Only connect

Niall Ferguson’s big theory of history is stimulating, arresting, but only half-convincing

Network revolutions: A 16th century German printing workshop (left); working on the AVIDAC computer in Chicago, 1953

This is an immensely stimulating historical tour d’horizon tangled up in an arresting, but only half-convincing, big theory of history. The big theory wants us to look at the past through the prism of the human network and see how different kinds of network have had very different effects.

Ferguson challenges the conventional idea that networks are second-order things, the channels through which other forces flow. But does the network really have the same sort of explanatory power that, say, economics or demography or social class have in understanding long-term historical change?

Ferguson points out that the two late-18th-century revolutions, the American and French, were inspired by similar ideas transmitted through similar clubs and correspondence societies. But, he argues, it was the different network structures of America and France that led to the dramatically different outcomes of the two revolutions. Really? Surely the different sociological starting points were far more important: America, as the author himself says, had no equivalent of France’s large, illiterate peasantry.

Is network not just another word for group, albeit (usually) a chosen rather than given one? Ferguson never really defines the term and applies it without distinction to what might normally be called clubs or cabals — the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Mafia, the Bolshevik Party, the 19th-century Houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Rothschild — as well as the much larger, looser associations such as 16th-century Protestants or the British inventors and businessmen who created the industrial revolution.

Why were the latter’s industrial networks strong enough to give birth to modern manufacturing but not strong enough to overthrow Britain’s “monarchical, aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies?” It is one of the perennial questions of modern British history and it is not clear how the language of networks and hierarchies helps get us closer to an answer.

Contrary to the book’s own ambiguous publicity framing, this is not a new version of history from below — it is not networks versus hierarchies (popes, presidents and prime ministers). A hierarchy, it turns out, is just a special kind of network. The proper distinction is between hierarchical networks (think the regimes of Stalin, Hitler and Mao) and distributed ones (think the Enlightenment circles of Paris or Edinburgh or their ideological opposites in today’s violent jihadist networks).

Whatever my reservations about the big network theory, it does provide an opportunity for one of the best popular historians of our time to rummage around in the past and provide us with a stream of fascinating mini-essays on a dizzying variety of subjects such as the central role of freemasons in the American War of Independence, the KGB infiltration of the Cambridge Apostles and Henry Kissinger’s role in preventing a third world war.

One thread running through the book is a creative comparison between the printing revolution of the 16th century that made the Reformation possible and today’s internet revolution. Ferguson points out that the fall in the price of personal computers between 1977 and 2004 looks remarkably similar to the fall in the price of books between 1490 and 1630.

Here he is on the printing revolution: “For most of history, hierarchical networks dominated distributed networks. In relatively small communities with frequent conflicts, centralised leadership enjoyed a big advantage, because warfare is generally easier with centralised command and control. Moreover in most agricultural societies, literacy was the prerogative of a small elite, so that only a few nodes [a concept drawn from network theory] were connected by the written word. But then, more than 500 years ago, came the printing press. It empowered Martin Luther’s heresy and gave birth to a new network.”

The internet-connected computer and smart phone have empowered the individual even more than the pamphlet and the book did in Luther’s time and much more swiftly. Two in five of the world’s population are online, up from just 2 per cent in 1998. Facebook, invented at Harvard just over a decade ago, now has two billion users (people who log on at least once a month). And among the poorest households in the world seven in 10 have mobile phones. “Never before,” writes Ferguson, “have so many people been connected together in an instantly responsive network through which memes can spread faster than natural viruses.”

The printing press began by disrupting religious life whereas the internet began by disrupting commerce. But both have reshaped the public sphere more generally in ways that, in relation to the internet, we still barely comprehend. Social media seemed to empower the outsiders in the Brexit and Trump votes despite Silicon Valley’s zealous support for the progressive individualist belief system of the cognitive elites: for openness, autonomy and mobility.

Towards the end of the book Ferguson pours a bucket of cold water over the self-serving digital liberation ideology of Mark Zuckerberg and co. “The notion that taking the whole world online would create a utopia of netizens, all equal in cyberspace, was always a fantasy — as much a delusion as Luther’s vision of a ‘priesthood of all believers’.”

In fact his account of the rise of the digital oligopolies lurches into a surprisingly pessimistic account of a world laid low by cyber crime and cyber anarchy of various kinds and speculation about whether order can somehow be restored. “Whether or not the five great powers can make common cause again [against internet anarchy], as their predecessors did in the 20th century, is the great geopolitical question of our time.”

This is a book that does not quite deliver on its central thesis but sends ideas blazing all over the place in a manner perhaps designed for the short attention spans of the digital age. And like all good non-fiction books it is stuffed full of useful factoids and observations.

Here are a few: despite mounting concern about nationalism the percentage of new cross-border Facebook friends within Europe has risen from below 2 per cent in 2009 to over 4 per cent in 2016; most rich countries may have become more unequal in recent decades but at least they are more meritocratic at the very top — the number of people who got onto the Forbes 400 list by dint of inherited wealth has declined from 159 in 1985 to just 18 in 2009; fewer people were killed in the October Revolution than in the shooting of Sergei Eisenstein’s tenth-anniversary film about it; pinpointing the counter-cultural roots of Silicon Valley, its hostile response to the first US government attempt to regulate it in 1996 came from the Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow.

He also throws up several “what ifs”, including the possibility that if US nativist populism had not in 1882 blocked the large inflows of Chinese people escaping the chaos of the Taiping rebellion, America would have entered the 20th century with two large non-white, non-European minorities, not just African Americans.

In a book that covers large tracts of history with sweeping confidence it is a quibble to complain about an absence but I wanted Ferguson’s view of what difference, if any, it might make to the current North Korea crisis that more than three million North Koreans own smart phones.

Ferguson’s network theory of history will not become the new Marxism but it has provided the excuse for an absorbing Cook’s tour of the past combined with an illuminating polemic about the current digital revolution.