A provocative, incisive look at the building of social movements—from the 1600s to the present—and how current technology is undermining them
“A bravura work of scholarship and reporting, featuring amazing individuals and dramatic events from seventeenth-century France to Rome, Moscow, Cairo, and contemporary Minneapolis.”—Louis Menand, author of The Free World
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 about how to achieve their goals. 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 jump-started the scientific revolution, and then forward through time to examine 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, and 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.
About the Author
Gal Beckerman is a writer and editor at The New York Times Book Review and the author of the widely acclaimed When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, which won the National Jewish Book Award and the Sami Rohr Prize and was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. He has a Ph.D. in media studies from Columbia University and writes for many publications, including The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two daughters.
“The moment for this book is now as we navigate this new era of virtual interactions and wonder how we got here and where we’re headed.”—Susan Orlean, author of On Animals
“Rarely does a book give you a new way of looking at social change. This one does.”—Walter Isaacson, author of The Code Breaker
“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. This book should be read by anyone interested in thinking.”—Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree
“The Quiet Before is a splendid and singular history—great storytelling, elegant prose, spanning centuries but extremely timely, connecting dots in fresh and illuminating ways, surprising in its twists and turns, inspiring without trying too hard to inspire.”—Kurt Andersen, author of Evil Geniuses
“Gal Beckerman’s engrossing book only masquerades as a study of media and social change. It’s really a series of irresistibly readable nonfiction novellas about unwitting revolutionaries who used new communications technologies to remake the world.”—Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World
“We can’t imagine a better future because we can’t imagine anything much. Creativity will arise not from still greater frenzy, but from reflection on where we are and how we got here. Gal Beckerman shows the way.”—Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny
“The Quiet Before is a fascinating and important exploration of how ideas that change the world incubate and spread.”—Steven Pinker, author of Rationality
“What a beautiful and humane book.”—Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Self-Portrait in Black and White
“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.”—Sherry Turkle, author of The Empathy Diaries
“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.”—Daphne Merkin, author of 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love
“A timely and stimulating take on how the fringe infiltrates the mainstream.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An engaging treatise on the power of communication in social movements, historically and in our current moment . . . [and] an invigorating text ripe with pertinent information about the methods of connection that can lead to real change.”—Kirkus Reviews