cover image The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

Niall Ferguson. Penguin Press, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2291-5

Communications breakthroughs drive a centuries-long war between monolithic power and connected innovators in this sweeping conceptual history of the modern world. Historian Ferguson (The Ascent of Money) examines several turns in the ever-shifting relationship between entrenched hierarchies and upstart “networks”: the 15th-century invention of the printing press enabled Protestants to challenge the Catholic Church and Enlightenment intellectuals and revolutionaries to overthrow monarchies; the advent of railroads, telegraphs, and radio allowed some bureaucratic states to become totalitarian dictatorships in the 20th century; the rise of the internet undermined hierarchical corporate and government control while empowering network monopolies such as Facebook. Ferguson’s episodic narrative explores these themes through vivid profiles of influential networks, from the 18th-century Illuminati (far more feckless than their conspiratorial reputation suggests) to the Rothschild banking empire, Cambridge University’s Apostles circle (an incubator of avant-garde literature, gay sex, and espionage), and Wikileaks. Ferguson’s occasional use of mathematical network-theory charts and jargon (“In terms of betweenness centrality, the king came first”) doesn’t add much to his analysis; still, his 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. Photos. (Jan.)