The lat­est re­leases re­viewed, plus Niall Fer­gu­son dis­cusses his book on how so­cial net­works have shaped his­tory

Niall Fer­gu­son speaks to Dave Mus­grove about his new book re­veal­ing how hid­den net­works have helped shape his­tory

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

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?

“So­cial net­works were the driv­ing force be­hind a se­ries of shock­waves felt across Europe”

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.

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

“His­to­ri­ans have shied away from tack­ling is­sues about how pow­er­ful se­cret so­ci­eties re­ally were (or weren’t)”

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.

“So­cial net­works weren’t in­vented by Mark Zucker­berg. Though they may be big­ger and faster to­day, they al­ways ex­isted,” says Niall Fer­gu­son

The emer­gence of the print­ing press in the 15th cen­tury “made it much eas­ier than ever be­fore for an idea to go vi­ral”, says Niall Fer­gu­son

The Square and the Tower: Net­works, Hi­er­ar­chies and the Strug­gle for Global Power by Niall Fer­gu­son (Allen Lane, 608 pages, £25)

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