Dark Forest Theories

There’s a concept I first heard in relation to the Fermi Paradox, which I’ve ended up using a lot in other contexts.

Why do we see no aliens out there? A possible (though not necessarily correct) answer, is that the aliens might not want to reveal themselves for fear of being destroyed by larger, older, hostile civilizations. There might be friendly civilizations worth reaching out to, but the upside of finding friendlies is smaller than the downside of risking getting destroyed.

Even old, powerful civilizations aren’t sure that they’re the oldest and most powerful civilization, and eldest civilizations could be orders of magnitude more powerful still.

So, maybe everyone made an individually rational-seeming decision to hide.

A quote from the original sci-fi story I saw describing this:

“The universe is a 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.”

(I consider this a spoiler for the story it’s from, so please don’t bring that up in the comments unless you use spoiler tags[1])

However this applies (or doesn’t) to aliens, I’ve found it useful to have the “Dark Forest” frame in a number of contexts where people are looking at situation, and see something missing, and are confused. “Why is nobody doing X?”, or “Why does X not exist?”. The answer may be that it does exist, but is hidden from you (often on purpose).

I once talked to someone new to my local community saying “nobody is building good group houses that really help people thrive. I’m going to build one and invite people to it.” I said “oh, people are totally building good group houses that help people thrive… but they are private institutions designed to help the people living there. The way they function is by creating a closed boundary where people can build high trust relationships.”

A couple other example areas where Dark Forest Theorizing is relevant:

  • “Why are there no good meetups?” The answer might be that there are good private meetups, but the public meetups tend to attract people who weren’t invited to private meetups because they were kinda annoying, and this creates an evaporative cooling effect where the people who could potentially make the public meetups good don’t stick around[2].

  • “Why is no one talking to AI companies to get them to change their ways?” The answer is that people are, but it’s a delicate high-trust operation. AI companies are likely to tune you out if you’re telling them they’re terrible, getting them to actually listen is a delicate operation that requires both trust and understanding their current frame.

In some cases, a thing might not literally be hidden on purpose from you, but it’s absence is still evidence of something systematically important. For example, “Why aren’t the AI people making a giant mass movement to raise public awareness of AI?” Because many versions of a mass movement might turn out to be net-negative (i.e. causing political polarization which makes it harder to get the necessary bipartisan support to pass the relevant laws), and instead the people involved are focused on more narrow lobbying efforts.

(This is not to say that you can’t make good public meetups, or successfully talk to AI companies and get them to change their ways, or that there aren’t good ways to do mass public outreach on AI that are being neglected. But there may be some systemic difficulties you may be missing)

I do realize the cosmic existential threat aspect of the original metaphor is pretty overkill for some of these. The part of the metaphor that feels most resonant to me here is “you’re in a dark place and there’s things you’d maybe expect to see, but don’t, and the reason you don’t see X is specifically because X doesn’t want you to find it.”

I may have more to say on individual Dark Forests in the future. For now, I just want to present this as a model to keep in your back pocket and see where it’s useful.

  1. ^

    Spoiler tagged lines begin “>!”

  2. ^