Saturday, March 14, 2020

Niall Ferguson’s Networld

Things happen for a reason. That even includes the internet—especially the disappointing and dangerous parts. Hoover Institution scholar Niall Ferguson’s traces the disruptive rise of online social networks and draws historical parallels in the three-part Niall Ferguson’s Networld, produced and directed by Adrian Pennick, which premieres back-to-back-to-back this coming Tuesday on most PBS stations.

If you want to understand how the modern world got to be the way that it is, Niall Ferguson is indispensable reading and viewing. Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest is the most cogent and persuasive explanation of why Western nations have economically outperformed the rest of the world since the Marxian-influenced Ferdinand Braudel wrote Capitalism and Civilization. Arguably, the PBS documentary series based on Ferguson’s book is even more timely now than when it originally in 2012, so self-quarantiners should binge it first.

Although there are not as many epiphany moments in Networld, but there are still plenty of insights. Using his book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook as a roadmap, Ferguson directly challenges the notion the internet revolution was supposedly unprecedented, drawing direct parallels with the development of Gutenberg’s printing press and the transcontinental telegraph. He also directly compares social media influencers with the social authority granted to Free Masons like Paul Revere during the American Revolution.

One of Ferguson’s key corollaries is the argument network structures always evolve towards centralization through a link-and-node structure. Frankly, Networld gets a little dull when revisits (yet again) the Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 election. However, he ends on a chillingly urgent note when he reviews the extent of the CCP’s data collection on its own citizens and how that dovetails with their ominously pervasive video surveillance network. Of course, Huawei is right there in the thick of things.

Ferguson’s delivery is dynamic, erudite yet easily understandable, and often self-deprecating, like the cool college professor, whose classes you tried to sign up for, even though he or she was a tough grader. His command of economics, history, and the ways they intertwine is impressive. As was the case with Civilization, Ferguson and Pennick use many telegenic backdrops to help illustrate their points, very much like the Friedmans did throughout the classic Free to Chose (which you should also binge if you are homebound and haven’t seen it before). Highly recommended, all three episodes of Niall Ferguson’s Networld air this Tuesday (3/17) on PBS outlets nationwide.