history may have turned out very differently.

Ferguson, a historian who has held posts at Harvard and Stanford, argues that historiography has traditionally been a top-heavy enterprise that focuses on hierarchies—the states, armies, and corporations that stand astride the world like colossi—while minimizing less overt or well-documented power structures like the Freemasons and the salons of the Enlightenment. The Square and the Tower is Ferguson’s attempt to right this imbalance, taking a fresh look at some of history’s most pivotal moments through the lens of networks.

The book’s enigmatic title evokes the heart of the archetypical medieval town—the high tower of the state looming over the noisy public square below. It’s an apt metaphor for Ferguson’s central point: Networks have always been with us, and their interaction with hierarchies has catalyzed some of the most momentous events in history.

Effective networks can topple hierarchies, as shown in Luther’s Reformation against the Catholic church. But under the right circumstances, the tower can cast its shadow over the square anew. Look no further than the age of empire and colonialism that lasted from Napoleon’s defeat to the First World War.


A crowd celebrates the release of Bekele Gerba on 14 February 2018.

The study of networks can be traced to the work of 18th-century mathematician Leonhard Euler. It was Euler who used the mathematical language of graphs to solve a puzzle that vexed the citizens of Königsberg: whether it was possible to walk through the town crossing each of its seven bridges exactly once. (No.)

In the intervening centuries, the work of many scholars augmented our understanding of the interconnected world, notably the social scientists Stanley Milgram and Mark Granovetter and the renowned mathematician Paul Erdo˝s. Yet it was only in the late 1990s that network science emerged as a formal, interdisciplinary field in its own right.

The Square and the Tower sets the stage by summarizing some of the most important discoveries of network science in the past two decades. You may already be familiar with the idea that you are, at most, six friendships away from any other person on the planet, as immortalized in the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Did you also know that your next job opportunity will likely come from a cocktail party acquaintance instead of a close friend (the “strength of weak ties”)? These are network leitmotifs with profound historical consequences, explaining among other things Paul Revere’s singular success in rallying revolution and the intercontinental reach of the Black Death.

Ferguson weaves his narrative largely in microcosm. This is an effective narrative tool, but also one mandated by his thesis; if history is indeed a tale of networks, then it cannot be fully understood through a blinkered preoccupation with princes, presidents, and prime ministers. In this fashion, we learn about Stalin’s ruthless subjugation of social networks from the vantage point of the ill-fated poet Anna Akhmatova.

Among this cast, we also find familiar faces from Ferguson’s other books, including Henry Kissinger and the dynastic Rothschilds. Although hardly obscure, and indeed near the apex of power, these actors arrived and thrived at these lofty heights by virtue of their favorable positions in the relevant social, political, and economic networks.

At times, the book strains to unite too much under its thesis, abetted by the fact that if you squint hard enough, almost anything can be a hierarchy (or network). For example, should hierarchy and its putative apotheosis—the modern “administrative state” (Ferguson’s pejorative)—really be scapegoated for its failure to anticipate the global financial crisis? One could equally well place the blame on networks and their Achilles’ Heel—vulnerability to cascading failure. This quibble aside, Ferguson’s overall thesis is too compelling to dismiss.

The Square and the Tower offers an enthralling “reboot” of history from a novel perspective, spanning antiquity to the present day. Ferguson, at once insightful and droll, builds his case meticulously. And, like the best historians, he always pauses to learn from the past and anticipate the future. If only for this reason, the book is well worth a read.

After all, we live in a time when networks appear ascendant. Smartphone usage has penetrated deep into the developing world, Twitter has galvanized revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and cryptocurrency has (at times) rivaled Fortune 500 companies in market capitalization. Surely this all signifies the dawn of a new era, the inexorable, final triumph of networks over the ossified hierarchies of the past? If history is any guide, don’t count on it.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Network Science Institute, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115, USA.