The Quiet BeforePosted: March 29, 2022
The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas
Crown (February 15, 2022), 447 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $20.99
The subtitle of this book is misleading. The Quiet Before is much more about the variety of ways in which ideas have been communicated than it is about their origins. And certainly not all the ideas Beckerman discusses are radical. Nor are the chapter titles helpful. Given that, I kept my own notes about the means of communication he discusses in each chapter. I also don’t see a “quiet before” in his various narratives. Nonetheless, Beckerman has an intriguing thesis and he delivers some interesting material.
After an introduction in which he makes a cogent argument as to how social media is not conducive to civil and productive discourse, his first chapter discusses the power of the old-fashioned letter. Beckerman describes how Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc used the letter in the seventeenth century to pursue his scientific ends. His goal was to make the measurement of longitude more accurate. To do so he needed multiple people in a variety of locations to take measurements of a lunar eclipse. He wrote letters to encourage various individuals to make those observations, and his efforts did largely make the measurement of longitude far more accurate.
Beckerman goes on to discuss the petition. An activist named Feargus O’Connor in the nineteenth century tried to use petitions, mostly without success, to convince the British Parliament to enact laws to ease the burden on laborers. In the early twentieth century a woman named Mina Loy involved herself with a group of thinkers who called themselves “futurists.” They used the manifesto to express their ideas, and sometimes developed competing manifestos. In West Africa locals opposed to how the British were treating the natives set up newspapers to express their ideas. In the former Soviet Union dissidents employed a methodology known as “samizdat.” Beckerman says that this was a contraction of the words “self” and “publishing.” This was a means of distributing censored material, usually with typewriter and carbon paper. The author then moves on to the late 1980s when young women started creating ‘zines with scissors and glue sticks. They copied them on photocopiers and distributed them by postal mail.
The author then inserts a section entitled “Interlude” in which he discusses Stewart Brand’s creation of the WELL: the Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link, one of the first computer bulletin boards. Those were the days in which you had to own a modem and dial in to the WELL’s servers.
From here Beckerman moves into the computer age, discussing how protesters created Facebook pages to promote their movement and how members of the alt-right used chat rooms on various platforms to further their agenda. He describes how a virologist named Eva Lee was at the center of an ongoing discussion made up of doctors, scientists, and healthcare professionals during the early days of the COVID pandemic. They continued their conversions via email and a Twitter Direct Message (DM) group while the occupant of the White House at the time downplayed the whole matter. Finally, Beckerman discusses how activists use hashtags to promote social causes.
The tale does not promise us a happy ending. As Beckerman told us from the start, social media is not conducive to productive discussion or lasting change. But perhaps in knowing that we can find workable solutions.