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Publisher's Summary

A brilliant recasting of the turning points in world history, including the one we're living through, as a collision between old power hierarchies and new social networks

Most history is hierarchical: it's about emperors, presidents, prime ministers, and field marshals. It's about states, armies, and corporations. It's about orders from on high. Even history "from below" is often about trade unions and workers' parties. But what if that's simply because hierarchical institutions create the archives that historians rely on? What if we are missing the informal, less well documented social networks that are the true sources of power and drivers of change?

The 21st century has been hailed as the Age of Networks. However, in The Square and the Tower, Niall Ferguson argues that networks have always been with us, from the structure of the brain to the food chain, from the family tree to freemasonry. Throughout history, hierarchies housed in high towers have claimed to rule, but often real power has resided in the networks in the town square below. For it is networks that tend to innovate. And it is through networks that revolutionary ideas can contagiously spread. Just because conspiracy theorists like to fantasize about such networks doesn't mean they are not real.

From the cults of ancient Rome to the dynasties of the Renaissance, from the founding fathers to Facebook, The Square and the Tower tells the story of the rise, fall, and rise of networks, and shows how network theory - concepts such as clustering, degrees of separation, weak ties, contagions, and phase transitions - can transform our understanding of both the past and the present.

Just as The Ascent of Money put Wall Street into historical perspective, so The Square and the Tower does the same for Silicon Valley. And it offers a bold prediction about which hierarchies will withstand this latest wave of network disruption - and which will be toppled.

©2018 Niall Ferguson (P)2018 Penguin Audio

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  • Ted
  • Lancaster, PA, United States
  • 04-25-18

Power? Does it come from hierarchies or networks?

Niall Ferguson is a scholar and this is a serious work of scholarship. I recommend it, but you can probably use fast forward or set your device to 3X during chapter 5 where he explains the theoretical constructs of his attack upon historical process.

Ferguson argues that historians for a range of reasons, examine hierarchies to explain the past. Wrong! At least that's the author's persuasive argument and he instead looks at relationship management to instead understand why historical events occurred. No, he doesn't argue that hierarchical research is invalid, but that it merely explains only part of the engine that's led us to this moment in time.

It's a fascinating premise, and except for chapter 5, he's quite clear and interesting as he applies his theory to so many epochs and tipping points. It's a thesis that resonates with me now and I'll look for it as I listen to other books.

It does take 17 hours though for Elliot Hill to read us this book. And though he reads it very well, I think that some sharpened-pencil editing could have either removed or abridged some of Ferguson's examples to achieve the same end.

For me though, this is an important book and finishing it has rewarded me. Be prepared though to study Ferguson as you listen to Hill.

13 of 13 people found this review helpful

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Ferguson's unique perspective of world history

As Ferguson states, this is an honest (and, IMO, successful) attempt to reclaim the framing of world history as the result of big men and bigger institutions from that told by conspiracy theorists to those with rational perspective. An expertly narrated and well told enjoyable read.

19 of 21 people found this review helpful

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Very good but

Excellent material. I enjoyed the historical content and the thread of presentation for both homogeneous and hierarchical networks. However the narration is dry and without enthusiasm. For a long book the presentation overall is less than engaging.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Worth the effort

Interesting topic well handled by one of my favorite polymaths. Niall gets tangled up once or twice and this is not as good as my favorite of his (“The Assent of Money”). Well worth the thought and effort.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Niall F. develops brilliant insights into patterns of history

Whether you agree exactly with every element of his thesis, this book is a tour de force of the application of socio-historical understanding and interpretation to the analysis and assessment of broad contemporary trends. This work helps the reader developer the skills associated with strategic pattern and policy analysis that’s applicable today.

I had the privilege of meeting Prof. Ferguson once in Cambridge and observing his thoughtful and incisive thinking.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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networks, hierarchy and global trends

great exploration of networks vs hierarchies and the cases for both in their time /place

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • John
  • Nebraska
  • 03-01-18

Meandering

Left me searching for a broad conclusions about the meaning and grand way to address networks in society. Yet this never really happened.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Rosemary
  • Greenwich, CT, United States
  • 02-09-18

Ferguson is always great but this narrator is zero!

I could not get into this book at all due to an overlong and boring introduction and mostly because of the very prissy voice of the reader. I love English voices. I prefer them. Ferguson’s own voice is terrific but this fellow made me return the book after half an hour listening.

10 of 13 people found this review helpful

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Not his best by a long chalk: Read Steven Pinker.

As much as I've enjoyed Niall Ferguson's other books, this one is a clunker. To begin with, he cherry-picks historical evidence worse than Michel Foucault in his prime. The core of his thesis appears to be based on network theory, but his actual analysis seldom seems to use it; he seems more like a social scientist waving a math book around from a podium. The exposition rambles badly; many times I found myself thinking, "Why is this germane?" I detected enough factual errors, particularly in his descriptions of the history of computer networks and the history of the Iraq war, to make me wary of any other interesting claims he might make. His anti-Islamic diatribes were not only shocking vitriolic but seemingly greatly in excess of what would be warranted to support his arguments.

All in all, read Steven Pinker, a scholar that Ferguson appears to take pot-shots at whenever possible.

Oh, and the narrator. His voice lacks what singers call a “point”, and every phrase is uttered with breathless intensity. His pauses for “air quotes” were long enough for cat-naps.

16 of 22 people found this review helpful

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Good concept but disappointing

Full disclosure. I am a big Niall Ferguson fan. I think Civilization should be required reading for every high school student the world over. This book discusses the differences between networks and hierarchies as power structures in societies.

That being said, the Square and the Tower was disappointing. He starts with the excellent concept that not only victors write history but also historians only write histories about organizations that leave an archive of data. So histories are not written about organizations that don't leave a written record. He uses the example of the Illuminati, but almost immediately buys into the theory that they ceased to exist simply because no records have been found after a certain date, not even examining the possibility that they might have learned their lesson. (Just for the record, I don't believe they still exist but his arguments against their existence contradicted the opening of the book.)

He goes on to apply network theory to social networks, but ignores the underlying communication theory concepts of noise and bandwidth. The result is no discussion of the speed of network formation (outside of a historian's typical wonder by how fast that formation is), the amount of data transmitted, and the whole idea of how one rises above the noise level in a network (he attributes most of it to the centrality of various actors). I'd say most of the shortcomings in his book result from these oversights.

Finally, he accepts the political left's conspiracy theories of the Russian interventions in the 2016 American elections as fact, when there is in fact very little proof, unless you want to accept the word on intelligence communities that have been obviously corrupted. An analysis of even the possibility of this latter fact would fit well with his whole thesis. Instead, the blind acceptance of the unproven weakens the credibility of the entire book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful