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April 02, 2018

What Should Tower Over the Square?

THE SQUARE and the TOWER: Networks and Power, from the FREEMASONS to FACEBOOK by Niall Ferguson brilliantly explodes the myth that if we just had a big and open enough network, the world would be a wonderful place. If you haven’t read the book, you may want to read my post last week about it before reading this post (The Square and the Tower and Cambridge Analytica). The gist is that revolution without subsequent order looks more like what happened in France than what happened in America during the late 18th century. The “square” of the tile is any one of a number of horizontal networks to which we all belong; the “tower” is the hierarchical structure (city, state, corporation) which goiverns the square.

Ferguson believes that internet-enabled disruption is at the tipping point of causing a world catastrophe if someone doesn’t establish control over the huge networks like Facebook and Google.

“…can a networked world have order? As we have seen, some say that it can. In the light of historical experience, I very much doubt it…

“Globalization is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. Technology meanwhile marches inexorably ahead, threatening to render most human beings redundant or immortal or both…

“…technology has enormously empowered networks of all kinds relative to traditional hierarchical power structure…”

Ferguson deliberately uses the word “networks” to mean three things: physical networks over which data flows, social networks, and networked groups like ISIS who have mastered the use of the first two types of networks. Controlling ISIS requires controlling the networks which enable it. Apparently he also believes that control over these networks should and will thwart the rise of populism (Trump and Brexit, for example) and other threats to hierarchical order.

Of course management of these networks actually is hierarchical, as Ferguson points out: “Despite their appearance as great levelers, social networks are … ‘inherently unfair and exclusionary’. He attributes this to “the tendency for well-connected hubs to get even better connected”.

“…there are now two kinds of people in the world: those who own and run the networks, and those who merely use them. The commercial masters of cyberspace may still pay lip service to a flat world of netizens, but in practice companies such as Google are hierarchically organized, even if their ‘org.charts’ are quite different from that of General Motors in Alfred Sloan’s day.”

Are Google and Facebook management the hierarchical structures (towers) which should manage the unruly internet square? Not according to Ferguson:

“One can argue for and against censorship of odious content. One can marvel that companies and government agencies would spend money on online advertising so indiscriminately that their carefully crafted slogans end up on jihadist websites. However, arguing that Google and Facebook should do the censoring is not just an abdication of responsibility; it is evidence of unusual naivety. As if these two companies were not already mighty enough, European politicians apparently want to give them the power to limit their citizens’ free expression.”

I agree with that! So who should be doing the regulation? It’s a critical question if you’ve been convinced by Ferguson as I have that some regulation is necessary. Remember that the networks to be regulated are richer and more powerful than most countries (and better managed). Ferguson says:

“The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the spread of jihadism, criminality and cyber-vandalism, to say nothing of climate change. [nb. The original pentarchy was Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia who more or less kept the peace in Europe for a century before WWI.]  In the wake of the 2017 WannaCry episode, even the Russian government must understand that no state can hope to rule Cyberia for long… Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy. Whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the nineteenth century, is the great geopolitical question of our time.”

I think I know the answer to this “great geopolitical question”: NO! The UN is a haplessly corrupt institution; the Security Council a perfect study in dysfunction. Giving the UN the power to limit our citizens’ free expression is an even worse idea than leaving this to Google and Facebook.

If we don’t want to trust the owners of the networks to be the exclusive regulators of themselves; if we don’t think the UN can do the job (hard not to laugh at this suggestion); if we think some regulation is required – from whom should it come? Comments welcome and this will be a subject of a post soon.

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