fascinations from The Square and the Tower

After reading Niall Ferguson’s newest book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemason to Facebook, here are a few of my short takeaways.

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The open exchange of ideas is critical to a society’s wellbeing.

On Adam Weishaupt and his secret society, the Illuminati:

“Weishaupt’s Order exemplified an era when it was hazardous to express ideas that fundamentally challenged the religious and political status quo. Secrecy made sense. Yet secretiveness ultimately made it possible for the authorities to exaggerate the revolutionary threat posed by the Illuminati. The reality was that it was the wider network of Enlightenment that had the revolutionary potential, precisely because the ideas in question circulated quite freely in books and journals.” (pg. 54)

The suppression of ideas only succeeds in transforming the innocuous into the dangerous. Situations inevitably become hyperbolized, twisted and made out to be something they’re not. The sentiment of suppressing or criminalizing bad, even dangerous ideas is a misplaced one. The most effective way to eradicate a bad idea is to expose it to the light by countering them with good ideas.

Sure, much of the problem is found in determining which ideas are good and which ones are bad, but morality is something which cannot be learned through law. Morality should inform law, not vice-versa.  

Society is largely built upon weak interpersonal connections

“If all ties were like the strong, hemophilic ones between us and our close friends, the world would necessarily be fragmented… In a society with relatively few weak ties, ‘new ideas will spread slowly, scientific endeavors will be handicapped, and subgroups separated by race, ethnicity, geography, or other characteristics will have difficulty reaching a modus vivendi’. Weak ties, in other words, are the vital bridges between disparate clusters that would otherwise not be connected at all.” (pg. 30)

Networks are more creative than hierarchies… 

“The problem is that networks are not easily directed ‘towards a common objective… [and] networks are as capable of creating and spreading bad ideas as good ideas.” (pg. 43)

Some degree of chaos is necessary for creativity. It’s an interesting correlation since it seems that the purpose of creativity is to, in some way, make sense of the chaos.  

The value of hierarchy

“Francis Fukuyama is unusual in arguing that hierarchy must ultimately prevail, in the sense that networks alone cannot provide a stable institutional framework for economic development or political order.” (pg. 45)

The advocacy for hierarchical systems is logical though if it’s at the exclusion of a networked society, there appears to be very little room for adaptability. The rate of change our society is subject to is exponentially increasing. It thus seems that we need a system which is flexible in its adaptation of changing times.

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