preface: the networked historian
We live in a networked world, or so we are told. The word 'network', which was scarcely used before the late nineteenth century, is now overused as both a verb and a noun. To the ambitious young insider, it is always worth going to the next party, no matter how late it is, for the sake of networking. Sleep may be appealing, but the fear of missing out is appalling. To the disgruntled old outsider, on the other hand, the word networking has a different connotation. The suspicion grows that the world is controlled by powerful and elusive networks: the bankers, the Establishment, the System, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Illuminati. Nearly all that is written in this vein is rubbish. Yet it seems unlikely that conspiracy theories would be so persistent if such networks did not exist at all.
The problem with conspiracy theorists is that, as aggrieved outsiders, they invariably misunderstand and misrepresent the way that networks operate. In particular, they tend to assume that elite networks covertly and easily control formal power structures. My research- as well as my own experience- suggests that this is not the case. On the contrary, informal networks usually have a highly ambivalent relationship to established institutions, and sometimes even a hostile one. Professional historians, by contrast, have until very recently tended to ignore, or at least to downplay, the role of networks. Even today, the majority of academic historians tend to study the kinds of institution that create and preserve archives, as if those that do not leave an orderly paper trail simply do not count. Again, my research and my experience have taught me to beware the tyranny of the archives. Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organized groups of people.
- from page xix, The Square and the Tower