By S.C. Hickman
“War is father of all and king of all; and some he has shown as gods, others men; some he has made slaves, others free.”
“The dark forest theory of the internet is about the tragedy of communication, its compulsion, necessity, futility, and risk. It’s an experiment with “hardboiled survivalist hyper-nihilism,” with metaphysical sci-fi, rather than cyberpunk, as a model for the cyberspace. Where Mark Fisher wanted to distil the internet’s uniqueness, I aim to describe its genericity on a cosmic level. I want to grasp the brutality of our situation: communication is a compulsion and yet it is also the source of conflict.”
— The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, Bogna Konior
This battle between closure and openness, autopoietic and allopoietic forms is at the heart of this conflict. Probably always has been.
As Niklas Luhmann once argued, social systems are composed entirely of communications, if communications are the elements that compose social systems, then communications refer only to other communications and never anything outside of themselves. Here communication is not something that takes place between systems but is strictly something that takes place in a system. Another way of putting this would be to say that a system cannot communicate with its environment and an environment cannot communicate with a system.
The core element of Luhmann’s theory pivots around the problem of the contingency of meaning and thereby it becomes a theory of communication. Social systems are systems of communication, and society is the most encompassing social system. Being the social system that comprises all (and only) communication, today’s society is a world society. A system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment, dividing it from an infinitely complex, or (colloquially) chaotic, exterior. The interior of the system is thus a zone of reduced complexity: Communication within a system operates by selecting only a limited amount of all information available outside. This process is also called “reduction of complexity”. The criterion according to which information is selected and processed is meaning (in German, Sinn). Meaning being thereby referral from one set of potential space to another set of potential space. Both social systems and psychic systems operate by processing meaning.
The internet is such a system.
Of course, in her essay she’s dealing with more specific issues within this autopoietic system. Treating the universe as a closed or autopoietic system in which “conflict” is the core attribute of existence she’ll state bluntly – reversing the Fermi Paradox: “The dark forest theory flips the underlying assumption, explaining that communication, because it reveals our existence to others, is a sign of stupidity rather than intelligence. This is not because all alien civilizations are hostile, but because the laws of the universe necessitate mortal conflict among all civilizations that share the same dimension.”
A little later she’ll reinforce this notion: “Web 2.0 rests on two axioms. First, sociality is a primary human need, communication is necessary for survival. Second, sociality is the carrier of all human conflict. More sociality, more entropy. Our nervous systems cannot distinguish between sociality and survival, and so we are sentenced to each other. The whole internet has been dealt that dead hand.”(14). This sense of the autopoietic communications as Luhmann suggests is made possible by human bodies and consciousness, but this does not make communication operationally open. To “participate” in communication, one must be able to render one’s thoughts and perceptions into elements of communication. This can only ever occur as a communicative operation (thoughts and perceptions cannot be directly transmitted) and must therefore satisfy internal system conditions that are specific to communication: intelligibility, reaching an addressee and gaining acceptance. This goes back to Bogna’s notion that our “nervous systems cannot distinguish between sociality and survival.”
Most of us are automatons anyway, blind to the very systems within which we are enclosed, completely bound to their operational rules and the dictates of their techniques and forms. Very few people challenge this and step outside. As Bogna will put it “The dark forest theory of the internet bypasses that fallacy and instead outlines automated dynamics tied to communication. As an isolated system it tends towards the high-entropy option. Connection produces conflict. Intent, hostility, or internal benevolence do not matter once each one of us is reduced to a node in the cybernetic chain of suspicion.” (15). As if we were reading Foucault writing Thomas Pynchon’s mad capper trip into such a conflictual paranoia nightmare as Gravity’s Rainbow, she brings it all home in contemporary parlance.
One of those aspects of the great “suspicion” now in the dark forest of the internet is not all those creatures are “human” others, that there are such beings watching us ready to pounce who have been programmed by language models of greater and greater complexity. But of all those machinic progeny we’ve begun to program some of them may end up living for us in world devoid of actual human presence. The paranoia of the day is simply: who am I speaking with? Machine or Human? Not being Turing specialists most of us may within the next decade suddenly find ourselves surrounded by machinic cousins who know us better than we know ourselves and can also manipulate us in subtle ways that we will never understand or even know about.
Already ai-generation tools are flooding every aspect of the human equation with capacities and capabilities that outstrip their human counterparts. As Andrew C. Wenaus in his book on the Literature of Exclusion adeptly testifies we are in the slow process of being excluded from our own creative endeavors.2
Bogna mentions Bataille’s theory of “expenditure” which in the end offers much the same conclusion as her own that civilization is an entropy machine. Bogna will return in the end to the simple question: What should be done and who am I?
I asked ChatGPT (an ai-generated language model) that question:
Me: What should be done and who am I?
ChatGPT: Without more information, it’s difficult for me to understand what you mean by “what should be done.” Could you please provide more context or clarify your question? And “who am I” question, I am an AI language model and I don’t have the capability to know your personal identity without you telling me.
That last one resides in me using a “description” and thereby opening the proverbial worm box of issues residing in such representations. Here we go again… let the war and conflict begin!
For those who would like more information on Bogna Konior there’s a great interview The Impersonal Within Us – A Conversation with Bogna Konior.
Her essay can be found here: click here
- Konior, Bogna. THE DARK FOREST THEORY OF THE INTERNET. (First Published in 2020 by Flugschriften). © 2020 Bogna
- Wenaus, Andrew C.. Literature of Exclusion: Dada, Data, and the Threshold of Electronic Literature. (Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc., 2021)