“A Mark was Made”

Here in Iowa City, we’ve been in a permanent state of construction for years now. I can’t remember the last time some part of the downtown wasn’t in disarray while in the process of being worked on. Large parts of the pedestrian mall have been a maze of fencing and torn up brick for years upon years (Michael Shea, Ped Mall updates soon to come). An entire generation of Iowa Citians has grown up with construction as their childhood memory of the town.

For a smaller town with a population of only 75,798, the city government impressively throws millions of dollars at projects like it’s pocket change. The pedestrian mall renovation alone is projected to be $7.4 million and that’s limited to about a block of the downtown. The city has had many similar projects in recent years, including the building of multiple massive parks and a city-wide infrastructure overhaul, to name a few. Over the past decade or so, the city expenditures for these kinds of improvements might add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. That is a lot of money for such a limited area, considering one can take a relaxed stroll from one side of town to the other in a couple of hours or less.

All of this public investment is called progress, so I hear. As part of this project to improve and beautify the downtown, they apparently built a wall as a memorial to very important people (a wall to Make Iowa City Great Again?). It’s entitled entitled “A Mark was Made”. From the official City of Iowa City website, it is reported that, “The wall was created to become an evolving acknowledgement celebrating the leadership, activism, and creativity of those who have influenced the Iowa City community and beyond” (Installation of ‘A Mark was Made’ story wall completed as part of Ped Mall project).

One of the local figures included is John Alberhasky, now deceased. He was a respectable member of the local capitalist elite and still well-remembered by many. For the older generations who are fond of what capitalism once meant, this is the kind of guy they’re thinking of. Apparently, I’m now officially part of the “older generations”, as I can recall what Iowa City used to be like… ah, the good ol’ days.

Mr. Alberhasky was not only a small business owner but also a widely known community leader. The small mom-and-pop grocery store that he started, affectionately known as “Dirty John’s”, has long been a regularly stop even for people not living in the neighborhood and the store’s deli used to make sandwiches that were sold at a local high school. Once among dozens of such corner grocery stores, it is the only example left remaining in this town. The store itself is a memorial to a bygone era.

This local businessman seems like a worthy addition to this memorial. He was beloved by the community. And he seems to have established an honorable family business that is being carried on with care by his descendants. There are few families that have been part of the Iowa City community for so long, going back to the 1800s, the kinds of ethnic immigrants that built this country. They are good people, the best landlords I’ve ever had I might add (as a tenant for a couple of decades, does that make me their landpeasant?). I approve of their family’s patriarch being included on this fine wall of public distinction.

Still, I can’t help but noting an irony about this memorial to community involvement and public service. It is located in the People’s Park that was turned into the gentrified front yard of a TIF-funded high-rise built for rich people (TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy). It effectively evicted the common folk from this public park for years and a once thriving community space has never been the same since (Freedom and Public Space). Only recently did they finally put seating back to allow the dirty masses to once again rest their weary bodies, but it has yet to regain the welcoming feel it once held as a vibrant expression of community.

To this day, there is no memorial or even a small plaque indicating that this is a unique park separate from and having preceded the pedestrian mall, originally a green space that was established through community organizing and public demand, the first public space established downtown. It’s as if the People’s Park does not exist and, as far as public memory goes, never did exist. The number of people who remember it are growing fewer in number.

Not even the local government will officially acknowledge it. In the article about the new wall from the city website, they don’t mention that this is the People’s Park and, instead, refer to it as merely Black Hawk Mini Park. I did a quick site search and the People’s Park is not mentioned by name anywhere on the city website. But at least Chief Black Hawk gets mentioned for his role in surrendering to the US military that allowed white people to take his people’s land… that’s something.

Trump Tower and the Public Square

In the past, a populist was someone who was popular or who held popular views. A populist, as such, was a man (or woman) of the people or at least one aligned with them. So, why do so many in the media, specifically in the corporate media, repeatedly call Trump a ‘populist’ when he isn’t popular among the populace? The majority of voters didn’t vote for him. And according to numerous polls, at no point have most Americans supported, agreed with, or had even a remotely positive view of him.

Trump was elected by the electoral college which was designed to suppress democracy by protecting the interests and power of the elite. And there are few Americans more elite than Trump, someone who not only has been a key figure among the capitalist class and within corporate media but also was close friends and major supporter of the Clintons as they took over the Democratic Party, shifting it toward the right-wing and reactionary.

Behind the scenes, Trump was one of the anti-populist forces that helped remove any remaining democracy within the Democratic Party. Having made Democrats democratically impotent, he then turned his sights on the Republican Party, taking it over and pushing it even further to the extreme. It was a brilliant one-two punch, a brash show of elitist machinations. Trump was triumphant by using the system to gain control of the system. He was no outsider hoping to tear it all down, much less drain the swamp.

What is Trump symbolized by? Trump Tower. Not Trump Square. He is the ultimate product and embodiment of the rigid hierarchy of late stage capitalism and plutocratic corporatocracy. The network is beginning to challenge that entrenched hierarchy, but it’s been slow process. Trump’s coup is the last gasp of hierarchy as the system becomes dysfunctional and deranged, turning on itself.

The tower, the hierarchy remains dominant. When the tower comes tumbling down, we will know about it. And it won’t come about by an anti-democratic economic, media, and political system placing into power a faux populist.

On a related note, I’ve spent the last couple of decades watching the local public space downtown be destroyed by local plutocratic business interests (and by the way, it is very much a Democratic stronghold). The pedestrian mall, built as part of a downtown renovation project, used to be a thriving public space and public forum where community members gathered and connected. But in recent years it was intentionally and systematically destroyed in service of the tower, quite literally as TIF-funded high-rises were built for the wealthy and the downtown was gentrified.

There was a public space informally known as The People’s Park and formally known as Blackhawk Park (Blackhawk being the native leader who fought to defend his home against powerful interests seeking to steal his people’s land). This park existed before the pedestrian mall’s construction. It was the center of the public space and gave expression to a thriving sense of community, but the tables and benches were removed. Now it is feels like a dead zone, an open space in front of a looming glass edifice that no longer welcomes public use.

This power grab at the local level is mirrored by the power grab at the national and international level, including within supposed networks as the internet increasingly comes under the control of hierarchical transnational corporations. Hierarchy is ascendant, like never before seen. We have barely begun to see the emergence of a network backlash. And the longer the backlash is suppressed, the more radical and revolutionary it will be once finally unleashed.

 

‘I expect things to get worse before they get better’, says historian Niall Ferguson
by Varghese K. George

Would it be useful to try to understand history as ongoing, cyclical, hierarchy-network swings?

It might be a little too neat. Large networks are complex systems, and they have emergent properties that are rather unpredictable. They are quite capable of sudden changes. The key here is that revolutionary networks like the Bolsheviks were capable of transforming, with amazing speed, into hierarchies of tremendous rigidity and centralisation. That hierarchical structure endured for 70 years, and then fell apart with extraordinary swiftness. I prefer to think of history as a somewhat erratic and chaotic process rather than as one characterised by cycles, or pendulum swings. That is why it is hard to predict history, and it does not operate in a way that submits to nice, neat laws.

You make some predictions and say the current phase of social and political chaos will last for some years.

If one compares our age with the period of the printing press, the striking thing is that there are many, many similarities, though the speed today is an order of magnitude faster. It took a hundred years in the 16th and 17th centuries, in the age of the printing press; now it takes 10 years. If you think about what happened in the 16th century, the printing press… when the Reformation started, it unleashed at least 130 years of religious conflict in Europe. It went on until the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia. In my very rough analogy, we should expect our age’s ideological conflict to last about a tenth of that time. The age of the Internet, certainly the age of Facebook and Twitter, has given rise to a kind of ideological polarisation in many democracies. I would expect that process to continue and get worse for a whole period of conflict that is not as long as 130 years but perhaps 13 years. But this is a very rough analogy. This is about how these technological shocks, these innovations like the Internet or the printing press, change the structure of the public sphere and give rise to conflict, because of polarisation or violence… If you think of it in a rough way, we are having this 16th-17th century experience in the realm of democratic politics… but speeded up. That means I expect things to get worse before they get better. Because I don’t see any change in the state of affairs created by Facebook, YouTube and the rest soon.

Review: Even on the Internet, What’s Old Is New Again
by Jonathan A. Knee

The internet itself is a network of networks. The ability to communicate and transact across its vast reach is indeed unprecedented and represents the basic infrastructure of what has been termed the “network society.” Mr. Ferguson’s book does far more than simply track the use of the word “network” from its introduction in English language publications in the late 19th century, when it “was scarcely used,” to the modern day, when he points out that it appeared in 136 articles in The New York Times during just the first week of 2017. Rather he seeks to reframe the entirety of human history as an endless tug-of-war between eras in which powerful hierarchical institutions predominate (the Tower of the title) only to be undermined by the influence of emerging networks (the corresponding Square). In Professor Ferguson’s telling, these networks are invariably co-opted by reconstituted hierarchies and the process begins again.

For instance, Professor Ferguson argues it was the printing press that was largely responsible for three “network-based revolutions — the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.” These were followed by a hundred-year period of hierarchical international order dominated by five hubs (Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia) leading up to the First World War.

The new industrial, financial and communications networks that emerged during this time did not, however, overturn the hierarchical nature of things. This dominant structure survived both world wars, according to Professor Ferguson, with the mid-twentieth century actually representing the “zenith of hierarchy.” His account shows how the ability to navigate and influence these and other nascent networks determined which empires thrived in the reconfigured hierarchical orders.

Want to understand how history is made? Look for the networks
by David Marquand

Hierarchies, Ferguson argues, have been part of the human condition since the neolithic age. But in the 500 years since Gutenberg invented printing and Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church, hierarchies have been challenged again and again by networks, through which like-minded people communicate with each other, independently of those set in authority over them. Sometimes hierarchies have crushed networks; sometimes networks have undermined hierarchies. But the tension between them has been constant and inescapable. […]

But despite the complexity of Ferguson’s story, the basic argument is clear. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, it is curiously reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. For Ferguson, networks are more creative than hierarchies. Their members are more engaged than the hierarchies they confront. Without them, the world would be a harsher, bleaker and crueller place. But when hierarchies fall, and networks carry all before them, the result, too often, is an anarchic war of all against all—like Hobbes’s state of nature. Again and again, Ferguson reminds us, triumphant networks have run amok, plunging their societies into bloodshed. […]

The clear implication of these stories is that stable and legitimate rule depends on a symbiosis between Ferguson’s Square and his Tower: between networks and hierarchies. And half a millennium of human history shows that symbiosis is both extraordinarily difficult to achieve and extraordinarily difficult to maintain.

For most of the 16th and 17th centuries, the main threat to that symbiosis came from the fanatical, intolerant and often bloodthirsty religious networks that devastated central Europe. For most of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries it came from more or less brutal hierarchists—Peter the Great, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Il-Sung and the like. In his brilliantly provocative final chapters, Ferguson shows that the wheel has now come full circle. The frenzied religious networks of the 16th century flourished in what he calls the “first networked era”: the age ushered in by the astonishingly rapid diffusion of print technology all over Europe. Today, he argues, we are living in the second networked age. Ours is the age of the internet, of Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web and giants such as Facebook and Google. The speedy diffusion of information that these websites facilitate allow individuals to form themselves into networks more easily, and more globally, than ever before. A development that is having profound consequences for once stable, or at least predictable, democracies.

By that very token, though, it is also the age of cyber-warfare, sometimes conducted by hierarchical states, like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and sometimes by networked individuals like Julian Assange. […]

As in the past, though, the network has quickly been taken over by a hierarchy; the square has become the tower. The most astonishing feature of the second networked age is an explosion of inequality. The returns from the network, he points out, “flow overwhelmingly to the insiders who own it.” Thus, Google is worth $660bn; 16 per cent of its shares are owned by its founders. Facebook is worth $441bn; 28 per cent of its shares are owned by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg and his ilk are not alone. They are scooping up a massive rent; and, for decades, successful rent-seeking by the super-rich has been a feature of economic life right across the developed world.

The great question for the future is whether it will be possible to assemble a social coalition of Ferguson’s outsiders to challenge the dominance of the super-rich. In other words can the network strike back? The obstacles are formidable. But it is worth remembering that though left-wing insurgent Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, he might well have won the presidency if the race had been between him and Trump in his tower. Sanders’s populist campaign might yet turn out to have been the first swallow of a bright summer.

Networks and Hierarchies in the Trump Era: An Interview with Niall Ferguson
by Davis Richardson

You say that these companies in Silicon Valley are decentralized, but it seems they’re very consolidated regarding capital and the concentration of data.

The paradox of Silicon Valley is that it proclaims a very decentralized network era in which cyberspace is inhabited by free and equal netizens; yet in practice, it’s created its own extraordinarily unequal hierarchy personified by the FANG companies and the people who own them. The rhetoric of Silicon Valley has been that we’re going to be more democratized by connectedness, but the reality is that large social networks are not very democratic; they actually magnify the existing inequalities in our society.

Does social media reinforce power structures throughout history?

Or creates a new version. It was new people who became the titans of the 19th century, the Carnegies and Rockefellers. In one sense, the giants of Silicon Valley, like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, are the equivalent to Andrew Carnegie and his contemporaries.

But in our time, we now have a network inequality projected onto an existing market inequality that amplifies it. To give an example, those who are in a position to take big, speculative positions in Bitcoin are already quite wealthy from the last generation of technology.

It’s reminiscent of Marx’s philosophy that the bourgeoisie is never fixed and subject to renewal.

There’s a consolation offered by large monopoly companies which is, “Don’t worry, we won’t be monopolies for too long. New giants will come and displace this.” And that’s the standard way in which Google and Amazon have fended off the anti-trust movement from the Democratic Party. But there’s never really been such a concentration of power in content publishing as now exists.

In the age of the printing press, it was a decentralized public sphere. Whereas, what’s happened, thanks to how Google and Facebook have been run, is unique in that the public sphere is becoming highly concentrated through those network platforms. It does drive a real distortion of the public sphere because it doesn’t matter whether something’s true or false. William Randall Hearst never had that type of market share, even at the height of his power, and I find it oddly disconcerting that the people running those companies act as if they weren’t massive content publishers.

“The Square and the Tower” — Augmenting and Modularizing the Algorithm (a Review and Beyond)
by Richard Reisman

Drawing on a long career as a systems analyst/engineer/designer, manager, entrepreneur and inventor, I have recently come to share much of Ferguson’s fear that we are going off the rails. He cites important examples like the 9/11 attacks, counterattacks, and ISIS, the financial meltdown of 2008, and most concerning to me, the 2016 election as swayed by social media and hacking. However — discouraging as these are — he seems to take an excessively binary view of network structure, and to discount the ability of open networks to better reorganize and balance excesses and abuse. He argues that traditional hierarchies should reestablish dominance.

In that regard, I think Ferguson fails to see the potential for better ways to design, manage, use, and govern our networks — and to better balance the best of hierarchy and openness. To be fair, few technologists are yet focused on the opportunities that I see as reachable, and now urgently needed. […]

Ferguson’s title comes from his metaphor of the medieval city of Sienna, with a large public square that serves as a marketplace and meeting place, and a high tower of government (as well as a nearby cathedral) that displayed the power of those hierarchies. But as he elaborates, networks have complex architectures and governance rules that are far richer than the binary categories of either “network” ( a peer to peer network with informal and emergent rules) or “hierarchy” (a constrained network with more formal directional rankings and restrictions on connectivity).

The crucial differences among all kinds of networks are in the rules (algorithms, code, policies) that determine which nodes connect, and with what powers. While his analysis draws out the rich variety of such structures, in many interesting examples, with diagrams, what he seems to miss is any suggestion of a new synthesis. […]

As Ferguson points out, our vaunted high-tech networks are controlled by corporate hierarchies (he refers to FANG, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google, and BAT, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) — but subject to levels of government control that vary in the US, EU, and China. This corporate control is a source of tension and resistance to change — and a barrier to more emergent adaptation to changing needs and stressors (such as the Russian interference in our elections). These new monopolistic hierarchies extract high rents from the network — meaning us, the users — mostly in the form of advertising and sales of personal data.

‘The Square and the Tower’ a wobbly view of history
by Mike Fischer

In Ferguson’s hands, that disconnect covers everything and therefore explains nothing; his notion of hierarchy is so narrow and his definition of networks is so generic that the distinction between them becomes meaningless — particularly as Ferguson is forced to admit that “a hierarchy is just a special kind of network.”

What we get instead is a watered down survey of how “networks” spurred by the printing press enabled Luther’s reformation as well as ensuing secular revolution — before reactive “hierarchies” re-established precedence in the 19th century, thereafter themselves coming unglued following World War II.

Ferguson points to this more recent erosion in hierarchical power as cause rather than consequence of a new network revolution involving the Internet and social media, both of which make him nervous because of how readily they’ve been appropriated by populist demagogues on the left and right.

But as has been true of Ferguson before — one thinks of his insistence that the West’s “edge” can be explained by six “killer apps” — his hobby horse du jour sometimes rides roughshod over the facts.

How else, for example, to explain his bizarre view that because network analysis demonstrates that Paul Revere and Joseph Warren were more plugged in than their brethren, they “were the most important revolutionaries in Boston”? Or that it’s “doubtful” George Washington would have enjoyed the influence he did if he hadn’t been a Mason?

Neither claim is tested against the dense historical record suggesting that Washington — and Bostonians like the Adams cousins — were important because of their personal characteristics, unique talents, and ideas; for Ferguson, the content of one’s character and quality of one’s thought matter much less than being in the right place at the right time.

The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson review – a restless tour through power
by Andrew Anthony

The problem is that there are simply too many strands and too much disparate information for a coherent thesis to emerge. Indeed, such is Ferguson’s restless desire to uncover connectedness that he can sound like a conspiracy theorist, though he is at pains to distance himself from that perspective. As he notes in the preface, conspiracy theorists see networks as hidden elites in cahoots with the established power structure, while far more often, he argues, networks disrupt the status quo.

But in revisiting such conspiracist tales – the Illuminati and the Rothschilds, for example – he confuses as much as demystifies. The Illuminati, a small 18th-century German order that sought to disseminate Enlightenment ideals, came to be seen – falsely – as the orchestrators of the French Revolution, and, by the modern crank tendency, as the puppet-masters behind everything.

As Ferguson notes, the Illuminati survived by infiltrating the Freemasons, where they achieved little, ultimately collapsing and disappearing long before they were adopted by the lunatic fringe as the all-purpose sinister “they”. So what was their significance? Ferguson doesn’t really explain, other than to say that they were an example of the intellectual networks that were “an integral part of the complex historical process that led Europe from Enlightenment to Revolution to Empire”.

From someone who is not bashful about making bold statements, this is a deeply underwhelming conclusion. But it stands as the basis for his case about the ambiguous, not always progressive nature of networks. It’s an argument that takes in the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Cambridge Apostles, the Taiping revolt, Henry Kissinger, al-Qaida and so much else besides, right up to Twitter and Donald Trump.

The effect is dizzying more​ than​ stimulating. Ferguson’s breadth of learning is often impressive, but by the end of the book I was little more secure in my understanding of what ​he was trying to get at than at the beginning.

Freedom and Public Space

Along the Upper Mississippi River and on the Iowa side, there is Fort Madison.

It is a medium-sized town, not exactly thriving but far from being in decline. It is an old river town that once had much wealth and still has many well-kept old houses. Some of the nicest and largest houses are located around a couple of parks in the center of town, just north a couple blocks from the downtown shopping area.

My brother moved there not too long ago and so I’ve since visited the town several times. He lives only a few blocks from these parks and only a few blocks from the river. It is a long and narrow strip of a town and so I guess everyone there lives within blocks of the river.

It is one of those places where you can sense the history. It is fairly quiet town now, but it had to have been a bustling at one time, back when the Mississippi River was more of a major transportation route. The old buildings still standing are of a wide variety of architecture. It has made me curious.

Much of the town has a standard Midwest feel, although of a river town variety. For example, there are the kinds of alleys I knew from my Midwestern childhood. Most of the houses wouldn’t be out of place in any other Midwestern smaller town. Still, there is much else that stands out. There are old federalist style houses. There are also quite a few houses with a clear Southern influence. One house across the street from Old Settlers Park reminds me of the houses in Charleston, SC, although it isn’t as narrow along the front.

Fort Madison was once a trade town. So, that allowed more diverse cultural influences for an old town so far north into the far reaches of the Midwest. Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1850 census, when Fort Madison was a young city and Iowa was a young state. In that census, there were people from diverse places within the United States (Washington DC, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Maine, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and from diverse countries (Canada, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Switzerland).

Before being a trade town, it was the location of a major fort and hence the name. It was one of three forts in the new Louisiana Territory and the first permanent fortification on the Upper Mississippi. That touches upon the sense of history of the place.

The Mississippi River was the last natural boundary for the frontier. It is a massive river that back then would have been treacherous to cross. Iowa was one of the last areas Native Americans tried to hold ground to stop Westward expansion. Fort Madison was seen as an incursion and so immediately became a target of attacks.

One of the most famous Native leaders was Chief Black Hawk. He sided with Canada during the War of 1812. His first battle against US troops happened in Fort Madison and it was the only battle of the War of 1812 that happened West of the Mississippi. More than three decades later in 1838, he gave his farewell speech in Old Settlers Park, where today there is a plaque with a quote from that speech:

“I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now.”

As he described, just down the hill flows the mighty Mississippi. However, today the surrounding houses entirely block the view.

I walked to this park with my sister-in-law and niece. It has a large gazebo for bands and a playground. It’s quite beautiful with many old trees. The place is peaceful and it is hard to imagine the sadness Black Hawk must have felt as he gave that speech. As I stood before the plaque reading his words, I looked out across the park at the kids playing. It wasn’t lost on me that the park was filled with white kids. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked Native American in Fort Madison. The diversity the town once had never included the native population.

Where I live in Iowa City, there are two locations of former Native American villages. One of them was that of the tribe of Black Hawk’s medicine man. Iowa City was first settled by free blacks, many of whom were likely escaped slaves. Those free blacks sought the frontier for obvious reasons and I’m sure they were living there at the invitation of the local tribes.

In the pedestrian mall of downtown Iowa City, there is a small area that is called Black Hawk Mini Park. It also once was known as the People’s Park. It was the product of a fight for public space. On the side of the adjacent building there was a mural called “The Spirit of Black Hawk” that depicted the face of a Native American.

It’s telling that the freedom of public space often gets symbolized by Native Americans who lost their freedom and lost the very land they lived on, of which these parks represent a tiny portion.