Recently a new meme started doing the rounds on the Internet — the “Intellectual Dark Web”. The phrase was coined by the mathematician Eric Weinstein. It seems to have caught on — showing that whatever it is, quite a few people are recognising it — even though there’s a lot of discussion about what exactly it means.
My theory in this post is that the phenomenon that’s being loosely described as the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ is an early, but significant evolutionary leap in public thought and discussion, that has been facilitated by the medium of the internet — and that the spread of the name is the coming to public consciousness (and self-consciousness) of a conversation that is existentially important.
Why existentially? Because one of the things that unifies many of the thinkers in the IDW is a belief that the evolutionary strategies that got us to where we are now are unlikely to get us any further — particularly our hard-wired tribalism. That the tools at our disposal are so powerful that the odds of our survival are not high unless we can find a way to move beyond our current level of thinking. As Eric’s brother and evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein says: “Evolution gets you here and it almost certainly will end in a self extinguishing event if you keep playing the evolutionary game. You can’t continue to dance with the one that brought you.”
Just look at the topics covered in just these two conversations, the Rubin Report shows with Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro and Eric and Bret Weinstein. The first starts with the deepest questions of the relationship between religion and society, and in the first ten minutes seems to integrates two very different religious perspectives. Peterson integrates Shapiro’s perspective that there is a divine principle ‘from above’ so to speak — with his argument that there is also an emergent morality that comes from evolution ‘from below’ — and that they in some sense come together.
The Weinstein discussion ranges from the likelihood of annihilation via technology, through an analysis of the corruption of news by the profit motive all the way to a description of the “political PTSD” many of the left are now feeling as they are pushed out of their tribe by identity politics.
In both you have a sense of a freewheeling exploratory conversation where the participants are genuinely discovering new territory as they travel.
My sense is that the evolving conversation that has been tagged as the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ is the conversation that needs to be had to allow us to move forward. And it’s a conversation that is now becoming self-aware — as you see in the ‘meta-conversation’ (as in, the conversation ABOUT the fact the conversation itself is taking place) that you hear when a number of these thinkers get together.
It was while watching these two interviews in quick succession — Dave Rubin’s talk with Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson, and his discussion with Eric and Bret Weinstein, that I came to my conclusion of what the conversation actually represented.
It mapped clearly onto a model I was familiar with — the philosopher Ken Wilber’s idea of ‘Integral’ consciousness as an essential evolutionary leap. I’m shortly going to argue that the conversation is an early but spontaneous manifestation of a more advanced way of thinking that Wilber called ‘Integral’. I’ll try to keep it simple — but if you genuinely want to join the Intellectual Dark Web, you should be able to keep up. ;)
For a broad definition of what the Intellectual Dark Web actually is — and who is part of it — I’m indebted to @edustentialist — who put together the intellectualdark.website where he lists the potential members and the broad principles that unite this very disparate group of thinkers, that includes people from across the political spectrum from Ben Shapiro to Sam Harris, via Claire Lehmann’s new magazine Quillette, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jordan Peterson. The core principles he lists are:
- A willingness to engage in conversations with people who have different beliefs and political viewpoints
- Rejection of identity politics (and a recognition that it has become the dominant ideology in mainstream media discourse)
- Ideas worth listening to
- Honoring of freedom of speech
- People who don’t want them to speak their truth and try to silence them
Very usefully, he has also put together a set of links to all the appearances when two or more of the IDW thinkers get together — with a cryptic Bible quote: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
The early utopian dream that the internet would unite the world degenerated some time ago into social media bubbles united only by their mutual loathing. But the ideas revolution symbolised by the Intellectual Dark Web may be a sign that hopes for the web as an evolutionary step forward are not completely dead.
The IDW phenomenon is entirely a creation of the internet, as Dave Rubin says: “This was all meant to be, right? I mean without going all religious or metaphysical. The Internet has sort of forced us together. This growing group — it’s not because we’re all looking for it it’s because we’re being forced together.”
It needed the internet to allow these ideas to develop and evolve, and particularly the lack of time constraint on a Youtube show that can unpack ideas over three hours rather than the five minute broadcast media interview — which encourages polarisation and ideological simplicity rather than nuance.
I first became aware of it as I was putting together my recent documentary, “A Glitch in the Matrix, Jordan Peterson, the Intellectual Dark Web and the Mainstream Media”. It started as an investigation into the Jordan Peterson interview on Channel 4 News as a cultural moment — and expanded quickly into the wider Intellectual Dark Web.
The conversation has evolved through various shows, from Joe Rogan to Sam Harris — but it’s on Dave Rubin’s show, the Rubin Report, that this conversation has seemingly become aware of itself — and also reached out to embrace the audience as a full part of the IDW phenomenon as much as the thinkers themselves.
“We are in the middle of an ideas revolution . As we watch our old institutions of politics and media crumble. I now realize that the answer I was looking for wasn’t purely political but really cultural as well.
There’s something else happening here that we all kind of know but we haven’t been able to totally define. It’s why you watching this right now are actually part of this intellectual dark web. If you engage with these ideas and you’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on, you are as much part of this thing as I am.
As I said at the beginning of the year I believe 2018 will be the year of unusual alliances and this new intellectual dark web will be at the forefront of that movement.” — Dave Rubin
The key point of the IDW conversation is that it takes place beyond ideology. The thinkers within it come from radically different starting points — from the conservative Jewish pundit Ben Shapiro on the right, over to the Weinstein brothers on the left, via hard-to-characterise intellectuals such as Jordan Peterson.
It requires complexity, to hold a perspective beyond a simple yes/no binary of being pro or anti. You can see this for example in the left-leaning Weinstein brothers’ ambivalence towards Trump’s election. They oppose most of what he stands for, but also recognise that his election was somehow necessary and inevitable given the forces playing themselves out in society.
Meghan Daum gives a good summary in the LA Times:
“Some in this movement are liberal, and some are conservative. They come from a range of backgrounds, professions, generations and identity groups. They differ on details, but they are united by a common set of frustrations and corresponding goals. To put it simply, they wish to foster a new discourse that can allow innovative thinkers to wrestle with the world’s problems without having to tiptoe around subjects or questions deemed culturally or politically off-limits. (Quick example: Intellectual dark webbers would love to see the gender wage gap closed. But they know it can happen only if we talk about the career effects of biological sex differences as well as paternalistic conditioning and systemic discrimination. And that would be blasphemy in a lot of academic quarters.)”
Why is this “ideas revolution” happening now?
Especially in America it seems that the election of Trump has shattered the illusion that the adults are in charge in any meaningful way, and showed the fragility of the institutions of society.
Many of the key thinkers of the IDW have concluded the political crisis is only a reflection of a deeper dysfunction that is reflected in many different institutions.
“What’s going on is actually one or a couple of things are way off and they are causing symptoms to emerge across the body politic and across civilization.” Bret Weinstein.
And that because of this it is time for discussion of first principles: “Part of the problem that we have right now in our culture is trying to diagnose the level at which the discussion should be taking place. And I think the reason that this is a tumultuous time is because it actually is a time for discussion of first principles, because first principles are virtually at the level of theology —the things that you assume and then move forward.” Jordan Peterson.
I’m going to apply the frame I mentioned earlier — Ken Wilber’s Integral theory, to the IDW conversation. As with other developmental theorists, like Jordan Peterson’s favourite Jean Piaget, he sees society and culture as being similar to the developmental stages that individuals go through as they mature.
He uses a model called Spiral Dynamics, which uses colours to represent different levels of development — from Red = Tribalism, through Blue = Power, to Orange = Modernism, to Green = Postmodernism/Equality.
In this model, each stage of development is integrated and moved beyond as you mature into the next stage — a useful image is one of Russian Matryoshka dolls, each smaller, less complex doll sitting within a larger one, together forming the mass of the whole. In fact, the levels are referred to as ‘nested holons’ because each subsequent level has fully integrated and now contains the level beneath it — as long as it’s healthy.
Spiral Dynamics overlaps heavily with the developmental theorist Dr. Robert Kegan’s theories, most importantly with his Subject/Object theory — the idea that “the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next stage.” This simply means that it is very difficult to see these levels of development until you have gone beyond them.
It’s a simple idea with profound implications. As you develop psychologically, you are able to view your previous developmental stage objectively — it is no longer so ingrained with your identity and assumptions that you can’t see the wood for the trees. Likewise, from a previous stage, you cannot fully comprehend the more complex, empathetic viewpoint of the stage you will grow into.
This is a simplified explanation — in practice people are complex and the movement through stages is individual and more chaotic, but the model is remarkably useful in looking at individual and cultural dynamics. For the purposes of the cultural chaos we’re seeing play out now, the relevant stages is the most recent Green-Equality/Postmodernism.
Wilber describes how the Green wave started to come through strongly in the 1960s with the movements for equality, and the widespread questioning of the dominant values of society. But as it continued it became dysfunctional and self-contradictory.
“As the decades unfolded, green increasingly began veering into extreme, dysfunctional, even clearly unhealthy, forms. Its broad-minded pluralism slipped into a rampant and runaway relativism (collapsing into nihilism), and the notion that all truth is contextualized (or gains meaning from its cultural context) slid into the notion that there is no real universal truth at all, there are only shifting cultural interpretations (which eventually slid into a widespread narcissism).”
He argues convincingly in his recent eBook, “Trump and a Post-Truth World”, that what we are seeing, through the election of Trump, is the collapse of ‘Green’ as a leading edge into nihilism and relativism and the reboot to an earlier operating system of tribalism. Wilber draws on systems theory to posit that this is a natural and expected occurrence in many natural and artificial systems — when the system ceases to function and evolve, it reverts to the last point that worked.
The dominant worldview of many of today’s institutions is basically Green — radical equality and relativism. The paradox of Green is that it takes itself to be open minded but is actually stuck in an ideology, as Deep Code’s Jordan Greenhall described in an interview for my recent documentary, “Glitch in the Matrix” — that the left had got stuck in an ideology of openness rather than openness itself.
‘Green’ thinking embraces ‘tolerance’ as one of its key values — but then rejects all those who don’t share those values — all those that still hold to Red/Tribal or Orange/Modern — for example.
This is the ‘liberal groupthink’ — based largely in the assumptions of identity politics — that the IDW is rejecting.
Wilber describes a mode of thinking beyond Green — called ‘Integral’ or ‘Second Tier Thinking’ which is a kind of evolutionary step in consciousness which is more flexible, and able to appreciate that each of the other levels
As the originators of the model, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, describe: “As Integral grows stronger, scales drop from our eyes enabling us to see, for the first time, the legitimacy of all of the human systems awakened to date. They are forms of human existence that have a right to be. The systems are seen as dynamic forces that, when healthy contribute to the overall viability of the Spiral and, as a result, to the continuation of life itself.
The Integral meme thinks and acts from an inner-directed core. The individual gyroscopes that enable the person to keep balance in a paradoxical world spin within the principled, knowledgable self. Such people have strong ethical anchors of their own reasoned choosing, derived from many sources. but are not entrapped by rigid rules based on external dogma or mandates of authority.”
By this reading, the IDW conversation is the point of evolution where the previous stage can be clearly seen as an ‘object’. Through the IDW lens we can start to see the ‘Green’ (postmodern/relativistic) frame clearly. Before we were IN it. Trying to describe the nature of ‘Green’ to someone still at that stage of development would be like trying to describe a third dimension to someone living in a 2D flatworld.
While the culture operated under the assumptions of postmodernism (no universal truth and the attendant nihilism) — these were unconscious assumptions as ‘just the way things are’.
Jordan Peterson even put his finger on this during the chat with Dave Rubin when he was asked why this was such an intellectually interesting time: “I’m hoping that what we’re at the end of is postmodern despair.”
So the IDW is by definition counter-cultural while the majority of the culture is still operating under Green assumptions.
This is what makes the phenomenon so fascinating — is that it is a genuine evolutionary step made possible through the speeded-up evolutionary process of the internet ecosystem.
It’s a new, yet early, integral counterculture, and the man who coined the phrase IDW, Eric Weinstein, is very pessimistic about the prospects for these thinkers. He is convinced that the media is so ideologically fixated around identity politics that many of the thinkers in the IDW will be attacked and ‘taken down’.
This isn’t to say that the thinkers involved are all ‘fully integral’ — we could argue for a while about, for example, whether Jordan Peterson’s antipathy towards postmodernism means that he hasn’t ‘transcended and included’ the ‘Green wave. But my argument is that the conversation itself is an emergent integral one, more than the sum of its parts.
The enemy — for the IDW — is the mainstream consensus of the media, as influenced by identity politics. Stephen Pinker has described identity politics as an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values: “If it is taken too far it undermines one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment: that people are equipped with a capacity for sympathetic imagination, which allows them to appreciate the suffering of sentient beings unlike them.”
Eric Weinstein, who like his brother Bret describes himself as being fundamentally on the left of the political spectrum, says: “The main branch of progressivism is the most dangerous branch of thinking currently found in the political spectrum. It’s one that begins from a substrate of thinking about oppression which is not a fundamental language. You cannot make a cosmology or an epistemology out of oppression and resistance. It leads to madness.”
These are people with very well-thought through opinions on the world, but listening to them you get the sense that they are actually dealing with the world as it is, rather than through ideological filters and willing to update their models if they are challenged.
And this ideology of openness has certain dogmatic beliefs. Another feature of the IDW is that their breakthrough moments, individually, have come when they have confronted this ideology in the media.
For Sam Harris it was when he was accused of racism by Ben Affleck for criticising Islam on the Bill Maher show. For Jordan Peterson when he said he would refuse to follow compelled speech rules over transgender pronouns in a new law. For Bret Weinstein it was when he refused to follow the demand that as a white person, he should be compelled not to attend his university (Evergreen College) on a particular day and called it out as reverse racism.
But for each of them it turns out that the depth of their thought turns out to be more compelling than the flashpoint that thrust them to public attention.
Eric Weinstein’s theory is that their determination to swim against the current acted as a sign that they were free thinkers, and that moral courage permeates their thinking, which has then kept people interested. As Jordan Peterson says: “They came for the scandal and stayed for the content”.
The creator of the intellectualdark.website, @edustentialist, has chosen to remain anonymous. I mailed him and asked him why.
“It seems like everybody who is involved with the intellectual dark web that comes to any sort of prominence is targeted. This week, it was Andy Ngo being totally misrepresented by the Guardian.
I’ve been inspired by these people to take responsibility and learn what’s really going on in my own field of education. But I’m not fight-ready for what could come my way and I don’t feel like I have enough to offer just yet.
In education, social justice principles like equity and inclusivity are sacred ideals. Regular teachers don’t have Das Capital on their bedstand but postmodernist and critical education research are behind a lot of education curriculum and policies. The only people I see talking about it are very well-read and have an iron will. I know one teacher and researcher who wrote an anonymous blog and was doxxed by another blogger who is now a school principal. It can get pretty messy.
I think the core group that we are calling the intellectual dark web are having discussions that don’t necessarily conform to the current orthodoxies of mainstream media.
Many of the individuals have been ejected from their organisations in what looks like autoimmune responses reacting to their ideas. The shock of finding themselves at odds with a mob from their own group has drawn each of them out to the only place where long form, open discussions are happening — the internet. This new media has created spaces for them to discuss, debate and diagnose what’s happening to our societies and, in some instances, look for solutions.
Until recently, the mainstream media and the orthodoxies of government and academic institutions have had a near total blind spot to this phenomenon. And although the likes of Jordan Peterson have come to real prominence, it seems to me that their ideological programs and assumptions have caused a cataract where they can see a phenomenon but they can’t properly identify it. That’s partly why we get progressives, classical liberals, libertarians and traditional conservatives being labelled as alt-right fascists.”
I titled this piece — “How to join the intellectual dark web”. If I’ve sketched out accurately what’s really going on — then anyone can join. All it takes is to ditch all your previous ideological frames and evolve to a new level of consciousness. ;)
Seriously though — the IDW conversation has arisen at this time because of the growing complexity of the modern world and the necessity for working out new ways of operating in it. And these techniques are open to all — in fact it’s essential that we develop them.
The best advice for how to operate in the complexity I’ve yet found comes from Jordan Greenhall, not yet officially part of the IDW, but a friend of Bret Weinstein and a thinker in much the same space who also deserves to be much better known.
His first point is to recognise that many of the beliefs you have came from an outdated ideology — what he calls the ‘Blue Church’ of the mainstream consensus.
“Be aware of the fact that the habits of the blue church don’t work anymore. Recognise that your way of making sense in the world that used to work doesn’t work and you need to set yourself free to begin learning anew.
This by nature must in fact be exploratory - so learn to swim. Do not make sense prematurely, in spite of the fact the world feels dangerous - in spite of the fact you may want to protect yourself. Doing so too quickly will not allow your natural exploratory approach to do what it needs to do.
“Get yourself into places where your consensus reality and your habits are wilfully destroyed and get as far away from ideology as you can. Your job is not to know what the fuck is going on. Your job is to be absolutely certain that you have no idea what the fuck is going on and learn how to feel from raw chaos, from raw uncertainty. Then and only then are you finally able to begin the journey of beginning to form a collective intelligence in this new environment.”
‘A Glitch in the Matrix — Deep Code Analysis’.
If you enjoyed this and would like to help Rebel Wisdom make more content like this — please do consider supporting us on Patreon.
Rebel Wisdom website — with several documentaries and writings
Rubin Report: JB Peterson/Ben Shapiro, Frontline of Free Speech.
Rubin Report: Eric and Bret Weinstein.
The Rubin Report (clip): What is The Intellectual Dark Web?
Meghan Daum — “A new movement to speak truth to identity politics is our best hope against regressive thinking” (LA Times)
Rebel Wisdom: “The Deep Code Assessment”