The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by David Fuller. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest for this current episode is David Fuller, a UK based journalist and filmmaker and founder of Rebel Wisdom.
David: It’s good to be here, Jim.
Jim: Hey, good to talk to you again, David, always interesting conversations. Yeah, David’s Rebel Wisdom is one of the most interesting and impactful of the new distributed sense-making platforms. It’s truly an innovative example of the new journalism. You can find Rebel Wisdom at rebelwisdom.co.uk, or search YouTube for Rebel Wisdom. Today, we’re going to hear from David about his views and the history and what comes after the intellectual dark web. David, let’s start, what is the intellectual dark web? Who are they? When did it start? What do they do?
David: Yeah, there’s a fair bit of history that we have to recap, Jim. Let’s try and it as light as possible. Why I think this is a really important topic right now is because the intellectual dark web was an attempt to solve the problem of truth and the problem of sense making in the digital age. I think all of the things that it was responding to when it was constellated, and that was around 2018, are even more pressing now. I don’t know if you’d agree with me, but this sense of solving the problem of truth and the problem of sense making in the digital media age seems that it’s at the core of solving any of the other really pressing problems, because if we don’t know what’s true, we can’t really coordinate. We can’t react.
Jim: Yeah. I certainly agree with you. In our work in the Game B World, for instance, I would not say that sense-making is necessarily the hardest of the problems that need to be solved, but it’s the first one that needs to be solved because without the ability to identify truth and have people adhere to it and apply it in a sensible fashion, it’s very, very difficult to solve any of the other parts of the so called meta crisis, so absolutely with you there.
David: Yeah. I’m glad you brought up Game B because that’s why I think this is a really valuable podcast that you put together because it’s listened to by a lot of people who are approaching these questions that are really high level. Originally the intellectual dark web was framed as something of a Game B enterprise. I don’t know if you want to recap what that might mean, what Game B is at this point before we go any further into it?
Jim: Yeah. To my mind, Game B is the attempt to… some of us have been working on including some of the members of the IDW since 2012, to develop a new social operating system for humanity, which goal is to avert the failure modes, self terminating modes that we… what we think of Game A is headed onto, whether that’s overpopulation, overheating of the planet, running out of natural resources, indogenous failures, such as wars or economic collapse, et cetera, and literally replacing that with a better social operating system whose hallmarks are self-organizing, network centric, decentralized and meta stable.
David: Yeah. Then I guess within the sense making realm, you’re looking at what are the Game A self terminating systems that are destabilizing or corrupting the information ecology. I look at the intellectual dark web, and particularly Bret Weinstein and Eric Weinstein had a conversation on The Rubin Report. Bret Weinstein, the evolutionary biologist, Eric Weinstein is a mathematician. That they’re brothers that it’s not a coincidence, they have the same surname, but they were on a show called The Rubin Report and talking about how truth seeking cannot survive an encounter with market forces. I think of all things that summarizes the problem. That’s a problem that then infests academia, because you get motivated research, it infests journalism because you get financial motives like truth as an enterprise, and in a way you could argue that academia and journalism properly exercised is actually a Game B enterprise.
David: If you’re making truth the highest value, it’s actually a Game B enterprise. You then look at what are the market failures and the failure conditions of that kind of true seeking enterprise. The intellectual dark web was originally consisted of a group of public intellectuals, a group of podcasters, including people like Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, Brett, and Eric obviously, Heather Heying, Brett’s wife, Claire Lehmann of Quillette, and Quillette the magazine was considered something of a in house magazine for the intellectual dark web. It was framed as people who tended to reject orthodoxy, who engaged in first principles thinking, didn’t go along with the crowd. If there was a perspective that it was coalesced around, that it was often criticized for, it was that it was acting in response to what it saw as the constraining of free debate by the accesses of campus culture, by identity politics, by the woke left.
David: It had a political aim, but also I know that it was considered certainly, or especially by Eric and Brett as only the media side of a much broader conversation that needed to happen in terms of orthodoxies and consensus thinking that have built up within lots of different disciplines. Obviously Brett will be talking about evolutionary biology, Eric will be talking about physics, and their argument was that so many of these different academic fields had got at the same time. Obviously that’s a huge conversation that we don’t want to dig into, but the intellectual dark web was named in early 2018, and then it was identified in The New York Times by journalists called Bari Weiss in May 2018. Then it picked up steam, there were loads of Facebook groups. It really landed as a concept or as a meme.
David: It was very, very strong and there was a lot of energy around it and a lot of discussions, “What was the intellectual dark? Was it this group of people? Was it a certain type of interaction? Was it a set of good faith principles?” Eric would say… he came up with the term in the first place. He’d say that he deliberately did not define it because he wanted it to have a little bit of mystique and also that he thought defining it would be a mistake. I interviewed quite a few of the members of it. I think it was Jordan Peterson who said it obviously pointed… he questioned whether it really existed, but he said it had to exist in some sense, because the name stuck. Then the fact that the name stuck meant that it was referring to a real thing.
David: You can argue what that real thing was, but for me, it was really the coming to consciousness of an alternative to the mainstream traditional media entity. It was uniting a very disparate group of people, but all of whom had thrived in the digital world, had grown up outside the mainstream bubbles and had a lot of heterodox opinions and a lot of different perspectives that weren’t fully… I think the reason that they succeed is that a lot of what they were saying was not fully reflected in the traditional media. That’s quite a lot of words, Jim. I don’t know if you wanted to jump in at any point.
Jim: Yeah. Let me jump back on that. Again, I knew Brett and Eric… I knew Brett quite well and Eric a little bit, we’ve had some conversations mostly about science actually. I did watch the rise of the intellectual dark web with some interest and with some sympathy. I do think that despite what maybe Jordan Peterson had to say, there was some organizing principles that may not have been entirely obvious to maybe even the people involved, but struck me at least as a where they were coming from. Then also some motivations, call it basic human motivations, which I’ll talk about in a second.
Jim: First, when I look at the people who are generally thought to be part of the IDW, and of course, one of the things about the IDW is there is no such thing. There is no actual club, there is no actual members, it’s just a consensus of who is or isn’t an IDWer. What stands out for me is that there were people from the left and the right. People who probably are the farthest on the right would be Ben Shapiro. Farthest on the left, at least of the personalities that I know of, what might be Brett Weinstein, who’s actually pretty far left, but they all fall within the broader domain of classic liberalism. Essentially the theories that I think we can point to come from the work of John Stuart Mill in the 19th century and essentially confirmed the evolution of that thinking into what we might call a modernist perspective, and that what they stand in opposition to is… we label it woke, but I would suggest the deeper intellectual history trend there is postmodernism and critical theory.
Jim: In fact, one of the members of the intellectual dark web, Steven Pinker, has written quite eloquently, and also John [Hate 00:09:48] on the dangers of postmodernism and critical theory as applied in academia. Truthfully, from my perspective with similar sympathies, postmodernism and critical theory just sounds like moonshine and nonsense, to tell you the truth.
Jim: I mean, some of this horse shit we hear about that we can’t say there’s only two sexes. Well, you can say there are only two sexes, and from a certain perspective with a certain lens, looking at, let’s say DNA, and you can say people are either XX, or XY, there’s a tiny percentage of people who are XXY, but let’s ignore that small amount of people. You can say there are two sexes, but in certain parts of academia, you’re not allowed to say that for reasons of post-modernist bullshit basically.
Jim: That’s, to my mind, the real organizing center of what self-organized essentially as the IDW Then in terms of human motivation, one of the things that I think stands out is that essentially all these people, at least the ones that I know of, were victims of various attacks by mobs online, principally though, in the case of Brett, actually in person and the famous battle of Evergreen State University. It’s a natural inclination of the victims of mobs to mob together themselves and produce a gang. I remember when I was in seventh grade, seventh grader in a fairly rough neighborhood and we were at the mercy of the ninth graders until we formed the pickpockets club. Eventually we had about 80 members and even the ninth graders were afraid to fuck with us.
Jim: I think that at the human motivational level, again, perhaps subconsciously, the part of the binding energy of the IDW was that these people have been attacked by various insane mobs and chose to club together to fight back collectively, or at least to find solace with each other. Again, that was one of the things I found is a big plots around the IDW. Again, a metal organizing principle is, at least to a degree, these were folks who were committed to saying what they thought was true, irrespective of what the mobs thought. By the way, while, as you pointed out, people tend to think of them as an opposition to the woke postmodernist mob, that would say every one of the ones I know of is also in strong opposition to the willfully ignorant right wing mobs.
Jim: These are all people who believe in evolution. Oh, what a striking idea. I’ll bet there’s not a one of them that think that COVID-19 is a Chinese hoax. These are people grounded in science, in logic, in realism, and they’re just as opposed, probably actually more strongly opposed to, the willful ignorance that we find on the right. That’s my take of what the binding energy was and where they fit in space and in intellectual history. What do you think about that?
David: I think I’d agree with most of that. There’s a few things that you mentioned that I’d like to pick up on, but not dive too much into. One of which you mentioned Steven Pinker. Now, whether Steven Pinker is in the IDW or not is a very interesting question. I know that some of the members would think that he probably isn’t because naturally that he’s… even though he’s had his own run ins with identity politics, and he’s very skeptical of it, he’s got a very Panglossian view on the world, and actually the core of the IDW saw it as an existential project to recover certain values that he wasn’t. You can dive into that, but the question of whether he, with his beliefs, is a part of it or not is a very interesting question.
David: The other point that I wanted to make, which is, when you talked about the dividing line, why that’s really relevant right now is that over the last couple of weeks, there’s been a series of revolts in American newsrooms. Arguably, you could say that… I’m putting out a podcast later today asking the question whether journalism is dead. The woman who wrote the original IDW article, Bari Weiss, who’s an opinion writer for The New York Times, wrote a series of tweets that went very viral and caused a real reaction where she said that what we’re seeing in a lot of newsrooms, most famously at The New York Times, when the opinion editor was forced to resign maybe about a week ago after an editorial by a US Senator, Tom Cotton, and then a revolt within the newsroom.
David: She described this split between the new younger generation of woke journalists and then the older generation of liberal journalists, who were then… they were realizing that they actually had fundamentally different values. The new set of journalists were much more focused on whether something was causing harm. A lot of them all tweeted in unison that this op-ed by Tom Cotton was putting their colleagues in danger. And older journalists who believe in more freedom of speech and classical liberal values. She said that split was playing out throughout companies and news organizations throughout America. The astonishing thing is the speed this has happened. This has come in the last two weeks really. I think most people looking at what’s going on now would agree that a lot of what the intellectual dark web was pointing to and warning about has now come true. Looking very prescient, I think a lot of people are saying.
David: You look at something like, you mentioned, Brett Weinstein and Evergreen being the most clear example of what happens if you get mob rule in a university campus. A lot of that seems to be playing out more broadly now in society and in culture. I think exploring what the intellectual dark web got right, whether it was a successful prototype of something that we need to recover, or whether it failed, I think there are different perspectives that you can take. My take on it is that it has succeeded in some ways and failed in others. I think looking at why it failed is really valuable because it points to a lot of the failure conditions of sense-making. Some I could come up with on the top of my head is audience capture. There are rewards that you orient towards, not just financial rewards, but rewards in terms of aligned incentive structures. You mentioned this sense of them being… I think you pointed to the idea that they became a tribe as well.
David: If you define yourself as being anti tribal, what happens when you become a tribe of anti tribal thinkers. That in itself starts to create issues of in-groups and out-groups as well. Then I’m also interested in all of that original constellation of people who were in the intellectual dark web who were still… I like the frame that Samo Burja came up with when he talked about live players and dead players, who’s still alive player and who’s a dead player now? I think some are still alive and some are no longer really generating any novelty or generating any kind of interest. There’s all of these different issues that I’d be interested to unpack later on in the conversation.
Jim: Yeah. Let me make a couple of reactions, and then and then I’ll turn it back over to you to talk about where it’s been successful, where it’s been a failure, where it may be thought of as a prototype with some level of success. This issue of the last two weeks in the newsroom, and more generally in popular culture, in the revolts in the streets is, to my mind, highlighting what I talked about previously that the correct way to think about IDW stance or positioning at least was in opposition to postmodernism and critical theory.
Jim: What essentially you’re seeing is people educated principally at elite universities… and this is an important thing to keep in mind, that postmodernist moonshine is not a general disease, at least not in the United States, but it is a high level of infection amongst people who went to elite universities, particularly those who studied the humanities and/or the social sciences, and these people have been rising in percentages in elite institutions, what we have called in the Game B world, the blue church. Think of it as Yale, plus the Episcopal Church, plus The New York Times and it’s friends and allies.
Jim: This is very similar to the generational uprising in the late ’60s where a different group of people actually were successful in many ways in overthrowing the previous status quo in the elite institutions. I mean, the changes in elite universities between 1965 and 1971 when I showed up at one were absolutely immense. We’re probably seeing something like that now, or at least an attempt at it. I would suggest the IDW is an attempt to oppose that. The postmodernist nonsense and moonshine is the opposite of sense-making science and reason, at least I would say so.
Jim: With respect to the tribe, how could anti-tribalist form a tribe? My point is that’s human nature, and is the natural human reaction to having enemies is that you find your friends, and at a minimum, the old famous middle Eastern quote “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” While it may be a little logically contradictory, it’s extremely human, that’s why I framed it as such. Those are some of my reactions. I’d like to turn it back over to you, David, and get your assessment overall of the intellectual dark web, to what degree it’s been successful and a failure or some mix of two that could be thought of as a prototype. But actually before we do that, I’m going to reference some data I pulled up this morning. I did a Google Trends search, which basically looks at the occurrence rate of searches for various terms on IDW.
Jim: It peaked very highly in June, July, August, September 2018, and has been gradually downhill since then with a few ups and downs, but is now down at maybe a 20th of what it was at its peak. Then just for fun, just now, I compared it with the search term Game B, and interestingly Game B and intellectual dark web are now at about the same level of salients on Google Trends, even though Game B was basically very, very little two years ago. It gives you a sense that at least at the level that’s captured by Google Trends, intellectual dark web is on a downward trend, hadn’t quite happened yet, but it’s close.
David: Yeah. I wanted to pick up on just some of your framing before about postmodernism and the values of the intellectual dark web. I’m pretty sure that you’re not a fan of Ken Wilber?
Jim: I’m reading him right now. I’m reading a brief history of everything. We have a tentative agreement by Ken to be on my podcast, and I am surrounded by integralists in my life, and I didn’t know much about it and I’ve dug into it. My quick reaction is… probably to no surprise, part of it I find useful and part of it I find… shall we say three question marks. The part I’ve found useful so far are the so-called four quadrants. I actually have started using those when I approach certain classes of problems, and found it actually a useful framework. Now, some of the upper levels of his levels, I find to be in the category of moonshine and nonsense, but that may just be my philistine, anti spiritual itself. I’m digging into it. I hope to know more. So far I find it an impressive body of work.
David: Yeah, I was thinking principally… and I would certainly recommend the ebook Trump and a Post-Truth World, where he goes through the different… He uses a system called spiral dynamics, which I think originally came from Clare Graves, and it looks at different ways of looking at the world. The principle one is the tension between modernist values and postmodern values. I wouldn’t throw out postmodernism completely. I think there are valuable parts within it. This is where I think this particular frame, the Wilber frame or the spiral dynamics frame is really, really useful to understand the intellectual dark web. Because the question is whether a realization that the left can go too far and that this particular postmodern worldview can become pathological, whether you’re moving onto a potential higher synthesis or you’re falling down to a place where you’re just reacting against it.
David: I think some of the people in the intellectual dark web did push onto a higher synthesis and some just retreated to bashing the left, bashing postmodernism. I’d say Jordan Peterson at his best would go to the synthesis and at his worst would go to a lower… what do you call it? A lack of synthesis. It’s difficult to talk about without the understanding some part of that map, and I would highly encourage people, if they haven’t familiarize themselves with it, to look at the Trump and a Post-Truth World, because it goes through the value systems in a very clever way that also talks about current events. I always found it quite hard to understand Wilber when he was just talking more theoretically, but that book really applied it to the current world.
David: Some people you’re probably familiar with, say, Jamie [Will 00:24:21], talk about integral being a really useful operating system, and that the best thing to do with it is to understand it and then forget it, because if you spend too long within it, you start basically just getting lost in the territory. You start talking about these colors and these integrales that mean that you’re no longer talking to people outside that world. It’s a hugely useful frame. I think within integral, it really shows, “Are you pushing on to a higher level synthesis that sees the value of some of the challenges that postmodernism plays to the original modernist perspective?”
David: You’ll have this conversation, I’m sure with someone like Hanzi Freinacht who will challenge your perspectives on postmodernism, but I do think that that way of looking at it, that developmental lens is something I’ve said quite a few times that the intellectual dark web needed and didn’t really have. I think if it had had that developmental lens, it would have helped be a little bit more discerning about where the criticism was coming from. The critique of postmodernism was coming from a more integrated place or where it was coming from a more disintegrated place.
Jim: Yeah. Actually I have had two conversations with Hanzi Freinacht on my podcast, and they were very, very interesting. We did disagree a bit about postmodernism, but I would say surprisingly, I think we were in strong agreement that as actually manifested in the real world right now, postmodernism is much more of a negative than a positive, though as a set of critiques, is useful. Indeed that is my top level takeaway, that postmodernism as a school of critics is perfectly reasonable and they have said a lot of important things that need to be said, but when postmodernism tries to become constructive to actually build what comes next, as they’re trying to do in these newsrooms that you referenced, it’s a disaster, it’d be as if you took a academic movie critic and put them in charge of a movie studio, just an insane thing to do.
Jim: I think these eruptions over the last few weeks has just proved positive that it turned loose people with that point of view on actual institutions and they’re going to do nothing but trash them, but there are different points of view on that. My own hope is that we can find a way to get to a higher level of society, maybe like meta-modernism, or at least in the same neighborhoods, similar values. I wish I call it alignment beyond agreement, if not the same in all the details, but without having to traverse the swamp of postmodernism. Think of it as a side tool kit, but not as a main road to go through to get to the other side.
David: Yeah, I think I definitely agree with that, if we’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Jim: Yep. Again, think of it as a toolkit on the side, it’s perfectly reasonable. Think of it as actually a road we need to go through in terms of our social evolution. I say moonshine and nonsense. Love to get your views now that we’ve talked a bit about the history, a little bit of positioning and historical space and in a philosophical space, overall, whether you think the intellectual dark web has been a success, a failure, or maybe just a interesting prototype. Love to hear your thoughts on that.
David: Yeah. I did an interview with Brett Weinstein quite recently that I’m putting out probably in the next couple of days, where he describes it as a prototype and how it’s really important to have a good relationship with prototyping. I would say yes, it was certainly successful. There was something about the phenomenon of the intellectual dark web and of Jordan Peterson as well that broke a conversational seal in the culture and things that had not been talked about, were being talked about in mainstream circles. I look at a lot of the problems or what happened with it. A lot of it centers on… in particular Dave Rubin, because Dave Rubin, he’s a chat show host who very much identified himself with the intellectual dark web early on. He saw a an opportunity.
David: He did a lot of really good work at the beginning of bringing together a lot of the people on his show in Los Angeles, there was some really exciting conversations probably in 2018 that seemed to be going into new territory. I think the really interesting thing for me is, this sense of a conversation going into new territory, how does that happen? One of the ways that certainly Brett has talked about is that you have to bootstrap a safety and that’s what the intellectual dark web did, because they knew each other, there was a familiarity, they all agreed and trusted each other to engage in good faith conversations that they were then able to go into new territory. You had these conversations between, say, Brett and Eric on the Rubin Report, you had one with Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro that was really fascinating, whether they were talking about religious truth, and you’ve got this sense of intellectual exploration, you’ve got the sense of real excitement.
David: Then something happened over the next couple of years, and there’s probably various reasons why that sense of novelty seemed to fall away. There were lots of high profile public events run by a company called Pangburn that then came to an end because Pangburn was incredibly badly run. He lost a lot of money. Some of the events were canceled and Pangburn didn’t give the money back to the people who booked the tickets. That failure really affected the inertia and trajectory of the conversation. There were lots of high profile conversations and then that stopped. I think Jordan Peterson’s illness certainly didn’t help. His retiring from public life probably about eight months ago really also took a lot of the energy out of the situation.
David: But why I mentioned Dave Rubin is that he was highly identified with the intellectual dark web, but then had a series of encounters that… he was criticized by quite a lot of people. There were some articles in Quillette. I think there was a general sense that he was starting to coalesce around a much less sophisticated perspective that was just criticism of the left and nothing else, and that he wasn’t really open to dialogue and wasn’t open to criticism. I had a conversation with him. I had an interview with him on his show where I put some of those criticisms to him and he was very unhappy about that. I think the fact that he was identified so strongly with the intellectual dark web, his own lack of curiosity and lack of interest and lack of the potential of moving his ideas on really started to have an impact on the wider topic.
David: I look at this idea of live players and dead players. I’d say that Dave Rubin is a dead player. Probably someone like Ben Shapiro is a dead player. I think he’s too aligned with certain red meat perspectives for conservative listeners that he probably can’t move on some certain topics. But also the positives are that you have Bret Weinstein who has created his own podcast, The Dark Horse podcast, off the success of the intellectual dark web. Eric has created his own podcast, The Portal, which is doing really interesting work now as well. But the other failure factor… and I know that Eric and Bret probably wouldn’t agree with me on this, but I do see a certain grouping around… there are perspectives, especially from the left, that I don’t see being included in some of these conversations.
David: Sometimes you would argue that some of the people who you might involve are acting in bad faith. Famously, there’s a guy called Sam Sedar who was challenging Dave Rubin publicly, asking to debate Dave Rubin. The argument is that he’s acting in bad faith. Whether or not here is, what I’ve seen happen, especially from the likes of Rubin, but this accusation of bad faith being levy to keep people out of the conversation. It’s a very interesting question, is bad faith not always a subjective judgment? I think we can maybe agree on some general principles, but the way that I often see it being used, it seems to be used as a subjective judgment. I mean, most of the people you would accuse of bad faith would probably deny intensive they’re acting in bad faith.
David: But what I saw happen, especially on Twitter, was a certain balkanization around certain perspectives. My good friend, Peter Limberg, has done some really interesting work in this area about memetic mediation. He talks about memetic tribes so that there are certain tribes group around certain perspectives, what he calls memetic tribes, mimetic perspectives, and how do you then mediate between these different tribes? He calls that the hard problem of culture war 2.0. I’d really highly direct people towards work, Peter’s essays. We’ve also put a film out with him as well. I think he has grappled really intensely with; what does it look like too mediate in this culture war? What I saw with the intellectual dark web generally was that there wasn’t enough of that sophisticated understanding of; how do you strategically mediate and bring more people into the conversation?
David: I think it coalesced around a certain perspective, and I don’t think it really had the ability to mediate and to navigate and to bring in other perspectives. That would be my main sense. This is a felt sense that I’ve got just looking at interactions on Twitter, because Twitter is just this… it’s a machine for enforcing balkanization of certain perspectives. It seems to be a very, very dangerous and malignant actor on conversations, because tribes are sketched out, tribes are enforced and these divisions are enforced, and it seems to be happening in real time on Twitter.
Jim: Indeed. Indeed. Let me react to that a little bit. Thinking back on it now, I think you’ve hit on something, which is that this group of people, for whatever reason, have gone into different modes, right? Some will continue doing what they’ve always done. Steven Pinker, whether he’s in the group or not, Jon Haidt and his Heterodox Academy are doing their thing, and that’s interesting but what I don’t really see, and I think you point this out is a community of thinking that ratchets each other up. In my notes this morning when I was thinking about this, I thought an interesting thing to do would be to compare and contrast the IDW and compare them with a couple other earlier intellectual traditions that did ratchet each other up. Think of the Bloomsbury intellectuals in London in the early part of the 20th century.
Jim: When I happened to have just done a deep dive into preparing for a podcast, the German romanticist around Goethe and the university at Yana in the early 19th century, there these people had very intense arguments, disagreements, and agreements within a small intellectually sophisticated community. That’s how they ratcheted each other up. It may well be… in fact, I would say it is true that you don’t really ratchet yourself up or ratchet other people up by having conversations on Twitter, or frankly, having podcasts, other than rarely. I’ve learned a few things on podcasts, but I would say that they’re not crucibles for creation of intense new models and perspectives. It may well be that the tools of the modern world that the IDW was using for coherence just don’t provide enough coherence.
David: It’s very difficult to think in public as well.
Jim: Yep. It is. Bloomsbury people, most of that thinking was done over dinners often, which led to lecherous evenings. The German romanticist in classrooms and in coffee houses. Those were face to face communities. It may be that these virtual tools are just not strong enough to ratchet up intellectual content to a high enough level to be really interesting.
David: Yes. I think you’re pointing to an issue, I think, that exists now in the sense making web that I’d say that your podcast is part of and Rebel Wisdom as part of and the few other places, maybe like the Future thinkers or the Emerge Network. I don’t think there’s anywhere near enough conversation around the different perspectives, either privately or publicly. I think there’s an issue with doing that publicly. It’s very difficult to have… especially when you are quite high profile. I think one of the big failure conditions for me of the intellectual dark web was… and in some ways it kind of died at the moment that it was named by The New York Times, because as soon as it was named the intellectual dark web, the obvious and frequently made objection to it was, “How on earth can you say this is dark or that these people are excluded from the conversation?”
David: This includes Joe Rogan, arguably the most powerful broadcaster alive. This includes Sam Harris, who’s got one of the biggest, most popular podcasts, that includes et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. These are not people who are excluded from the conversation. It immediately provoked an immune reaction from the mainstream traditional media that I think I’ve heard Eric and Sam Harris talk about before, that it did provoke this immune reaction, which is inevitable because you’re not an underdog at any point in that, you’re not going to get positive… That’s the issue with the media. If you’re an underdog, you might get positive media. If you’re not an underdog, people are always going to be looking for, “Okay, what’s the angle, what’s the criticism rather?” Than boosting in the way that actually the Bari Weiss article did.
David: That’s one of the issues. I think that the intellectual dark web was a paradox that in the moment of it being outed or shone a light on, it was difficult to have to sustain the sense of, “Oh, these are marginalized truth tellers,” which in some ways they are, in some ways they aren’t, they all had those high profile encounters, like Evergreen, being the classic one with Bret.
David: The other question, and the one that I keep coming back to is, how do we create conversations that take us into the place of novelty, because this sense that I have and maybe you have as well is that none of the solutions on the table right now, and anyone who thinks they know what’s going on or thinks they know what the solution is to the problems that we’re encountering now is definitely wrong. We need to have a way of having these conversations that take us into new places, take us into places of novelty and to find a way of doing that either in public or in private.
David: I mentioned Peter Limberg before, but he’s talked about the concept of the dark forest theory of the internet, which I think originally came from Yancey Strickler of Kickstarter, where he said most of the interesting conversations now are happening in back channels. They’re happening in the dark forest. They’re not happening out in the open because those conversations are easily attacked. Those conversations are easily blown up by various accusations that are easily made on social media.
David: That for me is the question that I’d like to put out to people listening to this podcast and the wider community that we’re part of; how do we have these conversations either publicly or privately that move our thinking onwards. Because I don’t think enough of them are happening. I don’t think we’re challenging and stress testing our ideas enough, and I don’t think that the structures and the habits are in place in the way that they need to be. That’s my sense at least. I might be missing out on all the good conversations, so it might just be me.
Jim: No, I don’t think you are. I mean, I think there are some good conversations happening in the dark forest or in the shady forest. We have our Game B group on Facebook, which has some pretty good conversations, but to your point, we have to relentlessly police that thing, because there are attacks, organized attacks, amazingly, from both what could be thought of as the far right and the far left. A couple of weeks ago, we had to bounce six neo-fascist infiltrators, and about the same time booted dozen pro-Antifa types simultaneously. Suddenly the conversation went back to normal.
Jim: But it’s extraordinarily difficult to do these things on public forums. In our case we do have a membrane, we have membership and we can kick people out, but we will let pretty much anybody who is not obviously insane in after answering a few questions. The platforms we have today are not nearly enough. Part of the answer may be pointing back to the past. Again, as I mentioned, Bloomsbury and that crucible of German romanticism at Yana University and the Duchy of Weimar in the early 19th century, or even the early days of Game B, where we basically crucible that idea in five day and a half long face to face meetings, where more interesting intellectual work got done in less than 10 days than any 10 day period I can point to in my whole life.
Jim: I do think it’s time to drop our overfascination with these online platforms. They’re going to be very important for disseminating what is created, but I’ve now come to the view that they’re only part of the job of creation. That we have to find higher coherence, higher binding energy, more real work has to be done than can be done today on these big platforms.
David: Yeah. Is your sense that that has to be done a face to face?
Jim: Well, I think face to face is best. However, everything in life is trade offs in time, and in space, and in money. I have found here, during the zombie apocalypse, that Zoom culture works quite well for some things. It’s not as good as face to face, but it’s a shitload better than text on Facebook or on Twitter, I’ll tell you that. I think we can be more intelligent. I have a project going on right now, all based in Zoom, which may actually create some interesting things. But I think face to face also needs to be part of it.
Jim: There was going to be a Game B meeting in Austin, Texas in May, but the COVID-19 thing destroyed that. I think that having a traditional in-one-place community meetup event for any of these new intellectual trends would be very helpful. As we all know, the formal sessions are only about 25% of the value. The real value is the conversations in the lobby and the hall room around the coffee table and at dinner and drinks afterwards. I think we need to stop being so hypnotized by social media platforms as the place to form the intellectual ideas. Unfortunately, I think we’re stuck with them for a while for propagation, but I’m not convinced yet that they are going to take us real far in the creating the next generation of good ideas.
David: Yes. I think there’s something about staring into the critique as well, or steering into self-reflection and criticism that that needs to happen as well. I don’t know whether that’s something that… it seems very, very difficult to do that in public, and it may be much easier to do it in private conversations.
Jim: Yeah. I’m actually having a conversation with one of the well known opponents of Game B about potentially doing a convergence process in private to find out what it is that we agree about and why the hell are we so fixated on what we disagree about. I do think that techniques like that are going to be important as well, and we have to stress test our ideas. You didn’t really go into it in great detail, but this problem of audience capture is a real one. You get a platform that has a specific point of view and you capture a bunch of listeners, and unfortunately, you are caught in the bind of giving your audience what they want. That’s not how you really stress test your ideas. You have to perhaps do those offline using different techniques.
David: Yes. It’s an interesting question because there’s different facets of that in the digital world. There’s audience capture in terms of giving the audience what they want and anyone who’s got… I know, we run a YouTube channel, there’s a comments thread, I’m very aware of that. It certainly acts as a gravitational force. It’s one that I think I have struggled to resist. I could have certainly put out way more popular films, but I think it would have been a shortcut, and I don’t think the community that Rebel Wisdom has built up and the reputation that we built up would have survived if I’d taken those shortcuts. But it’s very easy to feel that as a gravitational force.
David: In the world of the big tech platforms, there’s another form of audience capture, which is algorithmic capture, that I know is something that I’ve seen Bret and Heather talk about at the beginning of their podcast. That they’re aware that their podcast is being grouped together with effectively generally right-wing content. Obviously they wouldn’t describe themselves as right wing, but somehow because of the nature of what happened to them and because they were appearing on certain podcasts at the beginning, the algorithms are now pushing them towards.
David: You can be balkanized in many different ways and not always because of actions that you yourself are taking. The big tech companies have got their finger on the scales in various ways as well. There’s lots of different levels to audience capture, and some of it is not even to do with what you’re personally doing.
Jim: That’s a very good point and a very interesting point. Actually I think I might well use this as an opportunity to announce something. Why not? I decided… I don’t know, six weeks ago, to take a six month break from the large social media platforms starting July 1. Part of it is this exact thing. The sense that, yes, interesting work is happening here, but it’s influenced by audience captured, it’s influenced by the paucity of the affordances provided by the platforms, it’s influenced in a negative way by the algorithmics, especially in the public parts of these platforms. So I’m going to take an intentional six month break from them, and I’ve turned over the management of the platforms that I lead on… those platforms to other people, they’re already trained, prepped, and ready to go, and I’m going to go do something else for a while, and I’m going to see what I find out there.
David: Good for you. Let us know what it’s like out in the wilderness.
Jim: Yeah. Interestingly, I’ve done this every year for Facebook for the last four years, but I am much more in the middle of things and I was previously, and I’m going to also add Twitter to that ban. Yeah, it’ll be interesting. I’ll give you a report back from the real world, and I’m sure we’ll have some conversations in between. I think with that, it’s time to wrap up.
David: Can I say one thing, Jim, before we wrap up?
David: Just to say, so Rebel Wisdom is in the process of doing a big series about sense-making, not only about the intellectual dark web, but we’ve got to put out a couple of pieces about that, but also looking at information warfare, talking to Tristan Harris about the influence of the big tech platforms, all of these different issues. I’d love to hear from listeners… I’d love them to check out the series and then to hear any solutions, practical solutions to these problems, is what we all need to be working on right now. I’d love to hear any thoughts and suggestions that people have.
Jim: Yeah, and I would second that. I listened to the first one of that series and it certainly motivated me to listen to some more. David and people listening to the podcast know, I hate listening to video, goddammit, so that’s pretty high testimony.
David: Thank you, Jim. Thank you for the invitation, and keep doing what you’re doing.
Jim: All right. Appreciate it.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller modernspacemusic.com.