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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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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