This One Weird Trick for a Changing Society with Gal Beckerman

photo of Gal Beckerman and image of his book "The Quiet Before"
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
This One Weird Trick for a Changing Society with Gal Beckerman
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Why do social movements organizing online that spawn huge protests so rarely create radical change like movements of the past? Gal Beckerman argues that it’s all about The Quiet Before, a sustained discourse where activists can organize and deliberate about how to enact the change they want to see. This week on Reimagining, Gal walks us through his new book, a history of radical movements.

Gal Beckerman is the senior editor of books at The Atlantic. In addition to The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, Gal wrote the 2010 book When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. My name’s Ethan Zuckerman. I’m your host here from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. We are here today with Gal Beckerman. He is the author of The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origin of Radical Ideas. He’s the Senior Editor of Books at The Atlantic, former editor for the New York Times Book Review. He’s written for everybody, Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Review of Books, Washington Post, New Republic.

Prior to this book, he wrote a terrific book., When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. Gal, welcome.

Gal Beckerman:

Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s always a thrill to talk to you, Ethan.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, it’s such a great opportunity to talk about this book, The Quiet Before. I’ve had the pleasure of reading it. It’s beautifully written. It’s really just a phenomenal piece of storytelling. It takes you all through history around this theme of exploring the early origins of social movements and revolutions, from the revolution of the scientific method all the way through Black Lives Matter.

And what I love about it is you focus somewhere that most authors prefer not to focus, which is the moment well before anyone takes to the streets. What is it that gets you thinking about that moment pre-revolution rather than that incredibly charismatic moment of people picking up posters and flags and taking to the public with their grievances?

Gal Beckerman:

I think the answer to that, in terms of the intellectual development of this book, was my first book took place in the Soviet Union looking at a dissident movement. And you could not imagine a more demoralized set of people up against an implacable enemy that was never going to change. It had existed for decades and decades. And their ideas about democratizing the country, about having more personal freedom, more creative freedoms were just so on the total margins of society, and you could get caught for just having the wrong book. You could get arrested, sorry, for just having the wrong book in your house.

I was focused a lot on those folks, and this is long before anybody is protesting in the streets or even dreaming about it. And I had the thought, “What’s holding them together? What’s actually allowing them to … ” I use the word incubate in the book.

I don’t love the word incubate because I feel like Silicon Valley has stolen it. But what’s allowing them to incubate this alternative set of ideas, alternative concepts for how to structure society, for their places as citizens in society? Where is that happening, especially in such a repressive situation? I discovered where that was happening for them and the medium through which they were doing it, and it got me thinking, there’s a whole history, a whole underground stream here of communication in particular, of where people are gathering together, vanguards, people that want to bust through status quos they’re not happy with, or just have ridiculous ideas at first for how they might do things differently, where are they gathering? So that became much more interesting to me than the noise and the color and the pomp of people in the streets because it was more elusive in some ways.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And in the case of the Soviet Union, and I assume what Soviet Jewry as well, this is a space of samizdat, right? This is a space of newsletters and writings that are copied off on thin sheets of onion skin paper and are passed around and mere possession of it is an extremely risky thing. Did you start exploring the so dot thread when you were writing the Soviet Jewry?

Gal Beckerman:

Book? Yes, I did because samizdat played a critical role there. I mean it was really the only space that opened up for them where they could have their own little public sphere of communication where they could explore ideas, where they could bring in texts that were not allowed inside the Soviet Union and share them with each other.

And the one example that the first book of led me to, and I have a chapter on this in this book is totally fascinating, it’s maybe the thing that’s most fascinating to me of the many different forms of communication. It involves a journal called The Chronicle of Current Events, it was called. And what was fascinating about the Chronicle is this took samizdat to another level. Samizdat had started off as just illegal writing. People would type it out on their, not computers, on their typewriters in triplicate, quadruple, five or six copies and then try to pass them around hand to hand.

And again, these were like novels. You’d have Boris Pasternak or novels that weren’t allowed pieces of writing, essays that were being published outside the Soviet Union, but that were smuggled in.

But the Chronicle took things to another level, which was these were dissidents themselves who said, “Let’s have a record of what’s happening to us of the way that we’re being repressed in this country,” in an almost legalistic, scientific level of language, in terms of the way they were describing their experience.

So they started producing what was this monthly sort of pastiche of just in the barest, sparest language you can imagine just incidents that had happened to them. So, “So-and-so was teaching a book that’s outlawed in this public school number 34 and was arrested for it and thrown out of their job.”

And as this journal started circulating throughout the Soviet Union, people saw it as a receptacle for their witness of the things that they were experiencing. And they started passing notes with little incidents they were experiencing back along the chain of possession of this journal to Moscow where the editor was. And the chain grew longer and longer. It was almost like I describe this to people sometimes they said it’s a bit like Tor because you only know the person in the ahead of you and behind you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You know the nearby nodes, but you don’t know ultimately where the message is going to go and you’re trusting that relay node to get it there.

Gal Beckerman:

Exactly. So it was sort of this analog Tor and it was very difficult for the authorities to really close it down for that reason because any one person only knew two other people. And to trace the chain back to Moscow was difficult.

But these long networks of people witnessing and sending back information that would then be printed up in the Chronicle. And then the next step was the Chronicle was then smuggled out of the Soviet Union. And shortwave radio, like Voice of America, would then read it out as news and beam it back into the Soviet Union for a wider audience.

So it was fascinating to me that they had discovered this way of creating a shadow civil society, if you will. They were living by values and standards that were their own, that the government didn’t, they were cataloging these supposed civil rights, human rights violations. The government didn’t care of course. But it was important for them to live as if it mattered. And to me that sort of set the ground for the liberalizing movements that would come later in the nineties.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You sort of make the case that these alternative communication spaces, whether they’re in the mails, whether they are unusual forms of newspapers, that these are things that exist for hundreds of years. One of the things that’s frankly the most impressive about this book, Gal, is that you are pulling examples from all over the world from such different time periods, which is really a tour de force.

Do you have a favorite story that came up in this global sweep from 17th century science to the modern moment? Is there one that you particularly love talking about?

Gal Beckerman:

There is. I mean the first one that comes to mind, and I think this will speak to you too, Ethan, because I know a bit of your background also, is the one that takes place in Accra. And I love this story because I just felt of all the chapters in this book, the stories I tried to uncover and I did try to tell stories that were not entirely familiar, or maybe the movement itself was familiar, but this particular aspect of it wasn’t, or this character that we follow.

And I’ve had people say to me, “Why didn’t you do a chapter on the Committee of Correspondence or something in the American Revolution?”

I said, “Well it’s kind of, people know that story.”

So I really was trying to find pieces of history movements that might not be well known. And in the case of this chapter, which I’ll describe in a second, it was kind of a reverse engineering in a way. I said, “I’d love to do something on decolonization in Africa and I bet if I just rewind the reel enough, there is a space where people are beginning to talk about what it would mean for them to be independent, what a nation-state would look like for them, how to overcome the psychological wounds, the social wounds of colonialism. There has to be some place, and I’m sure that that was happening orally among people or in marketplaces and whatever. But I bet that there is some kind of print space where this happened.”

And I started searching and then discovered these not very well-researched, there’s only a few very academics who have really focused on these, but there are these newspapers that existed in the 19, starting in the 19, they started earlier, but they really picked up in the 1920s and ’30s that they were African owned.

They were owned by elite Africans from what was then called the Gold Coast. The British had this sort of enlightened idea of themselves as being very liberal colonizers. So they actually gave a space for some free speech until it got too provocative and then they found a way to shut it down, or tried to shut it down. But in this weird sort loophole of a newspaper, suddenly you had this, again, this sort of public sphere develops and it develops on what we would call the op-ed pages of one of these newspapers or a few of these newspapers.

But I looked at specifically at the African Morning Post, which was probably the most politically progressive and provocative in the sort of arguments that were taking place. Now I should add that this is a newspaper, not like the western newspapers that we’re familiar with where you have a professional cadre of reporters going out and gathering information. They didn’t really have the resources for that or the training. And so the paper is really almost a bulletin board. It’s just an opportunity for its readers to send in their small commentaries on a whole range of different issues. They’re usually using pseudonyms, some of them are very funny. Or they’re totally anonymous.

But they’re talking about a whole range of things, not just “I hate being a colonial subject,” but working out tensions amongst themselves. So for example, the two big groups that are reading these newspapers, it’s a small number of people that are literate in English at the time, are elites. They are these very, very small number of people who have gone to England and studied and become lawyers and such. And then there’s a much wider pool of locally educated because the colony was becoming quite rich at the time and there was a public school system was opening up. Some of the missions had schools. And so you have local Accrans who are studying to be clerics and nurses and they’re getting some education.

And these two demographics, the elite and the locals are battling in the pages of this newspaper over a vision of what their future country will look like and how modern it will be, because the people who are local are much more sort of tied back to their villages, tied to their tribes. One of the most interesting debates is over polygamy, “Will we be a polygamous nation or will we be monogamous like these elites who have been living in Europe and come back have come to appreciate that that’s the system that works there?”

Ethan Zuckerman:

And there’s a pan-Africanist piece to this as well because it’s not just the Gold Coast. Your sort of narrator character for this section is Nnamdi Azikiwe, who I believe is Nigerian, correct?

Gal Beckerman:

He is. And when you get to the end of the chapter, you discover that later in his life he becomes the first President of Nigeria. He’d also been studying, before he became editor of the African Morning Post, he’d been in America for 10 years studying at various universities, which was sort of an unusual thing at the time.

But yeah, they are weaving together both a notion of sort of a pan-Africanism with a nation-state idea that has to reconcile the various tribes that exist. I mean, that’s the other tension that’s happening is that the indirect rule by the British has done a very good job of empowering traditional tribal leaders and maybe even more than they would have been empowered in traditional society. But the British ulterior motive there is the division that exists, because people end up having more allegiance to their tribes than to any kind of identity that exists within the boundaries of this colonial state. And so they have to figure out what does it mean to be a Ghanaian, which is not a thing that exists before those boundaries are drawn.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And this brings us a little bit to a thinker that I know that you and I both pay some attention to, Benedict Anderson and this idea that not only does a public sphere give you a space in which you can have conversations about how we should govern ourselves, what we should do as a nation, but that existence of a public sphere, that existence of a medium in which we were talking to one another becomes part of how we identify. And so in many cases you’re looking at these communication mediums as sort of the spaces in which movements talk to one another, but talk a little bit about that sort of notion of that narrative and identity.

Gal Beckerman:

Oh, it’s really important. And Benedict Anderson is obviously the godfather of this idea. And the thing that occurred to me as I was reading through these newspapers, I call that chapter debate. I have each of the chapters as named after a different quality that the medium sort of provides. So that chapter is debate because they really are arguing with each other on the page.

But the fascinating thing is when you have people arguing with each other, it means that they all have stakes in the same thing. It actually is quite a bonding sort of experience because if we’re debating about whether our future nation is going to be polygamous or a future society is going to be polygamous or monogamous, we’re agreeing that we want a future society that we’re both going to be a part of. So it’s already creating public opinion, creating a notion of a people that is bonded enough that they’re going to begin to take control over their future and the contours of what their country’s going to look like, what their societies are going to look like.

 It sort of gives them a space to come together and that’s their own that they control. I mean that’s the other thing that’s really important. And when we talk about social media, we can see how you lose that control. But in this particular situation, it’s African-owned, they’re the ones sending in their commentary, they’re talking about the things that concern them and it’s allowing them to develop a sense of solidarity and unity even in the fighting.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So that question of solidarity and unity and how long it lasts is a dark current that works through this. Azikiwe returns to Nigeria, becomes the first president, but not long after is facing the Biafran War, where Nigeria is facing the possibility of internal separation.

One of the things that in many cases unites a lot of the movements, a lot of the examples that you look at, are revolutions that have some achievements but end up falling very short of their goals. Maybe you can use this to pivot us over to your examination of Facebook and Tahrir Square and the somewhat tragic figure of Wael Ghonim.

Gal Beckerman:

No, it’s true. I mean, in terms of the historical movements I look at, I looked at them mostly because down the road eventually at some level they succeeded. So there is a notion of two, three steps forward, two steps back. But these are movements that we can look now with some retrospect and say, “Oh, these seeds that were beginning to grow at the moment that I’m looking at them ended up flourishing in some ways.”

But with the internet, I mean everything is so new, so this analysis becomes a little bit more difficult. But the thing that I almost immediately began to notice about the communication mediums that people are using towards revolutionary ends in our moment is that they sort of lost some of the qualities that I saw in the pre-digital time and we didn’t appreciate that we were losing them.

And the reason was that the features that came along with a Twitter or a Facebook were so incredibly helpful in the first flush of a movement. When else in human history we’ve been able to get hundreds of thousands of people to the streets within a day or two? Or to craft a tight three word, four word slogan narrative that we can send out and emotionally impact such a huge number of people?

We were never able to do that. So that tool, what I of think of as this megaphone, just enormous megaphone in the hands of everybody, I do think that that romanticism was sort of warranted in that moment. But it became almost immediately clear to me, even back then when there was a lot of triumphalism over this, the Twitter revolutions, that it was going to be good for some things and not good for other things.

So this leads me to how Tahrir Square is the ultimate in cautionary tales as far as I could tell. And from the people that I talked to, including Wael and his sort of journey that he went on, which is that he was the guy who was standing in Tahrir Square the day after Mubarak had announced that he was stepping down and saying, “I want to find Mark Zuckerberg and hug him. Because this is all you need for a revolution is just the introduction of the internet. The introduction is something like a Facebook.”

And he came to see that, and this is the story that I tell in that chapter that what happened, what needed to happen the day after was so different in terms of its modalities than what needed to happen in the buildup to a huge public protest. You had this very weird coalition, you had Islamists with communists with, who had never come together-

Ethan Zuckerman:

Gay rights activists, people who would otherwise never even speak to one another.

Gal Beckerman:

Exactly. So they had all come together for this singular purpose, social media, great for that, for bringing down a dictator good. But building a political coalition that was then going to contend for power in the country, really hard stuff. I mean it’s possible that even in the best of circumstances, even with the best technologies of communication, they would never be able to counter what the Muslim Brotherhood had built up by then, the power of the army, which was not diminished even with Mubarak stepping down. So it was a tall order.

But what really didn’t help was that they were going back onto social media to, because it had worked so well in getting people to the streets, they said, “Let’s use it again. This is a great tool.” And they just kept fighting each other and getting into these sort of purity spirals of who is truer to the revolution.

And nobody was willing to compromise because it’s not a platform that has a bias towards compromise. We know what it does. We know what it does from our own lives, from many, many years of thinking about this. So it did it to them as a group and it just tore them apart. And Wael emerged from that experience after having to exile himself because things got much worse in Egypt and said, “This was not helpful. It was an illusion that it was helpful.” I mean, the guy tried to start his own new social media platform.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Parlio, yeah.

Gal Beckerman:

Parlio, that would somehow solve this problem. Because he saw it as so detrimental that it just turned them against one another and kept them from building something. It was great at destroying the edifice that existed there, but the building was really hard because it just was not built into the DNA of the platforms they were using. That’s sort of the conclusion that I came to after talking to these folks.

Ethan Zuckerman:

One of the thinkers whose perhaps been most helpful on Tarhrir Square and the later Gezi Park is Zeynep Tufekci. And she argues that because social media can give movements superpowers, because it can give you this possibility of bringing 5,000, 50,000, 500,000 people out into the streets very quickly, it tends to make movements scale more quickly than they’re ready for.

You don’t get this sort of longterm movement building that you were just talking about in West Africa with pan-Africanists working together for years to understand each other and where they’re coming from and what those debates look like.

When Zeynep was developing that line of thought, she came up and visited me at MIT and the analogy she was using was that it’s a little like how so many people are getting killed on Mount Everest these days. That it’s easier to climb Everest than it ever was because of Sherpas, because of workout plans, because of bottled oxygen. But what you actually have are surprisingly brittle climbers going up there who probably shouldn’t be doing that climb. Whereas 50 years ago, the people who were going up Everest had been summiting lots of other mountains first.

Gal Beckerman:

Much like Benedict Anderson, who you mentioned, Zeynep’s insights were really critical for me, because I think this idea, this kind of supersized idea of what happens to movements when they have these tools is really important to understand. Because what it leaves out, and I mean this is essentially where I tried to pick up from Zeynep, which is Zeynep talks about how it fast forwards past all of these important steps and I wanted to understand what those steps were.

And so for me what was interesting was to look historically when those tools didn’t exist and to see what sort of communication medium did provide those steps and what they were. That’s why I tried to name those chapters after those qualities that I feel like we’ve lost: a sense of patience, focus, a lot of things again that we sort of know from our personal lives, but that apply to movements can actually be pretty detrimental.

And I mean, to me, I always think of the big bus boycott in the ’60s in the Civil rights movement and the way to, it’s the ultimate example of how folks had to work really hard over a long period of time to make that happen, just the logistics of it. And I think Zeynep even mentions this example too because it’s sort of classic. It’s the dozens of church meetings and people organizing childcare for their kids and carpools. They’re not going to take the bus for a year to work. How are we going to work together?

All that work feels entirely, this is a word I wanted to introduce, entirely inefficient from our perspective today it looks inefficient. If we just had Twitter, or whatever, we would be able to do it much quicker. But what Zeynep argues and I think is a hundred percent right is that work of making the movement happen, what she calls the internalities of the movement, I think are just so important. And it’s the thing that I feel, it’s the one element when I look at say a Black Lives Matter or a Me Too. And again, this is from talking to activists and hearing their own frustrations that “We got so much visibility. I mean everybody was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about us for three weeks and then what happened?”

And I point to that problem as being one of the central issues today with making change and why things feel stuck so often.

Ethan Zuckerman:

One of my favorite details from the American Civil Rights Movement is that the organizers of the March on Washington ensured that the packed lunches were made with mustard, not with mayonnaise, because they were worried that the mayonnaise might spoil in the heat and lead to a wave of food poisoning.And when you look at social movements that are getting down to the level of the mustard rather than the mayonnaise, you’re dealing with a pretty astounding amount of behind-the-scenes organizing.

As you’re pointing out, it’s possible to channel popularity in ways that are very rapid right now, and not necessarily directly connected to power. But to me this gets to really why I wanted to bring you on the show, which is that this is a book about media theory and this sort of question of what particular media are capable of empowering people to do.

And you’re kind enough to reach out to some work that I’ve done with John [inaudible 00:28:45] around the notion of affordances of different media and what does media make it easier or harder to do. There’s a lot of points in this book where you sound a little bit like you’re in the McLuhan-Neil Postman camp of people essentially saying that there are behaviors that are possible or impossible within certain media tools.

How do you come up on that? You’re looking through a huge swath of history, a huge number of different technologies used to explore public spheres. What’s the relationship between the technology of a public sphere and what sort of conversation is possible within it?

Gal Beckerman:

I love that you asked this question. I am unapologetically in the McLuhan-Postman camp. In fact, I think we need to bring them back in more force. I think our conversations about media have so long been about power and about who is able to hold the mic and the notion of does it need to be more distributed or not. But I do think that we’ve lost something in ignoring the insight that McLuhan and then Postman building on him provided, which is that every form of communication is a kind of container that can hold certain things and cannot hold other things. And that changes the way we think while we’re using those forms of communication.

And I found this in my looking at movements because I think that it really shaped the sort of talk that they were able to have. Shaped how they connected to the change they were trying to bring about one another, to their sense of strategy, to their sense of the longevity of a movement, the risks they were able to take.

All of that became very wrapped up in the communication that they were using. And to give you a very contemporary example, one that I was excited to find when I found it was a Black Lives Matter group called the Dream Defenders that are based in Miami. And at the height of the first wave of Black Lives Matter in 2015, ’16 into ’17 a little bit, we’re talking the era of Ferguson. And when the phrase really began to pick up online and people were paying attention more to these incidents of police violence. This is a group that was a group of local activists that had come up in this early moment of Black Lives Matter.

But they found themselves at a sort of crossroads where they sensed that because of Twitter, because of their online activism, they were losing a complete sense of what was happening in the neighborhoods around them and what anybody who they said they were representing actually wanted out of this movement. And they felt their own impulses warped by this. They talked to me, they said, “This is a time where Time Magazine would name the most effective activists in the country. And it was Twitter followers that were being used as a measure of what it meant to be effective. And then those folks were being invited to the White House.”

But those were people that essentially just were really good at Twitter.

Ethan Zuckerman:

DeRay McKesson, yeah.

Gal Beckerman:

DeRay McKesson. Not that he’s not a committed activist-

Ethan Zuckerman:

No, an amazing activist, but you talk about how the movements are wrestling with, “Should DeRay be our voice because he’s so good at Twitter?” Or do we need to figure out how those movements connect back to the people that they’re representing?

Gal Beckerman:

Exactly. And so that group, Dream Defenders, did something, and this is why I said I was excited when I found them. They did something that in my imagining of how I could set up a story around this issue was sort of perfect, which is they went offline, they deleted their apps for three months. They did what they called a blackout, which is they said, “We can’t think straight about what are,” they called it their DNA, “what the DNA is of our movement as long as we’re just in this loop of trying to get attention and always looking over our shoulder at who’s getting more attention and what they’re saying to get more attention.” And once they did that, they’re thinking about what they were actually trying to do in Miami locally became much more sophisticated because for one thing, the notion of abolishing the police became a big thing online, because it did what social media, social media kind of moves things to the-

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s a three word phrase, and three word phrases are one of the things that social media does very well.

Gal Beckerman:

And it provokes us. It provokes you whether you agree with it or you don’t agree with it. You feel emotionally provoked by that notion. But they started talking to people, they started going door to door in their own African American communities and people were saying, “I don’t want to get rid of the police. I’m not happy with the job that they do, and maybe we need to find other ways of dealing with problems and with safety. But we don’t want to get rid of the police.” This is a consistent thing that they heard.

And so it made them question themselves, these activists, because they said, “Wow, that’s sort of our thing. If that’s our thing and these are the people that we represent, how do we reconcile that?” And so it just led to more conversation, led to a more sophisticated set of demands a more sophisticated set of practices as activists.

Then we’re trying to get the local city council changed in terms of who was elected to offices. They tried to get a new DA elected, they started to organize local community meetings to imagine together what safety could look like in their communities. Just a whole different range of, when you talk about this McLuhan idea of the communication shaping the thinking and the activities, I mean that was a sort of perfect example of when they were using a medium that was all about making the most bombastic attention grabbing statement that everyone is going to turn their attention in your direction and give you a like, it shaped how they thought about what they were supposed to be doing as activists. Virality was the important thing.

And when they got off of there and started interacting in real life or holding community, if we want to talk about different medium, let’s talk about the sort of community meeting, let’s say, where everyone has to find a way to listen to each other so that it doesn’t devolve into chaos. There has to be certain structures put in place, it sets your thinking in a different … And you want to reach consensus. It just sets your thinking differently.

So I see how people find the McLuhan and Postman idea a little bit reductionist. It’s sort of a theory of everything in some ways. But I think it has a lot of power and especially in a moment when, if you take it with a grain of salt, it has a lot of power in a moment when, look, we feel these impacts in my life. I have kids who are online all day long and I see the way it’s affecting their brains and the things they think about and talk about. And so it seems like how could it not be true?

Ethan Zuckerman:

Let’s take McLuhan and Postman very seriously for a moment and sort of note that you’ve written this brilliant, eloquent, highly readable book about largely progressive social movements, largely pro-democratic social movements. It feels like the social movement most associated with this communicative moment in time is the rise of populist authoritarianism. It’s the rise of Trump and Trumpism. It’s the rise of alternative facts and partisan echo chambers that make it possible for movements like Stop the Steal to emerge.

Within the hope of revolutionary movements emerging from these new technology in these new public spaces, is there a real danger that our current digital public sphere puts its thumb on the scale in a really dark and destructive way?

Gal Beckerman:

I mean, I think so. I think that so many of the impulses that are nurtured by the platforms, by the way that we communicate on there, sort of move us in directions that are the ones we all are familiar with and we’re seeing around us. I think if my book has a lesson or sort of a takeaway, because I really did just want to tell stories and get people to think, it’s this sense of self-awareness about the tools that we’re using.

And again, this comes back to the McLuhan idea maybe, but it’s a self-awareness about the tools we’re using and what they’re doing to us that is at the most basic level what I’m interested in. I think that I’m interested in the progressive forces in society sort of having that realization because I don’t think that just sort of yelling again and again about what they believe to be morally true and what they assume other right thinking people believe to be morally true is really the solution. Like yelling louder and louder that women, that their reproductive rights should be secured, or that we need to worry about the state of democracy, that yelling louder and louder about these things, which is what the platforms allow you to do, I don’t think is effective.

I think that what we need are these sorts of quiet spaces where real strategy can be worked out and a sense of insurgency, actually. Because what I find and the difference between the right and the left, and I do have the book is mostly about these sort of progressive, lefty ideas throughout history. But I do have at least two chapters in there that are about reactionary movements. And one of them was an attempt to learn something from the extreme right. I got access through this Unicorn Riot, which is a group of lefty hackers who you might know, who got all the chats from Discord, from the kind of a gaming platform that I wasn’t quite so familiar to me when I started looking into it. But that allows for these small, enclosed, private chat rooms where people can talk amongst themselves. And these were really critical for those white supremacist groups in the lead up to Charlottesville.

So I was able to spend a few kind of disgusting months reading through thousands and thousands of their messages and it was an incredibly productive, effective space for them. They happened to have to go there because they got pushed off of the larger platforms, but they also understood something that I wish the left would understand or progressive forces would understand, which is that they didn’t take for granted at all that society would agree with their vision of what reality should be. They understood themselves to be in a sort of vanguard.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And they exemplified this theory of organize in private spaces before you move into the public spaces to sell the message. Which was very different than say, Ghonim in Tahrir Square, or the example you’re giving with Black Lives Matter defund the police movement for black lives where there has been this tendency to try to do everything in public. And that moment of, as the book title says, the quiet before may be something that’s really missing at this particular moment in communications history,

Gal Beckerman:

I think so. That’s really the whole motive for writing the book was just the sense of that loss and that maybe there’s something to our sort of stuckness as a society because we’ve lost it. And it’s not just losing the quiet space or that quiet before. It’s assuming that the loud moments of visibility and virality and of seeming traction are all that’s needed. It’s the illusion that social media provides, that if the hashtag gets circulated enough that you’ve done the job. And you’ve not done nothing. I mean there is an important element there. There’s a narrative that’s getting out into the world. There are people who are, maybe conversations that are being triggered that wouldn’t exist before. It plays a big part.

But yeah, decoupled from that quiet before, I fear that it’s these sort of busts and booms.

Ethan Zuckerman:

He’s Gal Beckerman. The book is the Quiet Before, it’s pretty marvelous. I really enjoyed it. I will be coming back to it. Gal, it’s been such a pleasure to get to talk with you and honestly it was just such a pleasure to spend some time with this book. I really enjoyed it.

Gal Beckerman:

Thank you, Ethan. You are an intellectual hero of mine, as you know from the conversations we had when I was working on the book, so it means a lot to me that you found it valuable.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s really, it’s a tremendously, tremendously helpful book on thinking about how the public sphere changes and what’s possible with different public spheres. And I really appreciated having you here on Reimagining the Internet. Thanks so much for being with us.

Gal Beckerman:

Thank you.