What do rapper Kanye West and psychology professor Jordan Peterson have in common? Answer: they are both linked to the latest cause célèbre of cyberspace: the “intellectual dark web”.
An article in The New York Times last May effectively Columbused the intellectual dark web (IDW); that is, claimed a fresh discovery of something that is far from new. Indeed, it is not really clear that the IDW is a single “thing” at all. As the article states, it constitutes not so much a single, coherent “wave movement” as a cross-current of diverse thinkers with opposing political allegiances who generate choppy waters full of dissensus.
An anonymously hosted IDW hub site lists 20 current leaders of the movement, including journalists, entrepreneurs, comedians and, of course, academics. As well as Peterson, it names psychologist Jonathan Haidt, neuroscientist Sam Harris, philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein, economist Glenn Loury, historian Niall Ferguson and linguist John McWhorter.
The term intellectual dark web, coined by financier and mathematician Eric Weinstein, is an ironic reference to the perceived exclusion of these “dangerous and controversial thinkers”, considered too toxic for the mainstream media. But while IDW members’ ideas often stand outside the progressive mainstream, the IDW is no Breitbart thinktank. Such thinkers see themselves as servants of reason and facts rather than of tribal ideologies, occupying what American columnist Christopher DeGroot pejoratively calls the “wise centre” between the alt-right and the politically correct left.
The IDW has understandably attracted criticism. Its obsession with free speech, for example, is claimed to be less a matter of principle than a useful marketing tool: a way to promote the “outsider-rebel” brand. This criticism is especially relevant when the best-known leaders of the IDW have received generous donations from online fundraising campaigns and have packed out arenas where you would normally expect to find the likes of Michael Bublé. It pays to be on the dark side.
Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss the IDW out of liberal revulsion. Indeed, academics should welcome its rise given how many of its protagonists are on the payroll of universities. Their most telling legacy might be to revive the concept of the public intellectual in the anglophone world – which, according to the historian Russell Jacoby, has declined owing to the post-war expansion of higher education, seducing budding intellectuals into a quiet campus life with the promise of financial security and the comforts of remote scholarship.
You don’t have to “join” or echo the ideas of the IDW to be a public intellectual, but it does offer a practical example of how to overcome two significant obstacles to public intellectualism in the 21st century. The first is that while a media profile is useful, it is difficult to attain for many academics. In the UK, the mainstream media is dominated by BBC 4-friendly Oxbridge historians and enthusiastic, apolitical scientists. Spaces for those who speak from a thought-provoking position rather than an autocue are available only online, and the IDW has demonstrated how to create content that can challenge legacy broadcasters.
Podcasting has been a key IDW mouthpiece. Those hosted by comedian Joe Rogan and former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro attract numbers that compete with Fox News or The Washington Post. The podcast is not just a technological innovation but is now a cultural phenomenon. Academic podcasts do exist, but these are mainly trailers for promoting research. The IDW has weaponised podcasting to advance an intellectual agenda. That’s the model to emulate.
The second obstacle to a media presence faced by academics is the incessant standardisation of research around the journal article, creating more and more knowledge about infinitesimally narrow fields of enquiry. The dominance of the research article is such that academic publishing is the one pre-internet business that cyberspace has been unable to disrupt in any significant way.
Sure, many papers are now freely available online, but few outside academia ever read them. In terms of engaging with the public, relying on the research paper is as effective as arming peacekeepers with water pistols. The IDW’s rise is a reminder that academics should be alive to the possibilities of using ideas to speak to, rather than ignore, the wider culture. It does this by eschewing the usual academic journals for pop-up online publishing, such as the magazine Quillette, as well as Mute, Triple Canopy, Jacobin and 3:AM Magazine. Writing for these outlets offers zero professional return, but provides one, possibly two, interested readers.
Whatever you think of Jordan Peterson and his fellow IDW controversialists, they remind us what academia should be about. The modern academic identity has been defined by science, research or even certification. Our real purpose, as stated by the UK’s influential 1963 Robbins Committee, is to sustain a “common culture”. The mass higher education system ushered in by Robbins has become a part of popular culture. Academic exceptionalism is no longer viable. This is well understood by the IDW, and the rest of us should take note.
By embracing the dark side, we may have found a way to the intellectual light.
Michael Marinetto is a senior lecturer in management at Cardiff Business School.