Book Review: The Square and the Tower

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I expected great things from The Square and The Tower: Networks and Power from The Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson. I got them. Here’s why this book is worth your time and worth savoring.

What’s it about? I’ll let Ferguson tell you himself. The following is from his preface, titled “The Networked Historian.” Sure, it’s long, but the book is long, too.

“It tells the story of the interaction between networks and hierarchies from ancient times until the very recent past. It brings together theoretical insights from myriad disciplines, ranging from economics to sociology, from neuroscience to organizational behaviour. Its central thesis is that social networks have always been much more important in history than most historians, fixated as they have been on hierarchical organizations such as states, have allowed – but never more so than in two periods. The first ‘networked era’ followed the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the late fifteenth century and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century. The second – our own time – dates from the 1970s, though I argue that the technological revolution we associate with Silicon Valley was more a consequence than a cause of a crisis of hierarchical institutions. The intervening period, from the late 1790s until the late 1960s, saw the opposite trend: hierarchical institutions re-established their control and successfully shut down or co-opted networks. The zenith of hierarchically organized power was in fact the mid-twentieth century – the era of totalitarian regimes and total war.”

We study history so we can do a better job of handling the future. That doesn’t mean one historical era is just like the other. We can’t take lessons from one era and apply them to another era without modifying them. As Mark Twain said, “History does not repeat, but it does rhyme.”

The book’s sixty chapters are in chronological order. They take us from before Gutenberg to the present day. Ferguson introduces the ideas of network theory as they developed. Once he establishes them, he uses them to analyze historical situations. If you know little about network theory now, this book will help you learn. If you already know quite a bit, you won’t learn anything new about the theories, but you will learn about the history.

Many of the chapters are short, but they’re all informative. Here are some of the many things I learned.

I always thought of networks and hierarchies as different kinds of structure. Now I think of hierarchies as a special kind of network.

I’ve been reading about the first World War. I didn’t know the German strategy was to, exhort the Arabs to a jihad against the British. I knew the other side. I knew T.E. Lawrence and other British were in the Middle East trying to get the Arabs to fight the Turks who were German allies.

There’s a lot about the Nazis and their networks, and how the networks led to the hierarchy of the Third Reich. I know a lot about this period, both from reading and from the experiences of family and friends. Still, there was a lot new to me.

I only knew the barest outlines of the story of “The Ring of Five.” I knew a bit about Kim Philby and how the Russians recruited him and his friends during their university days. Ferguson’s descriptions added a lot of detail and insight.

There’s an excellent description of the life and thinking of General Sir Walter Walker. Walker developed jungle warfare tactics the British used in Malaysia. They are the opposite of what the US military tried to do in Vietnam. Ferguson links this to the work of General Stanley McChrystal and the development of the Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual. Hardly anyone writes about Walker these days, but it makes sense to study his tactics for the “war on terror.”

The last section of the book does an excellent job of describing the dangers of electronic networks today. This brings the book full circle, as Ferguson promised.

A word of caution. In the last part of the book, Ferguson is writing about the impact of networks on business and politics. If you are passionate about politics, especially if you are a fan of President Obama, you will probably call this “political.” You may want to skip it.

Whatever you think about the final part of the book, you will miss a lot of value if you skip it. There are many facts and useful insights which will help you understand our current situation and the challenges we’ll face in the immediate future.

In A Nutshell

The Square and The Tower by Niall Ferguson is an excellent analysis of the way hierarchies and networks have shaped both business and politics from the 14th century to today. A summary won’t get the job done for you. That’s okay, though, because it is superbly written. The Square and The Tower is a thoughtful, informative, and insightful book that’s meant to be savored. You can read a chapter or two a day.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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