It is vital we create cultural conditions in which it is possible to conduct real conversations in the unprecedented context of massive online viewerships.
The breakdown of democratic values is, today, lamented most vocally amongst those who trade in moralism and fight devoutly from the trenches of the culture wars. Yet, willingness to do the dirty work of dialogue – that most needed today – is found few and far between. What health can a civic culture maintain when conversation over fundamental disagreements becomes an impossibility? This is the question which confronts our anxious society, articulated amongst a few who dare to ask it.
Triumphant atop the end of history, we are increasingly aware that we inhabit a culture severed from the value systems on which it was was built. Our inherited civic institutions are breaking down under the weight of change, morphed by a digital reality for which they were not adapted. Meanwhile, the thinking classes – the journalists, intellectuals and policymakers we hoped would guide us through such uncharted territory – are themselves subject to the forceful psychological distortions of platforms like Twitter. Entertaining the ego affirmation of their peers, respectable figures in our public discourse engage in petty feuds with foes online and have become, many of them, trivialised as thinkers. With such thinkers and statesmen alike distracted by a drip feed of controversy, expansive awareness of the severity of our present condition has become rare and creative vision for the future rarer still. On both left and right there is a grasping for the ideologies and rehabilitated moral frameworks of yesteryear whilst old liberals look on in despair and inadequacy lamenting ‘the centre cannot hold’.
The question of good faith dialogue is not peripheral, it is the essential one from which all others must follow. If we are to envision a future for Western civilisation, we must strive to diagnose the present, a task to which the ‘progressive’ herd that dominate our media institutions and academy has proven itself unfit. Electing to double down on moral outrage and self righteousness in the face of its polar opposite in Trumpism, the underlying illiberalism of progressive discourse has become plain to see. The possibility that hope for the future might come not from them but a ragtag group of transgressive thinkers has proven a blasphemous one indeed. Yet there are many indications that this is exactly what ‘The Rise of The Intellectual Dark Web’ (IDW) represents, with many of its most vocal themselves excommunicated from the church of liberal orthodoxy.
[T]he thinking classes – the journalists, intellectuals and policymakers we hoped would guide us through such uncharted territory – are themselves subject to the forceful psychological distortions of platforms like Twitter.
Surviving the ever-looming threat of cultural assassination from the left, these transgressives – not unscathed – are striving to develop a new form of dialogue which increasingly challenges the hegemony of the existing media sense-making structures. Quietly emerging as a distinct entity amidst the upheavals of 2016, the IDW has already begun a shift in the cultural centre of gravity demonstrated in the dual appearances of Silicon Valley kingmakers Elon Musk and Peter Thiel on Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin. Since Jordan Peterson’s shot across the bow in the famed Cathy Newman interview, the dissonance between the IDW’s heterodox thinking and the prevailing orthodoxy has become further evident.
What the IDW project offers in approaching challenges in the public forum, more significant than addressing them individually, is to seek an understanding of the process by which we can meet them – at the individual and collective level. Beyond commitment to good faith dialogue, it calls for a deeper recognition of the impacts that the structural quality of our social media and information architecture have.
In the course of digital communication’s rapid development it is becoming clear that we have reached a societal inflection point in which we must now demand and envision much more of our digital platforms. Piecemeal offerings of reform like Twitter’s proposal to remove the favourite button to better incentivise ‘healthy debate’ are demonstrative of an institutional lack in both creativity and ambition. The IDW today, with its diverse digital constituency offers the best vehicle, outside of the tech titans, to build momentum for a significant shift in incentives and structures. Its unique financial independence and potential access to investment pools make it a viable support base for the launch of alternative platforms.
The recent high profile abandonment of the crowdfunding platform Patreon represents the first signs of the IDW throwing its weight. Jordan Peterson alone looks to have sacrified the equivalent of more than $396k annual supporter donations-shutting his account in solidarity with several recent dubious ban-actions. Action cannot come soon enough. The work of envisioning a digital space more akin to old Europe’s coffee houses and salons than a public square ruled by a narcissistic mob is of the utmost importance. We must create cultural conditions in which it is possible to conduct real conversations in the unprecedented context of massive online viewerships.
Twitter’s distortion of public discourse and attention all too palpable, there must now be rigorous public scrutiny of the underlying incentive structures on which both it, and Facebook, are built. An endlessly refreshing stream of thoughts, atomised and compacted cannot provide a sufficiently adaptive level of communication to meet the complex challenges facing us. So long as the digital environment incentivises us to reduce our ideas to the minimum possible units of transmission, our culture will continue to be stifled by low-resolution ideas.
Whilst this landscape for democratic culture is bleak, the birth of the long-form podcast offers hope. Gaining traction rapidly on traditional media, this new medium heralds a renewal in the social value of real conversation. Its emergence marks the beginning of a broader conversation about the re-alignment of digital communications with the health of our democratic culture.
Striking also is the IDW’s incubation of a resurgent ‘discourse of meaning’. One which connects our ability to collaboratively build and grow society with the individual search for meaningful existence. Receiving scant mainstream coverage, the meeting of two titans of the IDW for four public debates in North America and Europe marked a unique moment for this nascent public dialogue on meaning in the West. One the one side, Jordan Peterson whose phenomenal rise has been undergirded by a hunger for re-engagement with existential questions about reality. His impassioned style reclaiming biblical roots for the secular domain through psychology, archetypes, and modern history.
On the other, Sam Harris the neuroscientist Buddhist philosopher who is leading secular New Atheist discourse into radically new domains with the integration of practices like meditation and exploration of the psychedelic experience. For all the shortcomings in these attempts at dialogue, one struggles to point to anywhere else in the culture where real discussion is taking place on the nature of consciousness or the relationship between facts and values.
The significance of this seemingly marginal discourse cannot be understated. As Andrew Sullivan sets out pointedly in his recent column, the drive for meaning did not depart with the death of Christianity. Inherited moral frameworks remain, albeit in sublimated form, and the religious drive is channelled into identitarian political struggle. The righteous instinct persists and a new Kingdom of God is promised in the endless ascent of ‘progress’. New blasphemies, cultish support for populist leaders and condemnation without the prospect of redemption all speak to larger forces at play in the Western mind. Finding meaning independent of sectarian and tribal identities is essential to the future of dialogue.
What we are witnessing in the Intellectual Dark Web’s development is the incubation of a new way of communicating, a devolved and self-regulating sense-making structure. At stake in it is not only a new mode of being for the individual, but for the culture as a whole. Whether the necessary courage and independence of mind exists to will it forth remains to be seen.