The Square and The Tower by Niall Ferguson

To understand the title of the book, says Niall Ferguson, we need to go with him in Sienna, walk across the Piazza del Campo, a place that was by turns a marketplace, a  meeting place and, twice a year, a racetrack, to the Palazzo Bubblico, passing under the shadow of the majestic Torre del Mangia. “Nowhere in the world will you see so elegantly juxtaposed the two forms of human organization depicted in this book: around you, a public space purpose-built for all kinds of more or less informal human interaction; above you, an imposing tower intended to symbolize and project secular power.”

The Square and the Tower is a very ambitious, rich, and extensively researched book, it sweeps across history examining the interactions and the tensions between distributed networks and hierarchical orders, like states or corporations. The central theme of the book is that these relations and tensions exist regardless of the state of technology, though technology may affect and at times disrupt these networks

This is in sharp antithesis to the modern technologists’ view that history is irrelevant to them and they have nothing to learn from it, because their technology is so awesome that nothing could stand in its way. Ferguson tries to show that history applies to them as much as it was applied to Wall Street when, ten years ago, they were faced with the financial crisis.

Many people today think that the Internet has fundamentally changed the world today. This is true, but, in a way, it is also wrong, says Ferguson. A recent majority ruling of the United States Supreme Court, noted, that “”cyberspace” is the most important place for the “exchange of views” in our society today …… the modern public square,”  in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy. [1] This is a public square all right, but who own it, asks Niall Ferguson.

In The Square and The Tower, he explores the role of powerful, visible but also invisible, networks of people throughout history. From the Illuminati, a secretive group that had around 2000 members and lasted less than a decade, to Facebook, which has 2 billion members and does not seem to be secretive at all.

One of the most important periods analyzed in the book is the Reformation. Ferguson argues that Reformation is an important period in terms of networks due to the technological (printing press), social and theological revolutions that occurred during that period.

A critical argument in the book is that the ways in which printing press led to a dramatic decline in the cost of books and a dramatic increase in the volume of books produced in the Reformation, are similar to what you get when you map the personal computers explosive growth in our time.  That is, Ferguson argues, two examples of network revolution commenced by new technologies.

Although Niall Ferguson, as it mentions in the introduction of the book, is a network person, he does not think that the world can be run on networks, the vision he has for a world run on networks is in fact, a nightmare vision.

“The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of Jacobins.”

Therefore, he concludes, in order to avoid chaos and anarchy, must be some kind of  hierarchy – a modern pentarchy of great powers in the form of U.N. Security Council, an “institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy,” and recognize the common interest in fighting climate change and resisting the spread of jihadism, criminality, and cyber vandalism.

But why not reforming the U.N. Security Council then? As  Hardeep Singh Puri, an eminent Indian diplomat, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013, has said, United Nations have an important role to play but needs to be more fit for purpose, on improvements in the organization’s management and finance, on preventive diplomacy and to concentrate more on reaching out to people.[2]


[1] Louise Matsakis, Supreme Court Rules Government Cannot Restrict Your Access to Social Media, June 19, 2017, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/d3zjky/supreme-court-rules-government-cannot-restrict-your-access-to-social-media

[2] Hardeep Singh Puri, Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos