The Platform


Review of Niall Ferguson’s book, The Square and the Tower, which examines networks.

From ancient Rome to the dynasties of the Renaissance and finally, from the Founding Fathers to Facebook, The Square and the Tower, sings of the song of the rise, fall, and renaissance of networks. Niall Ferguson depicts how networks transform our understanding of both the past and present. In The Square and the Tower, Ferguson describes the Bavarian “Illuminati” as a secretive group that lasted just a decade and never had more than around 2,000 members as a “network.” Similarly, Facebook has nearly 2.85 billion monthly users, many of whom seem not nearly secretive enough. Between these extremes come the Jesuits, European royalty in the 19th century, British abolitionists, al-Qaida, the Chinese Communist Party, and more, all of whom are or were networks, in Niall Ferguson’s rather expansive usage.

Ferguson sets the title of the book using a metaphorical understanding of the tower and the square set in the city of Siena, situated in Tuscany, Italy. In Siena, the square and the tower coincide in architectural harmony that draws tourists to the scenic legacy of the Medici family. A family of opulence and vast networks who single-handedly controlled the Renaissance and banking era of and from Florence. Ferguson’s analysis of human relations and political power view the tower standing as a beacon of authority and residence of formal hierarchical authority which has claimed to rule. Whereas, the square depicts itself as an edifice of the organic human congregation and a place of society for informal social networks. Offering these vantage points, according to Ferguson, is an accurate perspective of studying international history and relations as these networks tend to innovate and are responsible for the contagious spread of revolutionary ideas. Ferguson depicts two eras as intensely “networked eras.” In the 21st century, the Internet itself is a network of networks. The ability to communicate and transact across vast distances is indeed unprecedented and represented as a basic infrastructure of what has been termed the “network society.”

The Square and the Tower does far more than simply track the use of the word “network” from its introduction in the English language. Rather, he seeks to reframe the entirety of human history as an endless struggle for power between eras in which powerful hierarchical institutions predominate (the Tower) only to be undermined by the influence of emerging networks (corresponding Square). At the end of each struggle, these networks are invariably reconstituted with new hierarchies, and the process is reconstituted. The focal point Ferguson makes in The Square and the Tower is the existence of “The Network” and, or networks’ effect. Ferguson believes they should be the beginning and not the end of an analysis. In other words, the critical questions related to the network’s key characteristics and how it interacts with other networks and hierarchies. Considering networks and the immediate dispersion of information which is made cutting-edge with the advent of technology- there emerges a politics of stereotypes in news.

As noted by Edward Said, “From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.” Palestinian intellectual. Literary theorist. Historian of the colonial narrative. Said explained how colonialism works. According to him, the colonial project is not limited to a war fought between armies; rather, Said contends the colonial project seeps into every crevice of society: its art, literature, humanities, and social sciences. A narrative is spun, a picture of the “East” is sketched. Snake charmers, belly dancers, thieves. The exotic, the sensual, the depraved.

What Said foresaw in the 19th-century Western literature and one can see spread across modern culture. Marred is the international media and its newspapers- dotted with images- all to perpetuate a superiority complex. Said would argue they depict an “us” versus “them,” the “rational” versus the “irrational,” civilization versus barbarism. Africans – corrupt despots, starving victims. Latin Americans – drug lords, football players, dictators. Arabs – terrorists, misogynists. Asians – software engineers, religious fanatics.

‘The Square and the Tower’ by Niall Ferguson. 592 pp. Penguin Books

How does it feel to be fixed, captured, or framed?

Imagine “Orientalism” as a lens and use it to subjectively read the media. Gradually one will spot the stereotype and as a result, decode the fiction and eventually undress the myth. Now, equipped with the background knowledge of the networks, armed with the oriental lens, understand the signs in the news.

On-screen, read the rhythm of the words, numbers, and colors. A news bulletin is a selection of signs. The flow of words – read off the autocue. The artifice of the presenter’s cadence – the “news voice.” The gaze looking right at you – but through a lens. Visual stand-ins for credibility, authority, and legitimacy. Rhetorical motifs construct the biggest myth of all: that what we are watching is unmediated “reality.” This is what Roland Barthes would have seen- The TV screen as a cultural reality. And he would have unveiled its myths. In the 1950s, Barthes started writing about popular culture. In his book Mythologies, he gathered multiple, discordant subjects: food, horoscopes, religion, advertising, toys, photography, and detergents.

He saw these as elements of mass culture, imbued with ideology providing society with the myths that once came from fables and epics. Barthes said, “The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art, and common sense constantly dress up a reality which…is undoubtedly determined by history.” Barthes didn’t just spotlight the myths that surround us. He pulled back the curtain on their ideological premises. He warned us against taking all that surrounds us at face value. The fonts in the daily newspaper. They don’t just reflect meaning – they add it, they change it. The shadows of doubt are cast. Insecurities and an anthropological genocide- colonialism explained. What/who is the medium of the message(r), of the 21st century?

Marshall McLuhan made a series of pronouncements about the changing media landscape. He famously said, “The medium is the message.” McLuhan’s theories on the media were ground-breaking in the 1960s and if one would read them today, they would seem prophetic. McLuhan was writing about the effects of the mass media on our lives. But he was not talking about the content – the information itself. He was talking about the form – the technologies that provide one with content. McLuhan wasn’t saying that content is inconsequential.

He was elucidating that when we pay too much attention to it, we ignore the power of form in shaping our experience. So, if one does not understand the medium – one does not fully understand the message. Now imagine this. Once upon a time, books were handwritten. But then the invention of the printing press made “mass media” a reality. Recollect how “technological shocks,” these innovations like change the structure of the public sphere and give rise to conflict, because of polarization or violence. Ferguson notes, if one would think of it roughly, we are having this 16th-17th century experience in the realm of democratic politics…but speeded up. He goes on to add that, the great combination of (Martin) Luther and the printing press was the key to what happened in the 16th century. Without that, the Reformation would not have happened. If it had not been for social media, (Donald) Trump would not have happened. The relationship (between mass media and Trump and Zuckerberg) seems to me, absolutely central.

In short, the medium changed our collective experience. It informed identity – how we imagined ourselves. Same, arguably, with electronic media: telegraphs, telephones, television. Devices that redefined time and space and extended our experience beyond our boundaries. McLuhan writes, “A medium is not something neutral. It does something to people, it takes hold of them, it rubs them up, it massages them, it bumps them around.” “Another strange effect of this electric environment is this total absence of secrecy. With the end of secrecy goes the end of monopolies of knowledge.” “Everything happens at once. There’s no continuity, there’s no connection, there’s no follow-through…it’s just all now.”

In the end, classify everything as “propaganda.”

Many use the word when talking about countries like Russia, North Korea, and the ilk. Countries are viewed as authoritarian through the lens of the Western media. “Press freedom.” “Freedom of thought.” People use those terms when talking about countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia. In 1988, Noam Chomsky co-authored a book with Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent. It blasted apart the notion that the media acts as a check on political power. The media informs the public and serves the public so that we can better engage in the political process. The media manufactures our consent.

They tell us what those in power need them to tell us…so we can fall in line. Democracy is staged with the help of media that work as propaganda machines. Media operates through five filters. The first has to do with ownership. Mass media firms are big corporations. Often, they are part of even bigger conglomerates. Their end games? Profit. And so, it’s in their interests to push for whatever guarantees that profit. Critical journalism takes second place in the needs and interests of the corporation. The second filter exposes the real role of advertising. Media costs are a lot more than consumers will ever pay. So, who fills the gap? Advertisers. And what are the advertisers paying for? Audiences.

And so, it isn’t so much that the media are selling one product – their output. They are also selling advertisers a product – you. How does the establishment manage the media? That’s the third filter. Journalism cannot be a check on power because the very system encourages complicity. Governments, corporations, and big institutions know how to play the media game. They know how to influence the news narrative. They feed media scoops, official accounts, and interviews with the “experts.” They make themselves crucial to the process of journalism. So, those in power and those who report on them are in bed with each other. If one challenges the status quo, they, as a result, are ostracized. Even worse, lose access and as a result the story. When the media – journalists, whistleblowers, sources – stray away from the consensus, they get “flak.” That’s the fourth filter. When the story is inconvenient for the powers that be, one will see the flak machine in action discrediting sources, trashing stories, and diverting the conversation. To manufacture consent, you need an enemy – a target. That common enemy is the fifth filter. Communism. Terrorists. Immigrants. A common enemy, a bogeyman to fear, helps corral public opinion.

In sum, what is left is a giant network and framework, a perspective and collective experience of being subjected to five filters. In totality, one big media colossus.

Ankit Malhotra is reading Law at Jindal Global Law School and is the President of the Jindal Society of International Law.