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Our Networked Age

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

By Niall Ferguson

Networks, it seems, are everywhere today. In the first week of 2017, The New York Times ran 136 stories in which the word ‘network’ appeared. Just over a third of the stories were about television networks, twelve were about computer networks and ten about various kinds of political network, but there were also stories about transport networks, financial networks, terrorist networks, healthcare networks – not to mention social, educational, criminal, telephone, radio, electricity and intelligence networks. To read all this is to behold a world, as the cliché has it, ‘where everything is connected’. Some networks link militants together, others connect medics, still others are between automated teller machines. There is a cancer network, a jihadi network, an orca network. Some networks – too often referred to as ‘vast’ – are international, while others are regional; some are ethereal, others underground. There are networks of corruption, networks of tunnels, networks of espionage; there is even a tennis match-fixing network. Network attackers battle network defenders. And all of this is breathlessly covered by terrestrial, cable and satellite networks.

In Bleak House it was fog that was ubiquitous. Today it is networks that are, to borrow from Dickens, up the river and down the river. “The alternative to networking is to fail,” we read in the Har- vard Business Review. “A key reason why women lag behind in leadership,” the same journal asserts, “is that they are less likely to have extensive networks to support and promote them as potential leaders.” Another HBR article shows that “mutual fund portfolio managers placed larger concentrated bets on companies to which they were connected through an education network,” and that those investments performed better than average. However, not everyone would infer from this that the ‘old boy’ network is a benign force, worthy of emulation by old girls. In finance, some ‘expert networks’ have been revealed to be channels for insider trading or interest rate rigging. Networks have also been blamed for the global financial crisis of 2008: specifically, the increasingly complex network that turned the world’s banks into a global transmission and amplification system for losses on US subprime mortgages. The world described by Sandra Navidi in Superhubs may seem glamorous to some. In her words, a “select few” – she names just twenty individuals – “preside over the most exclusive and powerful asset: a unique network of personal relationships that spans the globe.” These relationships are forged and maintained in an even smaller number of institutions: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Goldman Sachs, the World Economic Forum, three philanthropic entities, among them the Clin- ton Global Initiative, and the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. Yet one of the core messages of Donald J. Trump’s successful election campaign in 2016 was that these were the very “global special interests” that stood behind the ‘failed and corrupt political establishment’ personified by Hillary Clinton, the candidate he defeated.

No account of the 2016 US presidential election will be complete without a discussion of the roles played by media networks, from Fox News to Facebook to Twitter, the victorious candidate’s network of choice. One of many ironies of the election was that Trump’s network-drive campaign directed so much of its fire at Clinton’s elite network – a network to which Trump himself had once belonged, as the Clintons’ presence at his third wedding attested.  Just a few years before the election, an entity called ‘The Trump Network’ – set up in 2009 to sell products like vitamin supplements with Trump’s endorsement – had gone bankrupt. Had Trump lost the election, he would have launched Trump TV as a television network. One of the many reasons why he did not lose was that Russia’s intelligence network did its utmost to damage his rival’s reputation, using the website WikiLeaks and the television network RT as its principal instruments. In the words of a partly unclassified report by the US intelligence agencies, “the Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016” that was intended to “denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” reflecting the Kremlin’s “clear preference” for Trump. In July 2015, according to the report, “Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016,” systematically publishing the emails it obtained through WikiLeaks. At the same time, “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine – comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls – contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and inter- national audiences.”

Another reason Trump won, however, was that the Islamist terrorist network known as Islamic State carried out multiple attacks in the twelve months before the election, including two in the United States (in San Bernardino and Orlando). These attacks enhanced the appeal of Trump’s pledges to “expose,” “strip out” and “remove one by one…the support networks for Radical Islam in this country,” and “totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network.”

We live, in short, in “the network age.”  Joshua Ramo has called it “the Age of Network Power.”  Adrienne Lafrance prefers “the Age of Entanglement.” Parag Khanna even proposes a new discipline – ‘Connectography’ – to map “the Global Network Revolution.” “The network society,” according to Manuel Castells, “represents a qualitative change in the human experience.” Networks are transforming the public sphere and with it, democracy itself. But for better or for worse? “Current network technology…truly favours the citizens,” write Google’s Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt. “Never before have so many people been connected through an instantly responsive network,” with truly ‘game-changing’ implications for politics everywhere. An alternative view is that global corporations such as Google are systematically achieving “structural domination” by exploiting networks to erode national sovereignty and the collectivist politics that it makes possible.

The same question can be asked of the effect of networks on the international system: for better or for worse? For Anne-Marie Slaughter, it makes sense to reconfigure global politics by combining the traditional ‘chessboard’ of inter-state diplomacy with the new “web…of networks,” exploiting the advantages of the latter (such as transparency, adaptability and scalability). The stateswomen of the future, she argues, will be “web actors wielding power and exercising leadership alongside governments with strategies of connection.” Parag Khanna looks forward with relish to a “supply-chain world” in which global corporations, megacities, aerotropolises and regional commonwealths engage in an endless but essentially peaceful tug- of-war for economic advantage that resembles a massive multiplayer game. Yet it seems doubtful – not only to Joshua Ramo, but also to his mentor Henry Kissinger – that such tendencies are likely to enhance global stability. “The pervasiveness of networked communications in the social, financial, industrial, and military sectors,” Kissinger has written:

has . . . revolutionized vulnerabilities. Outpacing most rules and regulations (and indeed the technical comprehension of many regulators), it has, in some respects, created the state of nature . . . the escape from which, according to Hobbes, provided the motivating force for creating a political order . . . [A]symmetry and a kind of congenital world disorder are built into relations between cyber powers both in diplomacy and in strategy . . . Absent articulation of some rules of international conduct, a crisis will arise from the inner dynamics of the system.

If the “first world cyberwar” has already begun, as some have claimed, then it is a war between networks.

The most alarming prospect of all is that a single global network will ultimately render Homo sapiens redundant and then extinct. In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that the age of large-scale ‘mass cooperation networks’ based on written language, money, culture and ideology – products of carbon-based human neural networks – is giving way to a new era of silicon-based computer networks based on algorithms. In that network, we shall quickly find ourselves about as important to the algorithms as animals currently are to us. Disconnection from the network will come to mean death for the individual, as the network will be maintaining our health around the clock. But connection will ultimately mean extinction for the species: “The yardsticks that we ourselves have enshrined will condemn us to join the mammoths and Chinese river dolphins in oblivion.” On the basis of Harari’s bleak assessment of the human past, these would seem to be our just deserts.

This [series] is about the past more than it is about the future; or, to be precise, it seeks to learn about the future mainly by studying the past, rather than engaging in flights of fancy or the casual projection forward of recent trends. There are those (not least in Silicon Valley) who doubt that history has much to teach them at a time of such rapid technological innovation. Indeed, much of the debate I have just summarized presupposes that social networks are a new phenomenon and that there is something unprecedented about their present-day ubiquity. This is wrong. Even as we talk incessantly about them, the reality is that most of us have only a very limited understanding of how networks function, and almost no knowledge of where they came from. We largely overlook how widespread they are in the natural world, what a key role they have played in our evolution as a species, and how integral a part of the human past they have been. As a result, we tend to underestimate the importance of networks in the past, and to assume erroneously that history can have nothing to teach us on this subject.

To be sure, there have never been such large networks as we see in the world today. Nor have the flows of information – or, for that matter, disease – ever been so rapid. But scale and speed are not everything. We shall never make sense of the vast, swift networks of our own time – in particular, we shall have no inkling whether the network age will be joyously emancipatory or hideously anarchic – if we do not study the smaller, slower networks of the past. For these, too, were ubiquitous. And sometimes they were very powerful indeed.

This post has been excerpted from Niall Ferguson’s book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook” (Penguin Books), which inspired the PBS series.