Niall Ferguson, “The Square and the Tower”

it reveals apart from anything else one
of the fundamental problems with network
structures they are bad at self defense
one reason we inclined towards
hierarchical structure through most of
history is that they are quite good at
defense it’s not the first time the
Russians hacked a network I tell the
story of how the most exclusive
intellectual network of all time the
Cambridge apostles the most lofty
high-minded intellectually extraordinary
network got hacked by the KGB this is a
wonderful example of how networks can
attack other networks three of the
Cambridge spies three of the famous five
were members of that society to which
John Maynard Keynes had belonged in the
1920s and Lytton Strachey but the 1930s
the KGB had penetrated it one of the
most successful intelligence operations
of all time much more successful than
what they did in twenty sixteen which by
the way backfired in their faces
completely and it takes a network in
this kind of a world to defeat a network
I’m quoting Stan McChrystal who learnt
that lesson the hard way in his battle
against al-qaeda in Iraq that it’s a
wonderful story that he tells in his own
autobiography it took that very
hierarchical institution the US Army a
long time to realize that it could not
beat its adversary in Iraq other than by
in some ways imitating its network

but if you are interested in him there’s
a whole section on why it was that
network’s decided 2016 election and one
of my concluding thoughts is the real
lesson of 2016 is no Facebook no
without the network platforms not just
Twitter but especially Facebook the
outcome of that election which has
changed all our lives would have been
different you’re gonna have amassed the
great German philosopher said that
changes in the structure of the public
sphere were often the most decisive
things in history
and I agree with you
organ harbor Mass and this book is
really about changes in the structure of
the public sphere ladies and gentlemen
we are living through one of the
greatest changes in the public sphere
ever to happen
it is as profound in its
way as the change wrought by the
printing press
the printing press was supposed to
create a priesthood of all believers the
internet a global community if history
has anything to teach us
it is the sobering thought that we may
be just at the beginning of a period of
network disruption polarization crazy
stuff going viral and widening
inequality and if that makes you feel

story he said the real problem is that
because of the way that Facebook works
and also Google because of the way that
the algorithm is sending you stuff that
is designed to get you engaged on an
individualized basis according to your
we each inhabit our own private sphere
and the disaggregation that you describe
is further advanced than we know what
made the advertising so potent in 2016
not only by the way in the United States
it happened in the UK too in the Briggs
that referendum was the ability that the
brexit campaign had and the Trump
campaign had to target advertising very
very specifically
and then tweak the advertising and on
the basis of its effectiveness this is a
completely changed public sphere
political advertisements are no longer
things we all see and can discuss at the

each of us begins to inhabit his or her
own reality with our own customized
newsfeed this is a deeply dangerous
development because it means the public
sphere as such ceases to exist or
retreats into the domain of traditional
media traditional media of course slowly
being destroyed because they lose with
every passing month their share of
advertising revenue to the network
platforms so I sense a more profound
crisis of democracy than we get
appreciate because we are focused on
what I think are relatively small issues
the Russian intervention the Russian
intervention wasn’t decisive the number
of advertisements and the number of
people who saw them were release really
small percentages of all the content
that was being produced indigenously by
Americans on Facebook not least the
people that you alluded to so I think
this is a deeply troubling development
and it’s where the book ends book ends
by saying if we allow this networked
world to advance it will transpire that
the real enemy of democracy is the
Russians the real enemy is actually the
way the network our platform algorithms
sub dividers dice and slice us and give
each of us our own version of reality
thanks for the great question yes sir
I’m going to ask quick question since
the you had me the power of networks
it’s one step to presume that there is
possibility of large-scale conspiracies
do you believe that large-scale
conspiracies capable to change the
history can happen or happened before oh
I’m so glad you asked I’m so glad you
asked that question because part of the
reason for
writing this book is precisely that
conspiracy theorists have dominated the
literature on social networks for such a
long time I was really struck when I was
researching this bias statistic that I’m
going to get right in 2011 just over
half of Americans agreed with the
statement that quote much of what
happens in the world today is decided by
a small and secretive group of
individuals and I belong to it I do I
must do because I go not this year
because I’m busy selling books to the
World Economic Forum in Davos it’s worse
than that I go to the Bilderberg meeting
it’s quite likely that having written a
book about the Rothschilds and Henry
Kissinger and knowing George Soros that
I am a member of the Illuminati who are
of course controlled by space aliens
wait stop you lost me at space aliens so
here’s the extraordinary thing most of
the work that you can find out there on
the internet on any of the things I just
talked about from the Rothschilds to the
Illuminati is by crazy people and the
conspiracy theory landscape is kind of
fun to wander through but it is entirely
divorced from scholarship in conspiracy
theory land you just make stuff up
which is I mean I guess it’s
entertaining but it isn’t history part
of the problem there is that real
historians who are more nervous and and
risk-averse temperamentally than this
historian shy away therefore from
writing about any of these things so you
don’t actually get many books about the
role of the Freemasons in the American
Revolution that are non crazy there are
relatively few rigorous studies of the
Illuminati and so forth so one reason I
wanted to write this book was that so
much that there is about social networks
s the conspiracy theory industry when
you actually do serious historical
research which you can do on say the
Illuminati you discover that they were
a small South German secret society set
up in the 1770s with the goal of
secretly infiltrating the Masonic lodges
of Europe and spreading thereby the most
radical doctrines of the Enlightenment
including atheism so the Illuminati did
exist but they’re only ever about 2,000
members they spent a lot of time doing
really strange rituals inspired by
Freemasonry and giving one another
strange code names and they were
completely shut down by the Bavarian
authorities in the 1780s making it
highly unlikely that they caused the
French Revolution as was subsequently
alleged so part of the point of this
book is to show that we can write the
history of those secret societies but we
must not exaggerate their power but that
isn’t really a conspiracy to rule the
world run out of Davos I know I’ve been
I mean and frankly if that’s what they
call ruling the world I mean they should

Historian Niall Ferguson on the roots of today’s political polarization

Historian Niall Ferguson argues that today’s political polarization echoes the religious polarization of the Reformation. Both were brought about by technological disruption: The printing press, in the case of the Reformation; and the personal computer and internet, in the case of today. From Niall Ferguson’s Long Now Seminar “Networks and Power”:…