Beyond Labels

A 360° Discussion of Foreign, National and Local Policy Issues

Topic 8/20: the Intellectual Dark Web–fad or phenomenon

I propose two questions:

  1. Is there a rising trend toward long-form conversations and open public discussion of serious questions? Or is it a fad? I think it’s a valuable and growing phenomenon. The so-called Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) is one aspect.
  2. Are these conversations producing something beneficial? I think yes. Internet technology has produced the toxic online environment that includes tweets and counter-tweets, and that has driven old-style media to chase on-line clicks by spinning and slanting and inducing fear and anger rather than thought and understanding. This phenomenon is an alternative and might be curative.

By long-form conversations, I mean just that. Long. Like hours long. And conversations. Not a lecture. Not a performance. Just a couple of people sitting down and discussing issues.

By “producing something beneficial” I mean—producing new knowledge. Not existing knowledge from mind to mind, but new knowledge.

Here’s an example of a long form conversation: this one between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Among the folks who follow the people having these conversations, they are referred to as JBP and Sam. JBP summarizes his conversation with Sam here (emphasis mine.)

“Sam Harris and I met in Vancouver on June 24 and 25 for what amounted to five hours of intense discussion about the possibility of a universal morality with a solid foundation. We are continuing our discussion (adding Douglas Murray) into the mix) in Dublin on July 14 (tickets available here) and in London on July 16 (tickets available here).

OK, five hours of intensive discussion. And more multi-hour conversations to come. As for the value of the conversations, JBP, who is a scholar of dizzying range, talks elsewhere about insights he—a person who has studied and thought about some of these problems for decades—has had recently as a result of these conversations. So, the answer to (2) has to be yes.

At the end of this post, I’ve quoted some bits from a transcript I did of a Bret Weinstein YouTube video that I thought worthwhile enough to transcribe in its entirety. If you think the excerpts are interesting, then you can listen to the video or read the whole transcript. Or both. I think you’ll find some new ideas. And from there, you might follow the same kind of winding path that I’ve been following.

I think it’s a growing movement. Two years ago I knew the existence of several of them, but the only one who I’d much listened to was Sam because of his book “Waking Up” which led me to his podcast. From Sams Podcast, I was introduced to several others in the core community. And then friends who I introduced to Sam pointed me to still others. Recently I’m hooked on both absorbing the ideas and taking advantage of the media that these guys are using. Whenever I’m driving somewhere I’m also streaming content from someone. When I can’t sleep, I listen. Or read.

The term that’s used most often to describe this group is “Intellectual Dark Web” or IDW. The idea of the IDW hit the main stream after this NYT article was published.

Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.

The core members have little in common politically. Bret and Eric Weinstein and Ms. Heying were Bernie Sanders supporters. Mr. Harris was an outspoken Hillary voter. Ben Shapiro is an anti-Trump conservative.

“People are starved for controversial opinions,” said Joe Rogan, an MMA color commentator and comedian who hosts one of the most popular podcasts in the country. “And they are starved for an actual conversation.”

These and conversations like them sell out 2,500 seat auditoriums (and some larger ones) People pay $200 each to watch people talk. And pay two or three times that for conferences where they can watch more people talk and hang around with other people who like listening to other people talk.

And then there are PodCasts, live streams, and YouTube video lectures, some of which have millions of views and run for as long as three hours.

I was aware of many of these people, but here’s a link to a live stream that significantly increased my interest (and the time I spend watching and listening). The live stream phenomenon is interesting. A friend was watching, was about a half hour into it, and told me he thought I’d like it. So I joined it and watched it with him, with us commenting back and forth in a chat channel and then talking (and chatting) more later. Later I watched the parts that I’d missed. Typically I watch these things at 1.5x speed. Only an hour long and only about 1M views.

Here’s Joe Rogan talking to Eric Weinstein for 2 hours and 40 minutes. 1.15M views.

Here’s Dave Rubin who hosted that first live stream, talking for 2:40 with Bret and Eric Weinstein. Only about 500,000 views.

But these numbers, large as they are, are misleadingly small. Rubin’s show on YouTube is just a camera watching people talk into Microphones. The audio gets distributed as a PodCast and PodCasts can be accessed through any number of channels. Then bits of the video and the audio version are excerpted and published. People make transcripts of content that they think is particularly valuable.

I thought that this video on government by Bret Weinstein was so good that I transcribed it here.

Here are a couple of highlight paragraphs.

The most powerful idea to me is that if you push any value to an extreme it creates a dystopian nightmare. If you love freedom and you say: “Well I want everybody to be free at all times to do
anything they want,” you create a total catastrophe for justice.

We can actually engineer a system it’s totally non-utopian but it’s very successful at delivering outcomes that are desirable without being the nanny state, without being onerous and meddlesome and dictatorial.

I don’t think a hundred years ago that was foreseeable. I think we were stuck with partial solutions and people became entrenched in the idea that they were correct and so they lost sight of what was incomplete about them.

So, you know, it’s very tempting for you to imagine that corporations are like creatures. They’re not. That’s not the right mapping. And so if you try to map the creature rules onto corporations it won’t work for various reasons—including the fact that corporations don’t die. Right? And so their uncreaturelike in this way. But there is a proper mapping and if you can find it, the rules are quite intuitive, in fact

Utopians tend to focus on a single value that they wish to see maximized. Right? And whether that value is freedom, or justice, or..

…whatever it is. Anything that maximizes one value is a catastrophe, because of its massive cost in every other value. And so the other thing that utopians do is they tend to imagine that they know what the system needs to be structured like in order to reach their one value. Right? And so they ignore the collateral damage of the other values. They assume that those will be prettied up later or something. It’s impossible, actually. And they assume that they know what structure creates the elevation in this value. And they are always under-imaginative in the unintended consequences.

So what I would say is: effectively, utopians are searching for perpetual motion machines.


  • The August 18 topic doesn’t strike me as a compelling topic to discuss at all when there are so many other issues to discuss. People can talk as they see fit. How about a discussion about enhancing public space in the Blue Hill peninsula – or just in Blue Hill?

    • The group often strays from a proposed topic, and that’s fine with me.

      If you have some content you’d like posted, put it in a comment here and if you want me to make it into its own top-level topic, I’ll do that.

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