Niall Ferguson: “Pope Francis could be to the Church what Gorbachev went to the USSR”

The Scottish historian analyzes in his latest book the hidden role of networks in History. From the contagion of the Black Death to the decisive role of Facebook

They are members of a family, former students of an institute, followers of a football team. Even at work they have set up a network parallel to the organization chart where the boss is said to be an idiot. Oh yeah, it’s very likely that they share photos of their boring Sundays on Instagram. Those who rule are others, but thanks to Niall Ferguson our historical conscience is going to be reinforced (half-heartedly). In his new book, La plaza y la torre (Editorial Debate), Ferguson attacks the official historiography that has marginalized the influence of social networks (clarification: this concept for him is structural, much broader than the popular meaning we use to refer to Facebook, Twitter and others) and has focused on hierarchies. Both worlds, both powers, meet and interact. And they have also staged a pulse throughout the centuries. This claim makes it possibly the most influential historian of today, a charming, handsome and best-selling Scottish who gives this interview at the Rafael del Pino Foundation, where in a few hours he will give a lecture. Behind generals, kings and popes there have always been social networks that have interconnected the world much earlier than Facebook. To explain the Trump phenomenon, the structure of the Islamic State and the fake , one must understand how Christianity spread or how the Soviet Union fell. The Internet has changed less things than we think.
Today we are constantly talking about an interconnected world. However, phenomena such as Christianity or Islam were viral in their beginnings and technology had nothing to do with it.
Much of current history is technologically deterministic. In Silicon Valley it is believed that technology explains 90% of History, but they are wrong. There were social networks much earlier than Facebook. It is amazing how quickly these religions spread when they arose and were not supported by the printing press or the Internet. Word of mouth worked. Christianity, when expanded by the Roman Empire, had a great advantage over pagans: Christians lived more, surely, because many of their rituals were more hygienic. The fact of washing was an advantage. Technology is not always determinant. An example: if the United States had not been a decentralized country, people who worked in the Department of Defense Communications in California would not have started working on what ultimately became the Internet. When they did the Pentagon, the power body, it was concerned only about Vietnam. Going free caused his success. The USSR could not do that not for lack of talent, but for flexibility.
The first time it was seen that the world was interconnected was when the black plague appeared in the fourteenth century.
I find it incredible that its propagation would demonstrate a more integrated world than we could think. The plague can be tracked thanks to the trade routes that brought it from Asia to Europe. There is nothing more viral than an illness. The so-called Spanish flu caused as many deaths in the early twentieth century as the war. And at an amazing speed.
That global fear will always exist.
Clear. I was recently asked in Italy if I considered Trump, Brexit and other nonsense as the great dangers facing humanity. What scares me is a new pandemic, which in a communicated world like today, will expand in an uncontrolled way!

Niall Ferguson is a publishing star who has made his fortune writing about empires and money. He has taken off his jacket. On a piece of paper he points out the names of the journalists and the media he serves individually. Belongs to that lineage of British who enjoy and succeed in the United States. Despite living in sunny California, suffers with the light of Madrid. He has some photophobia and smiles when he squints: “It’s what it takes to be Scottish, we’re not used to your sun.”
In the conquest of America a small European network attacked and defeated a non-European hierarchy. How could Spain conquer so much territory in such a short time?
I am fascinated above all by the conquest of Pizarro’s Inca empire. The conquerors were a network that achieved a total victory with a technological advantage that was not so decisive. The Incas formed a very hierarchical society while the Spaniards were almost a band, few in number, who had even criminals in their ranks and who sometimes even killed each other. Your success is amazing. Of course, the diseases brought from Europe that decimated these civilizations influenced, but I think it was equally determinant e the fragility of the political structure of the Incas. These clashed with the Spanish but their almost immediate collapse remains a mystery. Maybe in that what happened there is a lesson that we have to analyze today.What? Economic collapses are studied a lot, but many times the political collapse is previous. The Inca Empire was very hierarchical and one of the reasons for its collapse was the loss of legitimacy. This collapse was similar to that of the USSR. The Soviet empire falls, it is not invaded, because its legitimacy collapsed.He said before that there was a lesson for today … The current crisis of the Catholic Church for cases of sexual abuse can be a threat to that legitimacy of the one we talk about and that can be fatal to the institution. I wonder if Pope Francis is to the Church what Gorbachev was to the USSR. Rome survived the Protestant Reformation and this case I think it will also surpass it, but in 500 years the Papacy has not faced a crisis of such magnitude. You consider that most social networks are not initiated by other networks, but rather by they order or at least encourage hierarchical entities. KGB attacks on the British establishment in the 30s or Putin’s attacks in the Trump elections are not equal. Here a hierarchical order is clear, however the jihadists act as networks, even if they have leaders. The Islamic State would continue to work if its leaders die. But a conflict as great as World War II could never have been won by a network structure alone. If you have seen the movie Dunkirk, you will notice the limits of the networks. If the English soldiers who were cornered on the beaches had smartphones to receive orders on WhatsApp, it would have been a disaster. The hierarchy is sometimes necessary, it must be combined with the networks. For you the beginning of the crisis of the hierarchy arises in the 70s. USA was a very strong hierarchical center. The Cold War gave him an impetus to continue. In the 60s the press was more controlled. There was no talk of Kennedy’s sexual scandals. Everything begins to change with the publication of the Pentagon Papers related to Vietnam. The federal government lost its control over the press and begins the development in California of Silicon Valley. It was a time of disintegration. There are currently two revolutions that generate some confusion for citizens. On the one hand, the growth expectations of developing countries and, on the other, an increase in inequality in rich countries. It sells a globalized world at the same time that nationalism resurfaces. I believe that globalization was sold to the world as a policy in which we would all win, but it has not been like that. The great beneficiaries have been the middle classes of Asia and 1% of the Western elite. World inequality has declined, but has increased in most Western countries. Beneficial globalization reached entrepreneurs but not workers. There are clearly losers, both in relative and absolute terms. The reaction to this situation, in my opinion, has been waiting. When I moved to the US in 2002, I asked a friend of mine who is a political analyst where the protectionist candidates were competing to be nominated as president. There were none in either the Republican party or the Democratic party. I think someone like Trump could have won before with a free anti-free message, anti-immigration, etc. In Europe, the germ of populism was already there long before the crisis, but it has been slow. The ‘Brexit’ and the victory of Trump were victories of the network over the hierarchy of the ‘establishment’ … Without Facebook and Twitter Trump I would not be president and neither would Brexit. This tool was not fully used until these years. Political advertising on these platforms was used on a large scale by the winning sides, while the establishment stood still underestimating this new weapon. It is paradoxical that the magnates of these networks are defenders of the hierarchy they defeated. It is true. The Silicon Valley kings were very traumatized by Trump’s victory. Almost everyone spent a lot of money on the Clinton campaign and expected it to win. Imagine the horror you felt on November 9th. Google felt guilty for not helping Clinton’s victory, but the Facebook thing was worse: they helped Trump. There were networks much earlier than Facebook but this is the largest in history. Did you imagine your monopoly? The science of networks predicts that in this economic market the first one wins 90%, the second 9% and the rest add up to 1%. It is the concept that the winner takes everything. That’s why Google, Amazon and Facebook are leaders without competition. People believe that cyberspace is something very decentralized thanks to networks. But these platforms are what Standard Oil was like when it dominated the oil industry. They on the Standard Data. The difference is that we give away our data.

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