REVIEW: The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power – Forward Observer Shop

REVIEW: The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power
Niall Ferguson
563 ppg., Penguin Press (January 2018). $30.00


The Square and the Tower expanded the way I think about how power is exercised. This book describes in granular detail the differences between “Squares” and “Towers”. The Square — the public square or market place, for instance — features horizontal transactions and influence.These transactions, whether they’re the exchange of goods and money, or the spread of information and ideas, form a spider web network of interlinked individuals. Whether we’re talking about the 16th century Portuguese trading routes across Asia or the 21st century use of social media to spread information, we’re talking about networks and how they operate. (Author Niall Ferguson points out early on that if you want influence, build a network. If you want power, build a hierarchy. No where is the power of influence more visible than on social media.)

The Tower, on the other hand, is a hierarchical, vertical power structure. It’s not a flat surface, it’s a tall stovepipe where the most power resides at the top of the tower, and then power is exercised at reduced levels the farther down you go. A CEO, for instance, is more powerful than a Vice President, a district manager is more powerful than an assistant manager, who is more powerful than a sales associate or fry cook.

In squares and towers — or networks and hierarchies — power is exercised in very different ways, including sometimes against each other. How were the networks of Rebellion in the 1770s able to overcome the hierarchy of British order in Colonial America? How did the networks of 16th century Reformation and later Protestantism overcome the hierarchy of Catholic power in parts of Europe? How did the networks of Conquistadors topple the hierarchical Inca, quite possibly the largest empire in the world at the time? How did the exercise of hierarchical power of the Romans enable them to build an empire on top of the individual networks of Mediterranean and European tribes?

I wanted to understand the why behind all these examples because what’s happening in America right now is that the networks competing against each other in the culture war are also competing against the long-standing hierarchical power of the Federal government. And someone’s bound to win. This is a very good use case of intelligence analysis: applying a new understanding of network and hierarchical power to existing cultural and socioeconomic dynamics may give us insight into what could happen in the future. In that regard, the book does not disappoint.

Ferguson gets into the weeds of history to the point that parts of the book become dry. This is a history book, so if you don’t enjoy reading history books, then you probably won’t enjoy this one, either. But the chapters are broken up in such a way that the book doesn’t become unnecessarily laborious. There are 60 chapters, some as short as a couple pages, spanning nine sectional topics.

There’s a litany of lessons learned throughout this book, specifically about what the future of America might hold for us and how to navigate it. I’ve compiled a list which will be turned into future blog posts, however, one of the most striking lessons learned, or maybe lessons confirmed, is that of how centralization is formed and deconstructed. We’ve seen the centralization of power throughout the 20th century, but a trend towards decentralization so far in the 21st.

Carnegie’s “law of competition” meant that eventually large corporations would come into more power as a result of buying up competitors or putting them out of business. This is nothing more than power being consolidated into hierarchies.

Through the internet (a network), we’re seeing more decentralization, or democratization, of power and influence. Prior to Uber, we’d call up a taxi and be told to wait; maybe it would come and maybe it wouldn’t. Through the internet, we now have drivers on demand and a much better business model that’s putting taxi companies out of business. Prior to the internet, centralized corporate broadcasting and news agencies were the major sources of breaking news and information. That’s no longer the case because blogs and social media empower users to broadcast breaking news and opinion where ever they are and at any time. Prior to the internet, we had to deal with cable companies who held centralized power over the channels we wanted to watch. With YouTube Red, Twitter TV, Sling, and a growing number of other on-demand services, cable television as we know it will cease to exist. As more channels allow exclusive contracts with cable companies to expire, they’ll increasingly decentralize the availability of their content. Prior to Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, our stores of value were either in bank accounts, for which we would have to first apply (centralized process), or in tangible assets. Today, we can be our own banks, hold power over our own accounts and, in a growing number of places, use cryptocurrencies just like a debit or credit card. Cryptocurrencies are decentralizing the financial industry to the point that the centralized financial industry is being forced to adopt the technology behind cryptocurrencies. What we’re seeing, and what’s already greatly impacting the country, is the power of networks being brought to bear against hierarchical power, and in many cases decentralized networks are threatening the entire existence of hierarchies.

This is just one of many ways networks and hierarchies are disrupting the nation. Networks of fringe political movements fighting each other for cultural supremacy in the country, while undermining and disrupting the hierarchy of traditional power in America, will undoubtedly have lasting effects on the political and social landscape of America. I’ll cover what these are and what their effects might be in future posts.

I can recommend this book with one caveat. This book is dense. It’s written by an academic and has a 43-page bibliography. It’s a fascinating look at history through the lens of squares and towers, but it’s not a light read. If you want to understand at a deep level how networks and hierarchies work, often against each other, then you’ll find this book very educational. If you want to understand the implications of the cyber age and Web 2.0 on American society, then you’ll find several chapters to be enlightening. Unless these scenarios describe you, then you’ll be better off investing the 20 or so hours in other pursuits.

I give the book five stars for a deep and thorough understanding of squares and towers. You can find a copy here.


Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper



Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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