Agents of revolution: How 500 years of social networks shaped humanity

Facebook might be the biggest social network but it's far from the first, despite what those in Silicon Valley will have you believe.

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.

Facebook might be the biggest social network but it's far from the first, despite what those in Silicon Valley will have you believe. Stanford University fellow and Oxford University historian Niall Ferguson argues that social networks have been around for centuries and the most prominent of which — the Freemasons — could very well be responsible for democracy as we know it. Started in the 1700s in England and carried over to what would later become America, it was a place where class and social strata didn't count and people could exchange ideas freely... and its members included none other than George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Niall's latest book is the tantalizing The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook.

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