Hello, little creature. Welcome to my tree.
You see, the internet is a forest. A dark forest, if you believe this viral blog by Yancey Strickler (the man with no first name): “The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet” .
This is a classic effortpost by a blinkered Silicon Valley darling. Strickler was one of the founders of Kickstarter, but he abandoned the harried life of an internet citizen years ago. He describes himself as part of “a generation of modern wannabe monks”. And he’s right. Like the monasteries of the Middle Ages, the walled compounds of the techbros are filled with failsons muddling their way along by mouthing the right incantations. “Disrupt”, they moan, as they shuffle in slavering hordes to the juice bar. “Disruuuuupt…”
Not you, dear beast. The other ones, they’re the failsons. You are the clever creature who found my nessst, who will be safe with me in this hidden niche of the net.
Strickler has FOMO, of course, but he can’t be on social media very much because of the effect on his “personal wellness”. He takes pity on the poor people who don’t get to see his baby pictures and lunch thoughts:
Not sharing was my choice, of course, and I didn’t question it. My alienation from the mainstream was their loss, not mine. But did this choice also deprive me of some greater reward?
To his credit, he does notice that everyone else has retreated into backchannels and group chats, and that it’s not just special monkish boys who have abandoned the hellscapes of the News Feed and the Time Line.
Who needs a timeline, when the newsssletter comes every Monday? Why keep up with anything elssse? It’s not sssafe to read the other ssstuff.
The point of his essay (and the “since this is blowing up” part II ), is that the internet has become a dark forest (spooky! engaging! clicks!). It’s dangerous out there! Algorithms are coming! Russians!
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.
Note how he doesn’t question where these “behaviors” are coming from, or how we could defeat them.
The metaphor comes from the Fermi paradox: why don’t we see evidence of alien life? The dark forest answer is an extension of mutually assured destruction: in the great reaches of space, it’s harder to find out if some aliens are friendly than it is to just blow up their planet. Save time and energy! Reduce the risk that they’re bigger and meaner than your species! It’s a win-win.
Mr. Yancey seems to be missing the point, though. He talks about having our own little “dark forests”, where we hang out with our friends, safe from the mobs of the public web. That’s not how the forest works. Take it from someone who’s lived deep in the darkest woods: you are always being watched. Or take it from Cixin Liu, in his novel The Dark Forest :
Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds another life—another hunter, angel, or a demon, a delicate infant to tottering old man, a fairy or demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.
Group chats aren’t dark forests. At best they’re trees, where we roost for the night, safe in numbers. At worst, they’re campfires: blinding their users and attracting invisible dangers. Strickler isn’t talking about dark forests, he’s talking about filter bubbles. People are living in bubbles, true, but abusing the metaphor leads him to the wrong conclusion.
In a dark forest universe, there is one choice to make. You either prepare to kill anyone who confronts you, or you neutralize yourself completely and publicly. If you shed light, you become a target. Hide or hunt.
Of course, you could wrap your home planet in gravity and make it impossible to leave. That’s fine. Probably no one will bother you, since you’re not a threat. This also happens on the internet, represented by a blue check next to the person’s username. The “bluecheck domain” is a reputational singularity. You’ll never escape your own brand.
If you were to tweet from my tree, tweet about my newsssletter, we would have more friendsss hiding with us in thisss canopy… Wouldn’t that be niccce?
Strickler comes to a classic milquetoast solution: when faced with mutually assured destruction, you’re supposed to “learn how to be [your]self on the internet”! “Be your true self in every context and vow to be present wherever you are”!
This is a recipe for getting your planet destroyed.
Be your true ssself! What do you have to hide? Acccept my cookiesss. Do you have a loyalty card? Wouldn’t you like one?
There are solutions to the dark forest problem. There have to be: we literally evolved in the trees. We learned to gang up, to wield fire, to shape the earth. We admittedly went a bit overboard with the fire-wielding and earth-shaping, but we became the planet’s biggest problem for a reason. Who knows what we could yet discover?
Buy my book! Very inssspirational. Take my courssse, view my TED talk! Visssit my websssite, you know you want to. Don’t worry, you don’t need to read all thossse termsss and conditionsss. Jussst be presssent wherever you are. Ssspeaking of which, we need to accesss your location data…
When faced with hidden enemies, find your pack. Find them in the trees or at the campfire, but get together and know each other. Be connected to the people you trust. Be defined by your relations, rather than your behaviors. Look out for each other, because the internet isn’t going to do it for you.
Pack up. Hunt the algorithms back.
No! Not my algorithmsss!
Thanks for reading,
###### SCIOPS is a weekly letter that is hunting you on the internet. Feel free to forward it, or share it, or attempt to destroy it. You can find a web version of the latest letter here , or view the archive here .
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