Niall Ferguson on The Square and the Tower

From the Reformation to the Cold War, social networks played a role. Niall Ferguson speaks to Dave Musgrove about his new book revealing how hidden networks have helped shape history...

Niall Ferguson. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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Most of us think of ‘social networks’ as modern phenomena. Why did you want to examine the role they have played throughout history?

Social networks weren’t invented by Mark Zuckerberg. Though they may be bigger and faster today than ever before, they always existed. Whether you are writing about the Reformation, the abolitionist movement or even the Cold War, you need to recognise that informal connections between individuals – ‘networks’ – played a key role in how events occurred.

Most people think about networks in a fairly vague and casual way, and don’t really understand how they operate. This extends to the way in which historians examine them, which is lacking in any academic rigour; in much academic history, important networks are conspicuous by their absence. My new book aims to put those networks – from cults in ancient Rome to modern social media – back into history.

Why is network science a useful new approach for historians?

Historians can be guilty of sleight of hand when they talk about influence and power, because they often don’t explain to the reader how these forces actually operate.

I was guilty of this myself in my early work. By adding rigour and precision to vague statements about importance, influence and power, network science allows historians to formalise their hunches – or to confound them. For example, I was halfway through writing a biography of American statesman Henry Kissinger when I asked myself: was the real reason Kissinger was so influential because he was such a consummate networker? It sounded like a plausible thesis, but I couldn’t prove it. By using network science, you can clearly demonstrate (on a graph) that Kissinger was indeed the best-connected person in the Nixon administration.

Most formalised organisations, whether they are armies, states or corporations, have a pyramid-shaped power structure, with the person in charge at the top and the grunts at the bottom. But that isn’t necessarily an accurate analysis of the real distribution of power in an organisation. Network science can reveal the hidden mechanics of influence – who is actually talking to whom.

What can you reveal about the new chronology you’ve devised, based around two key ‘ages of networking’?

It’s a new narrative arc that uses this innovative tool of analysis to try to help explain some of the most important events in history. I argue that the first ‘age of networking’ began in the late 15th century. The emergence of the printing press, combined with rapid social change, led to a situation in which ideas – such as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation – could spread like never before.

This period of disruption was tremendously long-lasting. Right up until the end of the 18th century, networks were the driving force behind a series of shockwaves felt across Europe: not only the Reformation, but also the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. These events were the consequences of a fundamental shift not only in technology but also in the structure of Europe’s social networks.

Yet by the 1790s the networks had overreached themselves and, after the French Revolution, Europe was plunged into chaos and anarchy. The only way to deal with the power vacuum it created was to form an intensely hierarchical new order – which is exactly what Napoleon did in around 1800. That was a turning point, triggering a hierarchical hiatus in the history of networking. From that time up until the 1970s, hierarchical structures gained the upper hand, partly because technologies such as railways, the telegraph and steam power gave rise to very centralised communication systems, or ‘superhubs’.

The culmination of this hierarchical hiatus came with the totalitarian dictatorships of Stalin, Hitler and Mao during the 20th century. In these regimes, a single hub monopolised information and resources. Individual dictators could wield total power over the societies they governed, rendering unofficial networking effectively illegal on pain of death. If you lived in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, you could not network with impunity – it could get you killed. Even being accused of an informal, non-official association could get you sent to the Gulag.

We’ve come a long way since then. I don’t think anyone could re-establish that sort of regime in our remarkably networked age. What’s exciting is that it doesn’t take a huge number of additional links between people within a network to make a hierarchy fall apart. And that has happened in the recent past – most notably with the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union.

What role have networks played in the spread of ideas throughout history?

Today we speak about an idea that spreads rapidly through a network as ‘going viral’. Most people assume that if something goes viral, it must be an inherently great idea. But that’s not quite right. The structure of the network into which an idea is introduced matters a lot. A fantastic idea may not go viral simply because the network is not configured for contagion, or because the idea enters it at the wrong point.

This can be helpful in trying to explain religious upheavals such as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther wasn’t saying incredibly novel things – plenty of people had been critical of the Roman Catholic hierarchy before. However, he was saying them at a time when Germany’s social networks (and the printing press) made it much easier than ever before for an idea to go viral. Therefore, instead of ending up as just another heretic burned at the stake, Luther became a successful religious revolutionary. You can’t understand why certain ideas succeeded until you understand the networks through which they spread. This same story repeated itself again and again, from the rise of Islam in the seventh century to the American Revolution.

Are there any potential pitfalls in looking at history in this way?

There is a danger that, when you feed all your data into network-graphing software, what comes out the other end is simply a pretty picture – or, even worse, a hairball.

I don’t think that’s sufficient to count as viable history. You need to be able to say something more than merely: “Gosh, everybody is connected.” We mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we are done when we print out a fancy graph – it must also have some explanatory value.

An example of this was a graph I reproduced revealing that Paul Revere was in some ways the most important American revolutionary. Revere didn’t write very much, but he mattered a lot to the revolution because he was the best connected of the Boston Patriots. So when he went on his famous ‘midnight ride’ to warn Patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the dispatch of Redcoats to Lexington and Concord, they believed him. This is a great example of how network science can reveal that it’s not always the people we might expect who were the most important. When you graph the network of revolutionaries, it’s much more than just a pretty picture – you learn something about who really mattered.

Your book also touches on secret societies. How do they fit into the history of networks?

Looking at networks in more depth could help us to better understand the influence of exclusive, secretive societies, such as the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Cambridge Apostles. Professional historians have shied away from tackling issues about how powerful such societies really were (or weren’t), but that’s a dereliction of duty.

All of this stuff is historically important, and we shouldn’t just leave it to cranks and conspiracy theorists. Just because they may exaggerate the importance of groups such as the Illuminati, it doesn’t mean that these secretive networks had no importance at all, and we need to recognise that.

Illustration of a 15th-century printing press at work in Paris, France. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
Illustration of a 15th-century printing press at work in Paris, France. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

What lessons does history provide for us in an age that is more heavily networked than ever before?

We can see from the study of the past that a networked world is not necessarily a more stable world. Network science shows that people gravitate towards others who are like themselves: as the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. This means that, paradoxically, the more networked a society is, the more divided it can become. We saw this in the recent US presidential election, which was dominated by two parallel but polarised narratives. In this regard, Facebook has magnified a

pre-existing condition, but it didn’t invent it. A look at the first ‘age of networking’ demonstrates that more interconnected societies were actually more prone to religious division and conflict.

For a variety of reasons, networks don’t create a wonderfully level playing field. In practice, they are profoundly unequal. Certain people are far more connected than others, while some aren’t connected at all – they are ‘network isolates’. Superstar economics also prevails in a heavily networked world, meaning that the rich get richer. Remember, too, that bad ideas can go viral as well as good ones – it’s not just cat memes that spread like wildfire across the internet, but also videos of beheadings. These insights are absent in most of the history I’ve read.

After reflecting on the ways networks have shaped past events, we shouldn’t be surprised to see inequality intensify or crazy ideas go viral. I’m arguing against the utopian view, spread by Silicon Valley, that if we’re all connected everything will be awesome and we’ll peacefully exchange ideas in a global community of netizens.

I think that’s a great delusion: history shows that it simply isn’t the way networks work.

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Niall Ferguson is author of The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane, £25).