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I read The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power by Niall Ferguson a few years ago and was just thinking about it again recently since I thought it was very insightful. 

The Great Man Theory of History always seemed simplistic to me (that's particularly obvious to me since I'm a woman) and this book really captured the nuances of how power shifts better while still being readable (I'm a civilian not an academic).

I thought it would be helpful to share here.

The following is generated by GPT 4 and has been lightly edited by me:

Book Summary:

Ferguson's book delves into the historical relationship between:

  • networks (informal, decentralized structures like social networks or marketplaces) and 
  • hierarchies (formal, centralized structures like governments or corporations). 

The central argument is that the balance of power has oscillated between these two forces throughout history.

The key takeaway is that networks can be significant agents of change, but can also fall victim to co-option, control, or manipulation by hierarchies. In contrast, hierarchies can be disrupted, challenged, or subverted by networks. This dynamic is illustrated with historical examples, from the Roman Empire to the modern era.

Implications for Effective Altruism:

Importance of Networks: The EA movement largely operates as a network-based phenomenon. The book highlights the significance of cultivating and expanding these networks to enhance the movement's influence and effectiveness. Strategies include building connections with other organizations and individuals, sharing resources and knowledge, and fostering a strong sense of community.

Resilience Against Co-option: As the movement grows, it may attract the attention of established hierarchies. Ferguson's book serves as a reminder to be watchful against any attempts to co-opt, control, or manipulate the movement's goals and values. Maintaining a strong, decentralized structure and a clear focus on the mission can help ensure autonomy and capacity to drive positive change.

Leveraging Hierarchies for Impact: Recognizing the potential benefits of engaging with hierarchies is important. By building relationships with key decision-makers and institutions, the EA movement can potentially influence policy and allocate resources more effectively. This might involve lobbying, forming strategic partnerships, or providing expert advice to governments and corporations.

Learning from History: Analyzing the historical interplay between networks and hierarchies provides valuable insights into their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding the past enables more informed decisions about how to navigate the complex relationship between networks and hierarchies when working towards the EA mission.

In conclusion, "The Square and the Tower" offers intriguing insights into the relationship between networks and hierarchies that can help inform the EA movement's strategy for maximizing impact. By learning from history and striking a balance between embracing network-based strengths and engaging with hierarchies, the movement can better navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

I would be really interested in your thoughts on the above ^^




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