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

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.


  1. No wonder there's such a prejudiced against Freemasonry…

    At the core of the Freemasonry meetings or dinners is that they put aside religious beliefs and shared ideas in order to perpetuate a revolution of enhanced awareness…

    Which of course perpetuates logic and the physical facts of reality, which of course destroys fake as fuck organized religion.

  2. By his definition of social networks then religious and university institutions are the beginning of social networks.

  3. Excuse me for the name drop, but when I first heard Alex Jones he began with documentaries. The one in particular is Bohemian…(something). I do not remember the title but the idea was executives of the United States gathered in the red wood groves of California and worshipped a flaming owl. Emphasis on the 'flaming'*nudge*.
    Now the poor guy has his hyper-infused conspiracies with the media shaming his family issues, but this single covert infiltration of this uppity boys club came off as authentic. Even if it was staged the man deserves an emmy for best drama/cult.
    Also, I dont just see lodges, but members with their cool state endorsed licenses' plates.

  4. Well, i don’t think no one argues "social networks" already existed in many formats since by definition they're just networks of people that share information or socialize with each other. By that definition, the family and extended family is a social network. Do non-digital social networks had influence in society? Yes, of course, all the time. I don't see anything "innovative about what is been talked in this video but i guess it's an important part of the conversation of what digital social networks are and do.

  5. A social network is so much more than a series of clubs. You don't need the Internet to have people talking by mail and traveling 3 days to connect with others, no, but that's not a social network.

  6. This man is friends with David Cameron and friends with George Osborne – two people who have impoverished the UK for no good ideological sense.

  7. This channel has been pretty hit or miss lately, and this video is definitely a miss.

    The speaker here apparently just doesn't know that "social network" is a term with a specific definition in the tech industry. From, a social network is:

    1. a network of friends, colleagues, and other personal contacts
    2. Digital Technology.
    a. an online community of people with a common interest who use a website or other technologies to communicate with each other and share information, resources, etc.
    b. a website or online service that facilitates this communication.

    So the speaker is thus just conflating the two definitions of the word. Of course social networks (in the first sense of the word) have been around since the beginning of human history. That's obvious. But that's also not what people in the tech industry are talking about when they use the term. When they're talking about social networks, they mean things like Facebook and Twitter, and they did invent those things. Furthermore, _by definition_, offline interactions (such as those by the Freemasons) do not constitute social networking in the same sense. Furthermore, social media presents a fundamentally different way of interacting with other people. This seems pretty obvious to me, but it seems to have totally eluded him.

    As to the "hubris" of the Silicon Valley people, most of them are not concerned with history in general because they are tech professionals. The history of Freemasonry has little to do with the tech industry and how it has been developed. Whether or not Freemasonry is similar to Facebook is a totally academic argument and has little bearing on anything of practical value.

  8. He's not wrong, but it sounds like he's working from a very abstract, half-baked idea that lacks details. I suspect he has nowhere near the level of insight that a computer scientist would have about the actual details of different types of social networks, different types of verification/credibility, the characteristics of the information processing that's going on, and etc. He's saying "Aha!" while pointing to the nodes and edges of the social networks and saying "these old social networks are exactly the same as social networks we have today, but slower." There's no reason to believe it's just a matter of speed, though.

  9. Social media are computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks.
    A social network is a social structure made up of a set of social actors (such as individuals or organizations), sets of dyadic ties, and other social interactions between actors.

  10. The guy who in the first two seconds of talking, namedropped Harvard, was struck by others' arrogance.

  11. how/why do a video like this one get only 10k views……………. REALLY WHY !!! i remember an era before the great social shit-net-work being born! Around 2005… that's 13 years ago and yet people older then me are FORGETTING there was a world bedore internet. Sad

  12. Obominable 'progress' masked by fake enlightment. The intelligent masquerading as wise. Unfortunate that the intelligenent always seek and get power while the wise are not driven to do so.

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