The Quiet Before
On the unexpected origins of radical ideas from Renaissance France to Black Lives Matter
A provocative, incisive look at the building of social movements—from the 1600s to the present day—and how current technology is undermining them
We tend to think of revolutions as loud: frustrations and demands shouted in the streets. But the ideas fueling them have traditionally been conceived in much quieter spaces, in the small, secluded corners where a vanguard can whisper among themselves, imagine alternate realities, and deliberate over how to get there. This extraordinary book is a search for those spaces, over centuries and across continents, and a warning that—in a world dominated by social media—they might soon go extinct.
Gal Beckerman, an editor at The New York Times Book Review, takes us back to the seventeenth century, to the correspondence that jumpstarted the scientific revolution, and then forward through time to examine the engines of social change: the petitions that secured the right to vote in 1830s Britain, the zines that gave voice to women’s rage in the early 1990s, even the messaging apps used by epidemiologists fighting the pandemic in the shadow of an inept administration. In each case, Beckerman shows that our most defining social movements—from decolonization to feminism—were formed in quiet, closed networks that allowed a small group to incubate their ideas before broadcasting them widely.
But Facebook and Twitter are replacing these productive, private spaces, to the detriment of activists around the world. Why did the Arab Spring fall apart? Why did Occupy Wall Street never gain traction? Has Black Lives Matter lived up to its full potential? Beckerman reveals what this new social media ecosystem lacks—everything from patience to focus—and offers a recipe for growing radical ideas again.
Lyrical and profound, The Quiet Before looks to the past to help us imagine a different future.
Praise for The Quiet Before
How does true social change occur? In this brilliant book filled with insightful analysis and colourful storytelling, Gal Beckerman shows that new ideas need to incubate through thoughtful discussions in order to create sustained movements. Today's social media hothouses, unfortunately, tend to produce flash mobs that flame out. We need to regain intimate forms of communication if we want to nurture real transformation. Rarely does a book give you a new way of looking at social change. This one does.<b>Walter Isaacson</b>, author of <i>The Code Breakers</i>
The Quiet Before is that rare book: arresting in its premise, supported by historical examples, and relevant to right now. Beckerman takes a close look at the media that led to the 'changed minds' of past revolutions, then challenges us to approach today's media with new eyes. How can we make it serve our urgent human purposes-among these the rethinking of human equality and the possibility of democracy? I loved it.<b>Sherry Turkle</b>, author of <i>The Empathy Diaries</i>
The Quiet Before is a remarkable, engrossing account of the subterranean routes by which historical change takes place, from the adoption of universal (male) suffrage to #MeToo, and an examination of the limitations of social media in achieving real social transformation. Gal Beckerman writes with lucidity and grace, folding a formidable amount of research and original reflection into a compulsively readable narrative. This is a riveting and timely book, one that should provoke heated Zoom conversations nationwide.<b>Daphne Merkin</b>, author of <i>22 Minutes of Unconditional Love</i>
All the myriad events fashioned by humans to create the world's history - be they wars or revolutions, artistic movements or responses to pandemics - have their points of origin in discussions, in discourses, in polemics, in simple statements nailed to church doors, in furtive comments uttered in basement bars, or in realizations made while waiting for traffic lights to change. In this wonderfully original and captivating book, Gal Beckerman reminds us that while natural events are so often announced with an unanticipated bang, human-made happenstances can more commonly trace their beginnings to little more than a cascade of gentle whispers.<b>Simon Winchester</b>, author of <i>The Professor and the Madman</i>
Both deep and urgent, Beckerman revisits past revolutions from the perspective of the communication tools that enabled them, providing insight into how we can better navigate the promise and peril of the technologies shaping our current moment.<b>Cal Newport</b>, author of </i>Digital Minimalism</i>
Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, but how do ideas ever get to the point where their time has come? Ideas have to be conceived, improved, and accepted by people, and we know little about how this happens. The Quiet Before is a fascinating and important exploration of how ideas that change the world incubate and spread.<b>Steven Pinker</b>, author of <i>Rationality</i>
In this penetrating feat of the intellect,Gal Beckerman explains the long and complicated relationship between the envisioning of new principles and the realization of such principles in the form of social transformation. Deploying a stunningly diverse set of narratives,he builds up evidence that the process is long and slow and nuanced. We tend to vest our admiration for-or dismay about-the work of activists who turn ideas into actions, but in fact, it is those who conceive those ideas and those who gradually disseminate them who may be the greatest heroes. This book should be read by anyone interested in thinking.Andrew Solomon, author of <i>Far from the Tree</i>
What a beautiful and humane book. The Quiet Before is a tour de force page-turner of an intellectual adventure story,one that hopscotches from medieval Provence to pre-fascist Florence to 21st-century Charlottesville, with stops in Moscow, Cairo and many other exquisitely rendered settings in between. Beckerman is an infectious guide, wearing his learning lightly as he reveals some of the places and personalities that have incubated the 'common world' we now cohabit.Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of <i>Self-Portrait in Black and White</i>