When I first heard the term “IDW (Intellectual Dark Web), I thought it was a joke. The words “dark web” imply something that is taboo, not mainstream. While there is an element of controversy surrounding IDW members, they are quite popular.
Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris are very successful authors, Joe Rogan has one of the most popular podcasts in the world, Dave Rubin is another Youtube celebrity. Eric Weinstein is the managing director of Thiel Capital. These people are not exactly hidden from the world.
But they do have something in common, they speak differently about important topics. They disagree with each other, but they do so constructively.
In the series of debates that took place between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, the amount of time the two spoke to each other — either through podcast or in front of a live audience — exceeded 15 hours.
There is a lot that you can cover in that amount of time, far more than any guest can ever hope to get across in a brief appearance on CNN. Traditional media channels aim for controversy and hot takes. If they do feature a debate, it’s usually very short, and very dramatic — people talking over each other, or sarcastically laughing at each other’s comments, or frustratingly debunking a straw man.
For a long time, it was believed that people wanted that. People didn’t want to hear the truth, they wanted entertainment. And if you got two smart, opinionated people with highly divergent points of view, you would get a product that advertisers could appreciate.
Then the IDW was the born. Podcasts like Waking Up and the Joe Rogan Show ditched the standard format, and proceeded to broadcast dialogues that were lengthy, entertaining, informative, and honest. They were far from perfect. In the first debate that took place between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, a two hour discussion about the precise definition of truth ensued, with the two never really getting beyond the first hurdle. It was frustrating to hear, and is a testament to the flaws of the long format. But when the debaters are more relaxed and less determined to make the other person look like an idiot, magic happens.
You get to go on an intellectual journey, where you explore topics that have been beaten to death, from new points of view. Harris’ philosophy background is pit against Peterson’s knowledge of psychology and literature. These are two smart people who see the world very differently, because they have been shaped by different ideas. To hear them make the best possible arguments they can, as creatively and carefully as possible, is very interesting.
After the first debate gone wrong between Harris and Peterson, very different kinds of conversations took place. Both debaters steel manned each other. Instead of straw manning (attacking a point of view the other person does not hold), they tried to represent the other person’s perspective as accurately and compellingly as possible.
These were two people who listened to each other. They understood why they disagreed, and they were trying to discover new ground. Not necessarily a consolation, but it was a mutual exploration of the deficiencies in their own respective viewpoints. Harris learned from Peterson, and Peterson learned from Harris.
There’s a documentary on Netflix about the Vidal-Buckley debates. ABC was the organization that featured these conversations because they were highly controversial and entertaining. At the time, ABC was suffering financially and needed to get the ratings up. This was a shot in the dark but it wasn’t such a bad idea. Vidal and Buckley were like the hero and the anti-hero going at it (depending on which side you are on) and they perfectly matched each other’s strengths. Both were intelligent, knowledgeable, and witty. Vidal was the defender of the left, while Buckley was the defender of the right.
But the purpose of the discussion was not to get anywhere, it wasn’t an intellectual exercise that they could mutually benefit from. It was war. Each person was trying to make the other person look as bad as possible in front of the camera.
The new media — including the podcast format that Joe Rogan has mastered is the opposite of that. Rogan plays the role of the smart dumb guy. He acts like he’s clueless, and is only trying to learn from one or two clearly superior intellectuals, but he’s surprisingly knowledgeable and some of his questions are on point. He’s a great improviser and that isn’t a surprise since he’s also a stand-up comedian.
He’s quick on his feet, he’s very curious, and isn’t afraid to call bullshit on his guests. At the same time, he’s there to listen and doesn’t try to push his own ideology on anyone. He lets the other person speak. No straw men.
The infamous Cathy Newman interview with Jordan Peterson was a perfect example of the anti-Rogan. She was purposefully misrepresenting his points, and trying to paint a caricature of the man she was interviewing. “So what you’re saying is (insert straw man)” became an internet meme.
The IDW is a group of smart people who want to have a different kind of conversation, and it’s one that cable television has never been able to provide because of market constraints. The reason why the IDW contains such a diverse group of people who don’t share the same opinion is because they are not united by an ideology. They are united by their advocacy of free speech, and long-form discussion. They are all proponents of a new way of speaking that a disturbingly small number of people are accustomed to.