(Above: ‘Niall Ferguson’s Networld.’ Source: YouTube video)
Historian and author Niall Ferguson’s three-part series, Networld, now available to stream for free via PBS, is hardly escapist fare. But its examination of humanity’s past may offer some insights into dealing with its future.
From snake oil cures for COVID-19 to malicious misinformation campaigns designed to inflame political and cultural discourse, today’s online connectedness can feel like unchartered – and dystopic – territory. Yet information networks are hardly a new phenomenon.
Based on his 2019 book, The Square and the Tower, Ferguson asserts, “We tend to underestimate the importance of networks in the past, and to assume erroneously that history can have nothing to teach us on this subject.”
Ferguson’s series explores the intersection of media, technology and cultural movements throughout history, from the Protestant Reformation through George Orwell’s frightening bestselling novel 1984. He talks with network theorists, social scientists and data analysts, and reviews classic experiments and the latest research.
“There have never been such large networks as we see in the world today,” says Ferguson. “Nor have the flows of information – or, for that matter, disease – ever been so rapid. But scale and speed are not everything. We shall never make sense of the vast, swift networks of our own time … if we do not study the smaller, slower networks of the past.”
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