Agents of revolution: How 500 years of social networks shaped humanity | Niall Ferguson


When I first moved to Stanford from Harvard
I got my first close-up view of Silicon Valley; this was about a year and a half ago. And what most struck me was the hubris, the
arrogance that I encountered there. The general view of a reasonably high up computer
scientist is that history began around about the Google IPO or maybe the founding of Facebook
and everything before that is the Stone Age and is of no possible interest to the world
that has been transformed by Silicon Valley. And I had a hard time persuading people that
they didn’t invent social networks, social networks have always existed and all that
they did was to create large indeed vast online social networks bigger and faster really that
anything that has existed before, but not I think fundamentally different in the way
that they work. And a good illustration of this is that extraordinary
era of networks that I think began right back in the early 1500s almost exactly 500 years
ago with the reformation, that network driven revolution wouldn’t have happened without
the printing press and it’s the beginning of a succession of waves of network revolution. For example, the scientific revolution of
the 17th century is essentially the result of there being a distributed network of scholars
all over Europe and beyond innovating in the realm of natural science. The enlightenment is a comparable network
driven revolution in political thought. And one part of that 18th century network,
which is tremendously important, is Freemasonry. Now, most people have heard of Freemasonry,
probably know where there’s a Masonic lodge in their town, but in my experience, not many
people know that much about the history of Freemasonry. That’s partly because the Masons themselves
have a kind of fake history that dates freemasonry back to the very ancient times. In truth it something that got going in the
British Isles in the 18th century and was a kind of Facebook like phenomenon of male
sociability in 18th century Europe and indeed it crossed the Atlantic and became a big part
of American life in the colonial era. Masonic lodges were essentially clubs. They were clubs that stood apart from the
existing structures of social order. The early modern division of society into
ranks or estates was set aside, religious divisions were set aside and in Masonic lodges,
at rather ritualistic dinners men of all classes and men of different denominations could meet
and mingle and exchange ideas. And often these ideas were drawn from the
prevailing ideas of the 18th century. So it’s quite hard to understand the enlightenment
and indeed the American and French Revolutions without recognizing that a structure within
which ideas spread was the structure of Masonic lodges. If you look at the people who signed the Declaration
of Independence, look at some of the key players in the American Revolution it’s surprising
how many were Freemasons, including George Washington himself. I tell the story in the Square and the Tower
of Paul Revere, he of the famous ride and another Bostonian revolutionary Joseph Warren
and show that one reason they were able to exert a very important leadership role when
the revolution began was that they were so well connected in Boston society through their
membership of a Masonic lodge as well as other more political clubs. So I think that illustrates one important
point and that is that you don’t need the Internet to have an international network
that can be really quite powerful when it is mobilized. The other point that’s worth adding is that
as so often in the history of social networks conspiracy theories have sprung up around
the Freemasons and if you go online and Google freemasonry you’ll get a kind of interesting
mix of content produced by Masons and content produced by people who suspect Freemasons
of being some kind of sinister conspiracy. And this is one of the things that makes writing
the history of social networks quite difficult there’s this panumber of mystery the theorist
who writes about conspiracies make it quite hard for us serious scholars to write about
those subjects. You have to strip away a lot of myth-making
in order to get at the reality.

33 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *