Radicals Used to Make Change. Then Social Media Happened.

Bathos or tragedy often extinguished the bright hopes of brother- and sisterhood. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, urging Italians to rouse themselves from pasta-induced torpor (his Futurist Cookbook is magnificently preposterous — raw salami bathed in coffee and eau de cologne, anyone?) and commit themselves to the virile rush of war, morphs unsurprisingly into his Fascist Manifesto of 1919. Gorbanevskaya’s stirringly brave and creatively elusive defiance of state censorship ended up with her locked away in a monstrous psychiatric hospital. In the 1930s, when he edited The African Morning Post, Nnamdi Azikiwe sketched out a Pan-African solidarity meant to transcend tribal divisions that he believed were cynically perpetuated by British colonialism. But the Nigeria to which he returned, as president, would collapse into atrocious civil war when his own people, the Igbo, seceded to form the Republic of Biafra.

None of this is surprising, since almost all of the networkers have been trapped in a contradiction integral to their modus operandi. In their formative years they needed a degree of invisibility. They needed, at least, to be inaudible to the listening posts of the establishment. On the other hand, what was the entire point of the exercise if they were to stay that way? Their mission, ultimately, was to bring about an irreversible alteration; to turn a half-hidden counterculture into the accepted norm. Inevitably, then, there came a moment when the networkers held their breath, crossed their fingers, bugle-called the troops and stepped into the glare of the public arena. Which was also the moment when authority pounced or exploited divisions between militant activists and pragmatic strategists, managing to peel away some of the following.

There have been happy exceptions. The scientific revolution, grounded in empirical observation liberated from dogma or any authority derived from purported revelation, would eventually prevail, although a daily dose of Fox News and the social media ravings of conspiracy theorists might give one pause to wonder how secure that victory has been. Reasonably, Beckerman (an editor at The New York Times Book Review until earlier this year) rejects the notion that his subjects should be judged by any immediate and permanent change in state and society; instead he characterizes them as relay runners, handing on the baton to the next cohort. And in any case, his book (white supremacists aside) is full of genuinely moving scenes of prelapsarian innocence, catching the networkers in the bright dawn of their community-making. Of course it’s easy to raise a knowing eyebrow at the faith that John Coate, the hippie hired in 1986 to manage the chat exchange called WELL, had that “communication itself could be redemptive … the key to self-government,” as Beckerman puts it, and marvel at the optimism with which the site moderated its conversations through a “host.” But cynicism can be misplaced. Hyperventilated shrieking and venomous trolling get noticed as their mad projectors fully intend. But out of deafened earshot, there is indeed, as Beckerman’s title implies, a realm of relative quiet, where millions of connections are daily wired together, and which offer to conversationalists thoughtful rather than thoughtless provocations, solid sources of knowledge rather than fathomless wells of ignorance, and even, every so often, shots of pleasurable illumination.