Interview with Niall Ferguson
Alexander Görlach: Your book The Square and the Tower traces the influence of non-hierarchical networks. Do you think that they have taken on a new life in the 21st century?
Niall Ferguson: I think that my motivation for writing The Square and the Tower came partly from the ascendancy of Silicon Valley and, in particular, of the network platforms: Amazon, Google, and Facebook. But I’ve been groping towards a book about networks for a while for different reasons. I am in the middle of writing a biography of Henry Kissinger. I’ve written the first of two volumes. The second volume, a work in progress, is partly the story of how he went from being a professor to being one of the most powerful men in the world. The book argues that yes, it’s true that he’s brilliant and that’s often, not always, an advantage in the realm of power. But it’s probably just as important that he’s a consummate networker who is extremely good at connecting, from the government to the media, to Hollywood, from the United States to Europe and China. I wanted to explain his ascendency after 1969 by showing that he instinctively networks.
Alexander Görlach: In how far is his biography representative of the 20th century?
Niall Ferguson: Kissinger‘s transition was part of the American metamorphosis, and indeed global life, away from the hierarchical structures of the mid-twentieth century to something much looser. Hence, I was already thinking along those lines when I moved from Harvard to Stanford three years ago. Here we are, on the very periphery of Silicon Valley where they think they’ve invented the world anew, and my overwhelming instinct is to say that they didn’t invent social networks. They already existed. They are how human beings organize themselves informally. What Silicon Valley has done was to build bigger and faster networks than ever before, but they haven’t created social networks.
Alexander Görlach: Both hierarchical and non-hierarchal networks must serve a purpose. When it comes to hierarchical networks, it is legitimacy; who legitimizes the rule of the king or the president, or the pope? That is value-driven. Do specific networks also embody or resemble a certain set of values at a time or in general?
Niall Ferguson: Historically, the best way of transmitting values or achieving a change in values is through a network. The success of both Christianity and Islam illustrates this point very well. You can’t really explain the extraordinary success of these two monotheistic faiths without realizing that they were very rapidly transmitted, despite almost no technology, to vast numbers of people. Not only did that happen very quickly, but the networks then proved remarkably resilient to persecution and conflict. From that experience, we know that networks are how ideas are transmitted. History tells you that you can transmit any kind of idea, wicked or virtuous, by that means. There’s a strange process that determines which ideas go viral – and it’s not self-evident that the good ideas win.
What Silicon Valley has done was to build bigger and faster networks than ever before, but they haven’t created social networks
Alexander Görlach: How exactly technology impact the marketplace of ideas?
Niall Ferguson: As you add technology, you change the ways human beings interact. First, we had the written word, then we moved to the printed word, and so forth, to the telegraph up until the present. You continuously make it easier and more comfortable for people to communicate, lowering the cost to zero and overcoming the distance problem. As a consequence, the potential exists for the extraordinarily rapid dissemination of ideas. The problem is that if you construct your networks on the basis of revenue from advertising, if that’s how you actually monetize Facebook or Google searches, then you start to build perverse incentives via algorithms. The most obvious is that you’re selling people’s attention, you want to hold their attention, and it’s not necessarily truth and beauty that holds people’s attention. It’s fake news and extreme views. I think what’s interesting is that all technologically facilitated networks, especially the big online networks, are quite dangerous. The values that are propagated and the ideas that get amplified are not the kind of ideas that John Perry Barlow thought would benefit from the Internet back in the 1990s when he wrote his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.
Alexander Görlach: Nowadays we have, broadly speaking, a cosmopolitan camp, a nationalist camp, whatever you want to call these camps. For the sake of argument, let’s assume there are only two, even though there is always an in-between. These camps that derive from a set of values have been relevant all along. Jill Lepore pointed out how cosmopolitan America has existed and divided America for centuries. First of all, are these current networks by the mechanisms they deploy, responsible for the potential by which polarization happens?
Niall Ferguson: I believe that the ideas we encounter in the United States or Europe today are not new. It’s almost as if there exists a library of ideas that people choose from, based on which seem the most appealing at the time. I don’t think anything original has been said about politics in decades, but because people don’t really study history anymore, they are impressed by the novelty of old things, and very few people can recognize that Trump’s populism is completely derivative of the late 19th century populists. It’s got a lot in common with the nativist mood of the late 19th century and is even populist on monetary policy. And yet, so many people are running around acting as if something unprecedented is happening. By ”unprecedented”, they mean ”I never read history”.
…you’re selling people’s attention, you want to hold their attention, and it’s not necessarily truth and beauty that holds people’s attention. It’s fake news and extreme views.
Alexander Görlach: How are these ideas intertwined with the networks?
Niall Ferguson: The connection is that the ideas are out there and the network architecture determines which ones get the most traction. White supremacy never went away as an idea. I remember that as a small boy, the first idea about politics that my parents ever taught me was that Apartheid was wrong. This is the first thing I think I ever wrote down as a political idea. And so there’s nothing new about claiming some preeminence for people with light-colored skin, but why would this dumb idea which has no basis in science make a comeback? I think the ideal answer is that, if you set up social media so that extreme views get more traction than moderate views and outrage is the source of engagement, then anybody who is willing to say outrageous things will get way more views than me, with my boring observation that white supremacy is a stupid idea without scientific basis that’s been invalidated by historical experience.
So that’s the problem at the moment. We’ve built these engines of polarization and confirmation basis. It’s not surprising therefore that outrageous ideas make a comeback when the whole machine is set up for that to happen.
Alexander Görlach: In the early 20th century, when American writers got involved in international affairs, tons of writers and think tanks and informal networks helped deploy new ideas that ultimately led to what we now know.
Niall Ferguson: One should never decouple ideas from the network structures that propagate them. Most historians of thought, whether it is political thought or economic thought, tend to talk about these ideas as if they float through the air. In reality, ever since there’s been a market for journalism, books, and people giving speeches or lectures, a reading public decides which ideas get traction. We have this kind of cognitive blockage in academic life, which is that there are always academics telling us which books were important in the past. But when you look at the bestseller list for the years in question, there’s a total mismatch. I don’t think those academic judgments are very relevant to a historian. What is interesting is which books sell a lot of copies and which ideas are being replicated. Richard Dawkins loves the concept of the meme, which is an idea that self-reproduces over time. This is very helpful here because back in the late 19th century, ideas about race underwent a metamorphosis. They became more pseudo-scientific, they became biologically infused. People started digging in the United States; they start adding ideas about miscegenation. These ideas, which have a lot of resonance in the 19th century United States, get exported across the Atlantic. Those ideas didn’t fly over the sea. You have to ask the question, who is translating this stuff? Who is writing about this stuff in German in the late 19th century and giving currency to these new concepts of race that are subsequently operationalized by the Third Reich?
I’m fascinated by the fact that there hasn’t been a sustained effort to track and graph the networks that transmit ideas. What I say in The Square and the Tower is that an idea goes viral partly because of its inherent appeal and partly because of its network structure. We can’t write the intellectual history of humanity as if ideas fly of their own accord.
We’ve built these engines of polarization and confirmation basis. It’s not surprising therefore that outrageous ideas make a comeback when the whole machine is set up for that to happen.
Alexander Görlach: If you apply that to our current times, particularly the polarization in the United Kingdom, that also applies to the United States, right? So how would you explain this dichotomy that we now see?
Niall Ferguson: We have to be careful of thinking that it’s just a dichotomy. That’s an oversimplification of what’s going on and probably attributes too much importance to the noisiest people. It’s like giving all your attention to Antifa and ultra-right Neo-Nazi groups. I came across a lovely map of the culture war of what’s going on. On the left things are quite deliberately fragmented because of intersectionality, while the right is deeply divided between what I’ll call traditional conservatives and the populist right. It’s a multi-front war. Maybe what the social network platforms do is give a false sense of the dualism of our time.