Last night I listened to a talk by Niall Ferguson on Intelligence Squared about his new book. In his new book, he intends to discuss hidden, or as yet un-covered networks throughout history. There were a few rather interesting take-away points I wish to mention here.
- Firstly, he believes that social networks are an important way of understanding how ideas have travelled and grown through culture and history. However, these networks have never been properly covered by historians and other cultural writers. This has left speculation in the hands of conspiracy theorists and non-academics, who have taken historical facts and distorted them or misrepresented them to the point that spurious and specious conclusions have been reached.
- There have been two major revolutions in networking.
- The first is the birth of the printing press, which he places in the hands of Martin Luther. This is because of Luther’s insistence of the manufacturing of the Christian Bible into English so that all lay practitioners of Christianity can read it. The importance of this is that it was the first time an idea had been so widely spread, and spread it did. On one hand it promoted an independence of belief, but also promoted it through an objective text, so that everyone was ‘reading from the same page’. This opened the world to the possibility of spreading ideas further than ever before. Books could be manufactured on larger scale, newspapers and pamphlets could be distributed; in essence, any idea could now be objectively disseminated and used as a point of connectivity.
- Secondly came the revolution in computers, and with it, the birth of the internet (from the 1970s onwards). The wonderful thing about the computer revolution was how it rapidly increased the mass and pace in production of books, magazines and newspapers. As the internet followed, networking began to move to a global scale as people became connected from town to town, city to city, country to country. Communication became far more immediate, and ideas could spread as if people were in the same room.
- Networking was far narrower than we think it was. Because we are so used to our immediate forms of communication, we have to stretch our imagination to see just how much networking was in fact isolated in small cultural groups. He emphasises that the Scottish enlightenment was influential on a large scale retrospectively. This was due to the amount of time it took for the ideas to be placed in circulation in any substance. It really was a few men in Scotland having a few good ideas, his interviewer jests.
- However, Napoleon Made an advance to control networking because he believed that ideas should be regulated and audited between groups. This helped ideas spread more efficiently. Ideas from two similar pots should be steered to a single confluence. However, this is a double-edged issue because in controlling the flow of ideas in terms of direction, censorship and cultural restrictions can emerge.
- He believes that people like Mark Zuckerberg are making a mistake in thinking that platforms like Facebook will be socially cohesive. They will not create an even cultural connectivity in the way he thinks that they shall. Ferguson believes his mistake is analogous to Luther. Luther believed, he says, that introducing everyone to the Christian Bible would not only allow them to make up their minds that Christianity is right, but that his vision of Christianity is right. In the same way, Facebook will not unite everybody because ideas placed objectively onto a universal social platform will not become shared ideas which connect people, but will exist as markers to separate people. Networking on such a scale will never have everyone agreeing under a unified ethic.
- Henry Kissinger ‘got it right’ in believing that networking should not be regulated, it will happily regulate its self. A group of shared ideas will naturally flow into the same space, and any attempt to regulate that flow will only ever interrupt that flow. We see this in action on social networking platforms every day. People isolate themselves to the ideas they agree with, and block out the things they do not agree with. People become more drastically stratified as popular voices become more widely supported, whilst less popular ones become less widely supported. Echo chambers naturally form, and ideas are restricted to these groups. This is wholly symptomatic of the modern world of networking. One could easily postulate that the large-scale level of connectivity, coupled with the nature of these mediums, forces people to seek likeminded people, rather than to adapt their ideas.
One interesting consequence of studying networking throughout history is that it shows us how ideas develop when they meet. We get an insight into the combinatorial nature of concepts. One could ask biological questions of what range of variations can emerge when animals and plants are bred or grown, just as people like Mendel and Darwin have. In the same way, we see what can possibly emerge when ideas come into contact. Throughout history, we see the same ideas come into contact via different people, and under different contexts. We learn the possibilities within the nature of ideas, and the range by which they can transform. This is one way that history can teach us how to read the present. We can learn from how ideas have affected cultures before, and predict how they can unfold again. Ideas can have a biology of their own.
Another interesting issue we can draw from this is that by observing what has happened through networking in the past, we can try and predict what will emerge from networking in the future. Not only this, but lessons can be taken from Nelson, and social networks can be seen to ‘syphon’ ideas into groups to steer them in certain directions. The lessons we draw from this can create a ‘science’ which studies how context transforms ideas. The other side of this, of course is that these lessons can teach people further how to manipulate the flow of networking by introducing extraneous ideas. We have to be careful that this doesn’t lead people to ‘doctor’ natural thinking in social groups. One thing which should see is that this ‘science’ is one which, along with semiology, is long overdue.
One reason I want to frame this proposed science of ideas as new is that I see it as separate from the studies of mythologies, semiology, linguistics and so forth. One reason this separate science can be defended is in considering the fact that older schools of literary criticism are still valued. We are more or less in a consensus of agreeing that ‘human nature’ is not solid and unchanging, as liberal humanism would have had us believe. However, there is something timeless in certain literary concepts, such as how the Odyssey is relived in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The point is exactly that the same idea, from a different era has been introduced into a new era with equal significance. It has emerged differently, and has been networked differently. The science of networking can show the adaptability of an idea, like how Joyce has culturally preserved The Odyssey. I don’t want this to be thought of as memetics either. This concept is altogether far more organic. I don’t think ideas have to be thought of as viruses, but as lifeforms in a much friendlier way.