The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet

This is also what the internet is becoming: a dark forest

Yancey Strickler

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Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

In his sci-fi trilogy The Three Body Problem, author Liu Cixin presents the dark forest theory of the universe.

When we look out into space, the theory goes, we’re struck by its silence. It seems like we’re the only ones here. After all, if other forms of life existed, wouldn’t they show themselves? Since they haven’t, we assume there’s no one else out there.

Liu invites us to think about this a different way.

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 silent.

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.

This very piece is an example of this. This theory was first shared on a private channel sent to 500 people who I know or who have explicitly chosen to receive it. This is the online environment in which I feel most secure. Where I can be my most “real self.”

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments.

Podcasts are another example. There, meaning isn’t just expressed through language, but also through intonation and interaction. Podcasts are where a bad joke can still be followed by a self-aware and self-deprecating save. It’s a more forgiving space for communication than the internet at large.

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Yancey Strickler

Author of “This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World”; Cofounder of Kickstarter; Bentoist; http://www.ystrickler.com