he existence of the social networks is one of the great disruptive hotspots associated with the digital revolution. Through profiles on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, billions of people interact constantly, sharing information of all sorts. These are chaotic, voluntary relationships, but they follow certain norms and patterns—we do not choose whom we follow by chance—and they have an incremental, defined influence on a wide variety of issues, to the point that Trump’s election in 2016 cannot be understood without the power of social networks and the possibility they offer politicians of connecting directly with the voter.
In his latest book The Square and the Tower, Scottish historian and Stanford professor Niall Ferguson sets out to explore the interaction between the hierarchical, vertical power exercised by kings, governments and parties, and the power of the network, exercised by horizontal organizations and other flatter movements without clear command structures. Hence the metaphor of the Square, the symbol of horizontal power, where we trade and communicate, and the Tower, the symbol of vertical power. Ferguson’s approach is twofold. On the one hand, he carries out an interesting theoretical exercise on how the theory of networks—that is, the dynamics and norms that explain their behaviour—helps explain history; and secondly, to set a perspective on the phenomenon of Facebook and others whose dynamics and consequences have occurred before in history. As Eric Schmidt sums up, “Silicon Valley needed a history lesson and Ferguson has provided it.”
The book kicks off with the case of the Illuminati, one of the first networks—in this case in the form of a secret society—that questioned and challenged certain classical institutions of power, among other powerful analogies, to exemplify the effects of networks especially, but not only, in exercising political power. Ferguson uses the fundamentals of network theory to better understand such events as the American Revolution, the fall of Nixon, the international success of his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger—whose biography in two volumes the author is in the process of writing–and to understand the plot in the complex work of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or how he compares the invention of Guttenberg‘s printing press with Zuckerberg‘s Facebook.
The dialectic contrast Ferguson establishes between the Square and the Tower travels certain common paths in the classical opposition between State (vertical) and market (horizontal), even applying Taleb‘s fragile/anti-fragile theses. However, the author establishes a clear distinction between the two, the latter—the market, being one type of network, among the most sophisticated. But there are many other networks whose dynamics do not depend on prices. Al Qaeda, for example, or the aforementioned Illuminati, are powerful reticular forces that have nothing to do with the markets as described in economic literature.
Perhaps one of the most powerful and illuminating parts of the book, as far as the present moment is concerned, is when the study focuses on those informal powers, analysing such phenomena as the rise of Trump, whose election—as well as his primaries victory—cannot be understood without his infamous Twitter account, which allowed him firstly to get around the Republican party apparatus, and then, as a candidate to the White House, the American mass media. The Trump team knew how to take advantage of the expedient use of social networks, dominated by sentimentality and clear, forceful messages where connections are determined, mainly and basically, by philias and phobias, reinforced by the workings of the algorithms that control the digital networks. In this sense, the networks help to polarize the debate and generate a fertile frame so politicians like Trump (or like Congressman Rufián or Podemos leader Iglesias in Spain) have much more pull than those who seek nuance and the truth of things.
In short, a refreshing book that invites us to reflect on the implications of an increasingly complex and interconnected world, while shedding light on the importance of horizontal powers so often out of focus, and whose influence leaves fewer clues and records in archives and libraries, in contrast to the more obvious hierarchical powers. But their influence is fundamental to understanding our past and present. An enjoyable, illuminating book.