Re-conceptualizing the Intellectual Landscape — Institutions and our Sense-Making Apparatus in 2021

Kevin Shau
Jan 31 · 9 min read
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An Enlightenment Salon — center of intellectual discourse outside the traditional institutions in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Like the Republic of Letters in the Age of Enlightenment, our own Digital Age had its own loose group of intellectuals associating with each other outside the dominant institutions — the Intellectual Dark Web. Though battered by numerous attacks in the media, this remains the most important intellectual development of recent decades. The term ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ was coined, semi-jokingly by mathematician Eric Weinstein a few years back for a group of thinkers increasingly associated with an alternative sense-making apparatus and critiques of dominant narratives. The Election of 2020 proved to be especially contentious for those associated with this network of loosely connected individuals. I have written an article on the specifics of this, and of Sam Harris’ criticism in the aftermath, in another article. This article will focus on an analysis of the intellectual landscape at the beginning of 2021, while taking into account what has transpired since that last article — from two months ago. The networks of individuals interested in honest and open discourse, irrespective of what dominant institutions may promote or try to suppress, are far more important than the specific name (or understanding of a particular portion of) such a network at any given time.

Having a sense-making alternative to dominant media outlets and political institutions means, necessarily, that the arguments and critiques will be of varying quality. This is a point I addressed in that article from November by contrasting the high-quality, nuanced critiques of Eric Weinstein and psychologist Jordan Peterson with the increasingly low-quality arguments of the compromised podcaster Dave Rubin. This is no different than, in 1770, seeing criticism of Old Regime France by Voltaire and Rousseau (on the high-quality end) and the Grub Street Hacks (like Jean-Paul Marat, on the ideological, low-quality end).

Whatever we call it, the phenomenon of free and open discourse outside the institutions will remain fundamental to the health of society. Whether that will continue to be associated with the term ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ (IDW) in the future remains to be seen. Has the IDW had its moment (2017/8–2020) already? Yes, but it will likely be more than a moment. A more important question will be to what extent the major thinkers associated with that network can steer the course between the dangers of the far-left and the far-right. A political balance, and down-to-earth perspectives, seemed more common in 2016 — for many political issues — than in 2020 and into 2021.

At the outset of 2021 — the last couple days of its first month — the intellectual landscape is fundamentally shaped by the global crisis that is COVID-19 as well as confirmation of Joe Biden’s decisive victory over his opponent in the presidential election as he officially took office on 20 January.

Conspiracy theories have taken hold on the both extremes of the political spectrum. For the far-right, there is Q-Anon, Pizzagate, and something about a space laser. The far-left, often more verbose, has article after article about the IDW being right wing and going after people for tweets from years ago. Conspiracy theorist Becca Lewis of Data and Society wrote a report called ‘Alternative Influence’ — essentially a conspiratorial attempt to slander people who she disagrees with. This ‘report’ contains no real methodology and is transparently ideological. The right wing populism of one extreme is countered by the institutional backing of the other extreme while many major institutions and media outlets embrace a lowest common denominator critique of those elements of either extreme which threaten their power. The diverse political makeup of the IDW put them directly in the firing line.

What is needed in the political realm is a clear and decisive repudiation of the various conspiracy theories which threaten the foundation of the representative democracy that is the United States. Unfounded allegations that the election between Biden and Trump was somehow rigged have been examined and rejected. All evidence points to the view that Joe Biden won the general election fairly against Trump. The failure of members of the Republican Party to validate the results of that election are nothing less than an affront to the democratic process. Moreover, statements from Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz directly influenced the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month to such an extent that these people are essentially traitors. The Republican Party leadership has a legal and moral responsibility to repudiate the far-right wing that has been allowed to fester. If there was one major failing of the IDW, it was in focusing too much of its time criticizing the left. The far-left is certainly deserving of criticism — AOC is a glorified actress, intersectionality is sociological nonsense, the Jacobin is a radical ideological magazine whose founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara tried to justify the killing of the Romanov children, and Sam Seder is a glorified troll in front of the camera. However, a greater emphasis on the blindingly obvious problems with the right is essential!

Casting out the dangerous extremists on both sides must be a priority. The Left has abandoned the working class for Hollywood and the Ivy League while the Right has embraced some of the most extreme and deplorable perspectives in the country. The two major political parties are on a race to the bottom. Right now, the right is the more immediate threat to the stability of the United States. Donald Trump is the Rodrigo Borgia of the United States and his status as godfather of the lickspittle Republican Party has de-ranged that party leadership to such an extent that it is no longer grounded in any reality beyond cult loyalty to demagogues.

This all leads to a dubious state of affairs for American politics and culture at the outset of 2021. Sam Harris has talked about ‘turning in his membership card to the imaginary organization’ (the IDW) in response to some of the more extreme statements made my those associated with the ‘group,’ if one can really call it that. A reaction to the aftermath of the November elections or something deeper? There are inevitably rifts but the ideals behind the conversations which have fueled the IDW from before the name was even formally conceived must be protected and the conversations themselves be allowed to continue. I should say that my mentioning of the IDW, while largely serious, is at least a bit in jest — because the name was proposed partially ‘tongue-in-cheek.’ The argument really isn’t about the specifics, despite the seemingly infinite number of mentions that a look in Google search’s news feed will bring up for ‘Intellectual Dark Web.’

I find myself returning to the Intellectual Dark Web every now and then in writing articles about contemporary politics as well as the current intellectual landscape because this network constitutes a sense-making apparatus with greater antifragility than the legacy media, political parties, political pundits, or major institutions. Despite the imperfections found in individual people in the network, the network itself — decentralized and open to new and controversial ideas — is that which has the power to protect and maintain the values of a free society. It is my contention that decentralized networks and wiki-style editing will take the place of top-down institutions, legacy media, and giant multi-national entities. The Intellectual Dark Web is the harbinger of things to come in the decades ahead.

The historian Niall Ferguson has compared the political polarization of today to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and I think that analysis is spot on because of the religious/ideological attachment to groupthink associated with political power struggles, issues of iconoclasm, and how they relate to two of the most revolutionary technological changes in human history : the printing press and the internet. The association with politics to such an extent is the modern equivalent of the religious struggles of the sixteenth century, though the particulars really owe more to the radical elements of the French Revolution. In any event, the fractious nature of the Protestant Reformation had, as one of the defining issues, a kind of localism vs. internationalism in the struggle between local kings (who often favored Protestantism for pure self-interest, like King Henry VIII) and the papacy (who favored maintaining its international standing, also for reasons of self-interest). In the case of Ferguson’s analysis, the closest thing to the IDW which existed at the time would have been the Renaissance humanists. Desiderius Erasmus really was the Jordan Peterson of the sixteenth century! Tragically, however, the Renaissance humanists came under attack from both Protestant zealots and Catholic dogmatists. Humanism was only able to flourish for a short time due to the precarious nature of Italian politics in the 1400s and early-1500s. Why bring this up? Because an antifragile intellectual culture can only exist and flourish in a realm in which there are many centers of power and, usually, a precarious balancing act when it comes to power. Sailing the ship of moderation between the Scylla of one extreme and the Charybdis of the other requires great collective skill and maneuvering — one which often ends in failure.

Just as the collectivism of Protestant sects and Catholic orthodoxy threatened the creative individuality associated with the Renaissance humanists, and the individual expression of the Enlightenment philosophers was perceived of as a dangerous threat to the kings and nobles of the Old Regime, so too the network of individuals in this Digital Age of ours who challenge kleptocrats, legacy media talking heads, and tech oligarchs threaten the decrepit status quo — hence Eric Weinstein’s delineation of the Gated Institutional Narrative (GIN) and the Distributed Idea Suppression Complex(DISC).

For the part of the viewer, it is all to common and tempting for many to adopt one pole or another, to embrace a kind of groupthink in order to better navigate the treacherous waters of political discourse in order to avoid being thrown against the rocky shoals. What the voices of the Intellectual Dark Web should remind us of, however, is the importance of cultivating one’s own unique perspective through engaging in conversation with those who hold differing political opinions (so long as they are willing to engage in open and honest discourse about ideas and not merely trolling). Now is not the time to outsource one’s thinking to some group — particularly an ideological one!

The mistakes and inadequacies of legacy media are becoming as apparent as the inadequacies of monk-written manuscripts after the invention of the moveable-type printing press. The lowering of access costs to breaking news means that one is likely to encounter the stories on their friend’s, or a public figure’s, Twitter feed before a news reporter can type up or broadcast a report. Real political discourse takes place outside actual political centers — the debates in legislatures across the country, and in town halls — are more akin to Gilbert and Sullivan pantomimes, as the politicians have made up their mind, rarely change it, and are just going through the motions.

One can only conclude that our collective sense-making apparatus, if one looks only at legacy media and traditional institutions, is terminally ill and that these outlets are headed for a big fall. Something as big and powerful as a centuries’ old legislature is no match for the antifragile individual. Even something as set in stone as the names of the kings of England is puerile before the power of decentralized networks of individuals. Modernity was forged in struggles against stultifying institutions — where the dead hand of the past tried to maintain a stranglehold on the present — and where crowns were toppled and religious orthodoxies dethroned. What is the intellectual landscape of early 2021? One of enormous opportunity and boundless struggles as the forces that be realign on the chess board. What will the situation be like in 20 years? One in which legacy media and stultifying institutions of our own time are forced to adapt or go the way of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

One can only hope that the decade of the 2020s will see the emergence of an expanded IDW — new IDWs, of sorts popping up to challenge narrative-driven journalism, political orthodoxies, and the narrowness of the contemporary political spectrum, which has yielded nothing but violent tribalism. The kleptocracy in Washington D.C. is dominated by people born in the 1940s — many of whom will likely no longer be around fifteen years from now. Opportunities abound but foresight is necessary — you cannot challenge the forces that be by living moment to moment! It is essential that the foundations of a contemporary intellectual movement, of sorts, laid by the people associated with the Intellectual Dark Web is strengthened as much as possible to become a bulwark against tribalism, authoritarianism, stultifying institutions, establishment politicians, and narrative-driven journalism. In 1784, the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote “dare to know — that is the motto of Enlightenment.” In 2021, one can say “dare to be antifragile — that is the motto of modernity!”

Digital Republic of Letters

Free and Open Dialogue as the Ultimate form of Creative Exploration

Kevin Shau

Written by

Artist | Content Creator | Pantheist | Bohemian | Philosopher | Anti-Authoritarian, Pro-Decentralization/Localism| http://www.instagram.com/kevinshau/

Digital Republic of Letters

This publication is for intellectuals interested in becoming part of a network building on the work of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters and Intellectual Dark Web

Kevin Shau

Written by

Artist | Content Creator | Pantheist | Bohemian | Philosopher | Anti-Authoritarian, Pro-Decentralization/Localism| http://www.instagram.com/kevinshau/

Digital Republic of Letters

This publication is for intellectuals interested in becoming part of a network building on the work of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters and Intellectual Dark Web

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