Tuesday 15 October 2019

The rise of Jordan Peterson and the intellectual dark web

Letter from the West Coast

San Francisco
San Francisco

Tommy Collison

I come to you from San Francisco this month. As per usual, engineers are building new apps we don't know we need yet, paying $5 for coffee, and getting ready for consequential midterm elections next month.

I've been staying with friends in a large shared space in the city. In all, 16 of us pile into a house of 15 bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and three kitchens. Like San Francisco more generally, the house skews entrepreneurial: most of the folks here are working on startups, side projects, or moonshots. Being in a house with so many smart engineers, entrepreneurs, and designers is a great way to get a sense of what tech workers more generally are thinking.

One of the most interesting topics of discussion among engineers in the past few weeks and months has been a group calling themselves the intellectual dark web. Comprising academics, public intellectuals, and other media personalities, they are exposing a deeply-rooted dissonance in Silicon Valley today.

You don't need me to tell you about how left-leaning California is: almost everything you've read about the liberal bubble is real. I say "almost", though, because engineers at startups don't always toe the party line.

Last year, an engineer at Google penned an internal memo on the biological differences between men and women. In it, the engineer, James Damore, argued that an "ideological echo chamber" existed, stifling dissent and discussion. The engineer was fired soon after the memo was made public, with Google claiming that it violated their code of conduct.

The tensions in tech companies and startups in Silicon Valley mirror the debates happening on college campuses around the US as well.

Last year, Evergreen College, a small liberal arts college in Washington state asked white students to absent themselves from campus for a day to raise awareness of race issues. When a professor there, Bret Weinstein, wrote a letter objecting to the idea, on the grounds that it was limiting students' rights on the basis of their skin colour, protests erupted on campus, eventually leading to Weinstein's resignation.

The intellectual dark web is largely a response to this polarisation and the high emotions of the last few years in the US, where debates over policy issues are becoming increasingly personal.

The group's defining characteristic, though, isn't an adherence to any one ideology, or any one political party. In fact, in a country full of people largely defined by who they voted for in the last election, members of the group stand out for not belonging to any one party or creed.

Instead, the group is defined by a willingness - a need, almost - to debate all of the hot-button topics: abortion, immigration, and religion chief among them.

One contradiction in the group bears mention: despite the group's growing popularity, you rarely see members of the intellectual dark web in mainstream outlets. These are not people who write columns in major newspapers, nor are they invited on the likes of CNN.

Instead, they appear on podcasts, or fill speaking venues: Jordan Peterson, whose self-help-book-cum-call-to-action, '12 Rules for Life', was published earlier this year, spoke at The Olympia in Dublin just last weekend; 700,000 people subscribe to Dave Rubin's YouTube series, about the same as number of people who watch CNN on a given day.

The ability of these speakers to garner huge audiences outside of mainstream media outlets speaks to the popularity of these ideas. Weinstein, Peterson, and other IDW members reveal an oft-overlooked disconnect in Silicon Valley. After the diversity memo was published and Damore had been fired, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that the memo advanced "harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace."

Many of the rank-and-file tech workers I know, however, didn't fault the underlying science in Damore's memo, which essentially claimed that men and women are not biologically identical.

Many of my friends privately agreed with Damore's assessment that the big tech companies foster a climate where it's a bad idea to espouse dissenting or conservative-leaning views. They hold beliefs that they discuss and debate in person, or in private WhatsApp groups, but never in public or on Twitter.

It's not immediately clear to me whether or how this divergence will be corrected.

Certainly, the era of civil disagreement seems all but dead online, with echo chambers on social networks becoming increasingly entrenched.

The current emotionally-charged debates over political correctness, identity politics, and free speech have many in Silicon Valley wondering just what you can't say.

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