Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter, recently presented two theories of the internet (it’s also on Medium), one of which is based upon Liu Cixin’s theory of the universe in The Dark Forest, the second book of his Three-Body trilogy (which gave me a serious, late-night existential dread).
Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet, because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay quiet.
Is our universe an empty forest or a dark one? If it’s a dark forest, then only Earth is foolish enough to ping the heavens and announce its presence. The rest of the universe already knows the real reason why the forest stays dark. It’s only a matter of time before the Earth learns as well.
This is also what the internet is becoming: a dark forest.
In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.
Is this a true representation of the theory as applied to the internet? Liu’s description (via WIkipedia) of how “the dark forest” operates is a little more specific than Strickler’s.
Luo Ji explains to Da Shi the implications he derived from Ye Wenjie’s two axioms of cosmic civilization: 1. Each civilization’s goal is survival, and 2. Resources are finite. Like hunters in a “dark forest”, a civilization can never be certain of an alien civilization’s true intentions. The extreme distance between stars creates an insurmountable “chain of suspicion” where any two civilizations cannot communicate well enough to relieve mistrust, making conflict inevitable. Therefore, it is in every civilization’s best interest to preemptively strike and destroy any developing civilization before it can become a threat, but without revealing their own location, thus explaining the Fermi paradox.
Critical to the Liu formulation are those first two premises: survival and resources. These are absent from Strickler’s appropriation.
Strickler seems to be talking about a kind of retreat into information silos, in this case not the result of myopic (mis)management but instead that of an instinct of self-preservation in the face of too much bad information, and bad faith, on the existing mass platforms.
Arguably, the retreat into self-protective silos itself is what could create a kind of dark forest of the internet. (Although I don’t believe it.)
Liu’s posit is that the immense distances between stars make it impossible to communicate and learn each other’s motives. An alien civilization could represent itself in a manner designed solely to hide a malevolent intent and we’d have no way of knowing. This isn’t really true of the internet.
In fact, on the internet malevolent intent—or, as I said above, bad information and bad faith—is readily identifiable. It’s everywhere, all mixed together with the good information and good faith. It’s just that the mass platforms are not doing enough to protect you, me, or anyone else from the bad.
That’s what driving people into silos.
On the internet, the axioms in play aren’t a civilization’s need for survival and the finity of resources. Instead, we might look at it from the standpoint of two other premises.
- Each person’s goal is connection.
- Attention is finite.
If we take these as the axioms, we aren’t looking at a “dark forest” and the dangers of a preemptive war between civilizations due to finite resources and impossible communication.
Instead, we’re looking at the dangers of mass platforms monopolizing connection in order to monopolize attention.
The “chain of suspicion”, then, doesn’t flow laterally between or among civilizations who are more or less equal as in Liu’s theory, but rather vertically between the users of mass platforms, below, and the owners of mass platforms, above. Silos, in this case, then, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Think of them instead as safe spaces, chosen communities of relation or affinity.
What’s more, I suspect that most people will not simply wall themselves off exclusively into various silos, but continue also making use of such mass channels as continue to exist. It’s just that as more opportunities for safe, chosen communities arise or are made we will use each space for its own, unique purposes. Some of these communities will be self-contained, while others will interact with each other.
What we’re looking at here isn’t a dark forest. What we’re looking at here is an interconnected network.
There should be a name for that.