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The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook Paperback – Illustrated, January 22, 2019
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“Remarkably interesting . . . always surprising and always thought-provoking in the places and entities it chooses to pause and examine, everything from the Mafia to the Soviet Union of Stalin. . . . The Square and the Tower in addition to being provocative history, may prove to be a bellwether work of the Internet Age.” —Christian Science Monitor
"Niall Ferguson has again written a brilliant book. . . . His short chapters are lucid snapshots of a world history of Towers and Squares, filled with gracefully deployed learning. . . . THE SQUARE AND THE TOWER is always readable, intelligent, original. You can swallow a chapter a night before sleep and your dreams will overflow with scenes of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Napoleon, Kissinger. In 400 pages you will have restocked your mind. Do it." —The Wall Street Journal
“Ferguson reminds us the social network didn’t spring fully formed from the mind of Mark Zuckerberg; rather, it’s a persistent force in human affairs offering a novel lens on past and perplexing present.”—San Francisco Chronicle
"A wide-ranging and provocative tour through the history of human connectivity, pre- and post-high tech. Ferguson also ladles out illuminating doses of networking theory and analysis of the threat that growing political and economic complexity poses to established hierarchies and institutions." —Inc.com
“An engaging, provocative history of networks (and their relationships to hierarchies) from ancient times to the invention of the printing press to the pervasiveness of the personal computer. Breathtaking in its scale and scope, The Square and the Tower applies insights of network theory to (among other subjects) Portugal’s foothold in Macau, the “conquest” of the Incas, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, World War I, Stalin’s Terror, World War II, the fall of the Soviet Union, the founding of the European Union and the Great Recession of 2008-09.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“An enthralling ‘reboot’ of history from a novel perspective, spanning antiquity to the present day. . . . Like the best historians, [Ferguson] always pauses to learn from the past and anticipate the future. If only for this reason, [THE SQUARE AND THE TOWER] is well worth a read.”—Science
“[Ferguson’s] typically bold rethinking of historical currents, painted on the broadest canvas, offers many stimulating insights on the tense interplay between order, oppression, freedom, and anarchy.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Ferguson has written a provocative and intellectually challenging work that should promote consideration and debate among academics and laypersons.” —Booklist
“Renowned economic historian Ferguson draws on insights from network theory to examine disruptions across time. . . . Refreshingly evenhanded. . . . Ferguson offers a novel way of examining data . . . highly intriguing.” —Kirkus
“In his sweeping, stimulating and enlightening The Square and the Tower, noted historian Niall Ferguson draws from a wide range of sources to trace the crucial role that different kinds of human networks have played throughout history… Ferguson’s superb, thought-provoking book brings these events vividly to life and will help readers view history from a unique perspective.” —BookPage
"Niall Ferguson's The Square and the Tower brilliantly illuminates the great power struggle between networks and hierarchies that is raging around the world today. As a software engineer steeped in the theory and practice of networks, I was deeply impressed by this book's insights. Silicon Valley needed a history lesson and Ferguson has provided it." —Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Books; Illustrated edition (January 22, 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 592 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0735222932
- ISBN-13 : 978-0735222939
- Item Weight : 1.2 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.45 x 1.34 x 8.37 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #12,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Essentially, the core idea in this book is that the role and influence of social networks throughout history has been downplayed by historians because of their reliance on state archives which tend to stress the role of hierarchies. Because of this, the rise in the power of social networks spawned by the computer age is mistakenly thought to be an entirely new phenomenon. In fact, argues Ferguson, the struggle between networks and hierarchies is at least as old as human history.
To marshal support for this argument Ferguson begins the book with a summary of network theory. He then retells the story of modernity from this perspective leading up to an ultimate chapter considering the future of human civilization. You certainly cannot say that Ferguson aims too small.
There are some unresolved tensions in this narrative. Some of the chapters rely on real applications of network theory while some are more anecdotal. This is because the idea of what is a social network seems to grow more and more
expansive. Eventually, Ferguson writes that hierarchies themselves are a type of social network. Of course, he is right in a sense, but this tends to blunt the paradigm of a dichotomy between networks and hierarchies. In addition, if every relationship between human beings is a social network then network theory does explain all of human history. But isn’t this basically then a tautology?
Ferguson also goes on many tangents. For example, his vociferous arguments that the culture of Islam is a key element of Arab terrorism versus seeing terrorists as fanatics from any religion does not seem to really be central to the book’s themes.
Nevertheless, Ferguson has either achieved a landmark accomplishment in the telling of history, with important consequences for our current societies, or he has overstressed the importance of networks in modern history. That is a question for professional historians to decide. To become acquainted with this perspective, to see new technologies and new forms of communication through this lens, is something all persons with some share of responsibility for society should at least consider. And, I might add, the book is fun and insightful reading for armchair intellectuals as well.
I found that I would sit back after every 10 pages or so and ask myself how can I apply the idea just presented or where have I seen it happen - this is a book that demands you take the time and devote the mind energy to read it, it is well worth it.
That is what "The Square and the Tower" promises to be, but alas it doesn't quite get there. Its shortcoming is that it doesn't attempt much generalizing analysis. So it's a whirlwind tour through a millennium of history, describing networks and hierarchies that have left some kind of impact. That's good stuff: from the Illuminati, to Keynes' secret society at Cambridge, to Stalin's terror regime, to Henry Kissinger's personal diplomatic network, to the conquistadores in the New World; all of those stories are meticulously researched (and footnoted) and engagingly described.
But I'm never quite sure what I'm supposed to take away from it. The book certainly puts today's so seemingly unique viral networks into perspective: a single U.S. presidential election influenced by fake news on Facebook is nothing against what happened after Martin Luther let his theses loose on the new communications infrastructure of his day, the printing press. But it gets murky and hard to generalize beyond that: for example, the book describes how extremely viral Lenin's 1917 revolution was, and it later makes similar claims of virality for the Arab Spring - but what are we to make of the fact that the Arab Spring had a lot more viral technology underpinning it, and yet it basically failed? That networks are powerful, or that they are not? And when are they one or the other? Too much of the book simply reads along the lines of "hey, look at this network over here!", without connecting it to a conclusion, or even to other observations in the course of the book. For example, the telegraph network in the 19th century certainly was a network that might tell us a thing or two about the impact of novel network technology in our civilization, but there isn't much to the story, except that it was mostly owned by one guy (which makes it a network, or a hierarchy?), who made a lot of money with it. The Germans attempted to win World War I by inciting jihad and rallying Muslims under Ottoman rule to revolt, and that failed because they talked to the wrong guys who weren't networked, whereas Lawrence of Arabia had a better network, and it worked for him. Stalin ran a brutal hierarchy, while the Nazis ran on "polycratic chaos", but what is the so what. When the book does make an attempt to synthesize, it jumps to pretty random conclusions: for example, the 2008 financial crisis supposedly broke out because "Lehman was the node with the highest betweenness centrality" (a favorite term) and therefore catastrophic when it failed; and Lehman's CEO Dick Fuld wasn't particularly well-liked or connected on Wall Street and that's why he wasn't bailed out. Both of these are naive conclusions that few in finance would accept (research on the financial crisis today views Lehman as a symptom, not a cause of the crisis).
I walked away thinking: lots of great stories in here, lots of great examples of both networks and hierarchies, and certainly very little technobabble about how a connected world will save us all - I wish someone would connect all these dots to make more sense of it all.
Top reviews from other countries
And then, the bouncing ball of this second hand grasp of network theory is thrown onto the trampoline of his historical erudition. Gosh, it's a big trampoline and the results are just as random as that image suggests. So it's quite fun in a sporadic 'oh, that's interesting' kind of way but don't expect coherence.
I agree with these words from the Salisbury Review " At the end of this book, which is less than the sum of its parts, one is not quite sure of what is being said or why"
For my job I end up attending quite a few business seminars, which usually involve a strong central concept illustrated through lots of case studies (there seems to be a limited set of ideas that get presented in new vocabulary each time). This book was like one of those seminars. A clear central premiss dominating the coverage of a series of test cases. As with these things the strong idea and the rush of case studies creates a convincing impression that fades over time because it is too simplistic and the case studies turn out to have been a bit cooked.
The chapters were good, but perhaps they could have been thinned out and the remaining ones filled in a bit more? In previous books the author has bundled essays together, but the big topics tended to make this feel 'natural'. 'Empire' is a diverse collection of historical events, 'The degeneration of institutions' was broken down to 6 'killer apps' and his histories of complex wars or the ascent of money (&c) all break down into a series of separate scenes. He always balanced the detail with the big story. Here, the balance goes wrong. I wanted more detail on the parts and found the big overall idea to be just an idea. I wanted to like it - the 'elevator pitch' was good.
The title is indicative of how the world works (whirring nonsense and here say - and heresy)) that “catches on damn quick’. This book was read by me in 2 days; amazingly quickly for a quasi self improvement / biz book - GREAT.