By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press. 563 pp. $30
Niall Ferguson, one of the world's best-known historians, claims that his colleagues have long been victims of a bias known as the drunkard search.
This observational bias, also called the streetlight effect, refers to the human propensity to look for something only where the search is easiest. The reference to the drunkard search comes from the old joke about the drunk man who, having lost his keys, was looking for them under a streetlight. A policeman tries to help him and, after a while, asks if he is sure he lost them there.
"No, I lost them in the park," the drunkard replies.
"Then why are we looking for them here?" asks the policeman.
"Because here is where the light is," answers the man.
While Ferguson doesn't explicitly refer to the streetlight effect in his new book, "The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, From the Freemasons to Facebook," this in fact is the human tendency that influences the research approaches he denounces.
Ferguson maintains that historians have paid too much attention to hierarchies (monarchies, empires, nation-states, governments, armies, corporations) and too little to the loose social networks that often end up disrupting them. In his opinion, the main reason for this shortsightedness is the fact that "traditional historical research relied heavily for its source material on the documents produced by hierarchical institutions such as states. Networks do keep records, but they are not so easy to find."
The central aim of the book is to highlight and correct this historical oversight. The author argues that dismissing the role of social networks is a grave mistake because these loose organizational arrangements have been far more important in shaping history than most historians know or are prepared to accept. Focusing on the interaction between "the square," Ferguson's metaphor for the place where informal social networks are hatched, and "the tower," the metaphoric residence of formal, hierarchical power, in his view offers a new, and more accurate, way of looking at the world.
He acknowledges, however, that the power of networks has varied over time and that the relative importance of the tower and the square has ebbed and flowed. Nonetheless, Ferguson sees two specific periods as standing out as intensely "networked eras." The first started in the late 15th century, after the introduction in Europe of the printing press, and lasted until the late 18th century. The second, "our own time," began in the 1970s and is still going on.
The intervening period, however, from the late 1790s until the late 1960s, was terrible for networks. Ferguson writes that "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."
Surely these are bold claims, but then Ferguson's claims tend to be bold.
He is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and at Harvard's Center for European Studies, and is a widely read syndicated columnist and a television personality. As a historian, he is as prolific as he is intellectually brave and as ambitious as he is controversial. His 14 books tackle big historical events, institutions and personalities: from a sweeping account of the evolution of money, credit and banking to a reinterpretation of the history of the British Empire, and from a provocative perspective on the nature of Europe's ascent to a biography of Henry Kissinger, to cite just a few examples of his wide-ranging interests.
"The Square and the Tower" will not disappoint readers who have come to expect from Ferguson ambition, erudition, originality and expansive historical panoramas. These often come mixed with telling anecdotes, illuminating minutiae, fun facts and even some facile one-liners that, while entertaining, don't add much to the argument. When discussing the role of individualism in small-scale networks, for example, Ferguson cites dialogue from the Coen brothers' 1984 film, "Blood Simple," where "the narrator inhabits a world of unbridled, brutal individualism. 'Go ahead, complain,' he says, 'tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help - and watch him fly.'" Or when extolling the power of network theory in explaining organizational behavior: "Here, too, network theory offers insights that have utility beyond the typical corporate workplace satirized in Ricky Gervais' The Office."
Ferguson notes that the book "brings together theoretical insights from myriad disciplines, ranging from economics to sociology, from neuroscience to organizational behavior." Unfortunately, it is not clear how he deploys this theoretical arsenal to support his main thesis. In trying to explain why and how the tension between networks and hierarchies can help us better understand the world, Ferguson writes about the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, the ascent of modern science and the Industrial Revolution, the influence of George Soros and that of Henry Kissinger, the Illuminati (a Bavarian secret society founded in the late 1700s) and the Salafists, Davos and al-Qaeda, Brexit and the great economic recession of 2008, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the founding of the European Union, Donald Trump and the Incas, the Jesuits, the Medicis, the Rothschilds, Facebook, Twitter and more, much more. Even Ella Fitzgerald and Jon Stewart make appearances.
Yes, it is too much, and not all of it is illuminated by the "theoretical insights from myriad disciplines." In fact, it is surprising how little Ferguson relies on the initial chapters on network theory to make his case. In the remaining eight parts of the book, this network theory mostly disappears and the story is told in standard historical narrative.
"The Square and the Tower," however, also suffers because its main unit of analysis, the social network, is too imprecise a concept to provide a solid foundation from which to launch the book's epic theorizing. Most networks have some hierarchical features, and, as Ferguson notes, "a hierarchy is just a special kind of network." To his credit Ferguson recognizes the limits of his main analytical construct. In the introduction he warns us: "As we shall see, this dichotomy between hierarchy and network is an over-simplification."
Indeed it is. Nonetheless, the networks-and-hierarchies dichotomy does work as a narrative device that allows a gifted storyteller to take his readers on a fascinating tour of world history.