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March 27, 2018

The Square and the Tower and Cambridge Analytica

Niall Ferguson’s book, THE SQUARE and the TOWER: Networks and Power, from the FREEMASONS to FACEBOOK, was published before Facebook’s Cambridge Analytical debacle; but Ferguson clearly predicted the dangers posed by cyber-oligarchies. From the book:

“‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,’ said Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter in May 2017. ‘I was wrong about that.’ The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy…. Some today are tempted to give at least ‘two cheers for anarchism’. Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to re-learn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.”

Ouch! I thought the same thing as Evan Williams. Mary and I saw how technology aided a revolution against a corrupt regime (The Fax Will Make Them Free). I believed in the Arab Spring before it morphed to the horrors of Syria. I loved Alexa before I became afraid to have her listening to us (Alexa – Cover Your Ears). I lobbied for an internet free of regulation and believed that much more good than harm would come from this open network. I knew old oligarchies would be toppled; I was right about that; but I didn’t understand how quickly new – and dangerous – oligarchies would become dominant.

Ferguson points out that most revolutions turn out badly. The American Revolution is an exception. The French Revolution with its subsequent waves of vicious bloodletting and rotating ideologies with a final transition to tyranny is more the rule. But the American Revolution didn’t topple the local hierarchies and leave the mob in control of the streets; it was a revolution in large part by the local hierarchies against remote authority.

Rapid dissemination of knowledge is no panacea. Ferguson compares the invention of the printing press to the invention of the internet (acknowledging, of course, how much faster internet penetration has been than near-universal literacy was).  the success of Luther’s Reformation’s required faster and freer dissemination of ideas than from pulpit to parishioner; Guttenberg’s invention and plummeting book prices provided that. “While some slaughtered, others studied,” Ferguson writes. The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were positive consequences although not the intent of the Reformation. Increased religious strife once the church hierarchy lost control had devasting consequences for many. Finally, Ferguson says, civil authorities substituted for the church authority and re-imposed religious uniformity on a nation-by-nation basis. His lesson: you need to have vertical hierarchies even after – or especially after – a revolution topples an old hierarchy.

The title of the book is based on the tension between horizontal networks like the internet or a town square and vertical networks like most companies and governments. In Sienna there is a tower next to the square; Ferguson says the tower is exactly as high as the square is wide to deliberately symbolize a healthy balance between horizontal and vertical authority. Sienna, for a long period, was very well-governed by a term-limited council (vertical) drawn from the dominant mercantile class (an exclusive but horizontal network).

The internet revolution has been successfully disruptive. In theory the internet is horizontal, but it has led to the dominance of a few new vertical hierarchies richer and more powerful than most countries. Will they regulate themselves? If they regulate their content, do they become the most dangerous censors the world has ever known? If they don’t regulate their content, do they become a lawless zone that reaches into every home and business? Who controls how they use what they know about us? That knowledge is what pays for the “free” service they provide us.  Should governments regulate “the internet”? Can they? Do we trust governments or will they make a regulated internet their tool for regulating us? That’s happening now in China according to Ferguson.

The Square and the Tower is a powerful if frightening picture of the dangers and choices we face. I’ll write next about Ferguson’s answers to some of these questions. Unfortunately, I think he does a better job of asking than answering. But we have a better chance of finding answers once the right questions have been asked – and once our illusions about the automatic benefits of horizontal networks are shattered.

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