Ethereum’s Dark Forest is worth cultivating

this essay has been paired with dark forest audio. listen here while you read

TLDR;

Ethereum is technically, socially, and politically permissionless — meaning anyone can access these layers. Though this openness introduces costs to the community, it is what makes Ethereum such a dynamic ecosystem. We must always remember this reality and not be dissuaded or distracted from what we are building: a global arena for cooperative games.

Introduction

In their “Ethereum is a Dark Forest” article, Dan Robinson and Georgios Konstantopoulos drew a comparison between Ethereum’s adversarial environment and the concept of a “dark forest.” The metaphor comes from a book of the same name, and is used to describe “an environment in which detection means certain death at the hands of advanced predators.”

Ethereum is a Dark Forest at every layer

In what follows, I extend the Dark Forest metaphor to also encompass other technical aspects of Ethereum, as well as its social and political layers. Just as anyone can watch the mempool for transactions to exploit, actors can leverage each layer to their ultimate benefit, whether or not they have the long-term interests of the community in mind.

  • Technical: deploying to mainnet, adding state to the chain, watching the mempool in order to frontrun
  • Social: participating in social graphs, twitter hot takes, donating to Gitcoin grants
  • Political: lobbying for or against specific technical changes, participating in rough consensus, attending All Core Dev calls

Celebrating and embracing Ethereum’s Dark Forest characteristics

It is well worth remembering that in only 5 years, Ethereum has become:

  • an emergent collection of technical, social, and political characteristics not replicated in any other ecosystem
  • the host to a dizzying array of permissionless experimentation via an ever-growing open toolset of mechanisms
  • defined by a distributed and ever-growing global community that allows institutions, moneys and irrevocable contracts to be conjured

What Ethereum enables

We’ve seen people from around the world leveraging Ethereum’s capabilities. As Virgil put it, “Ethereum is an unprecedented arena for playing cooperative games.” (Source). An arena full of coordination machines: tools and infrastructure that continue to operate, regardless of what happens in the physical world. In true credible neutral fashion, these coordination machines can be for any purpose: from the inspiring to the common, from the mundane to the evil.

  • open organizations anyone can create or join
  • blindingly transparent records
  • globally accessible financial products and markets
  • community currencies
  • non-extractive remittances
  • non-custodial financial services
  • marketplaces that compensate creatives fairly
  • persistent scripts deployable to a global computer
  • portable non-state identities
  • local fantasy sports league betting
  • unfettered speculation
  • payment rails for ransomware
  • financialization of our most sacred human experiences
  • permissionless scams
  • multinationals coordinating local resource extraction
  • assassination markets

When expectations diverge from reality

Both remarkably good and remarkably bad potentials populate this list. If we become overwhelmed by negative outcomes, it may seem at times that Ethereum is not worth the effort.

What can the community do?

Help me kill this particular Moloch: we need to be better at fully accepting the reality of the Dark Forest, at each layer. We need to play long-term games with our own adversarial mindset. We need to understand we share every layer with both aligned and non-aligned entities. We need to embrace — or tolerate — the uncertainty, the seeming instability of a permissionless ecosystem.

In conclusion

Ethereum has always been an adversarial environment. Its Dark Forest characteristics are what make it unique when compared to every other crypto platform and community. Because Ethereum’s technical, social, political and layers are permissionless, anyone can use and abuse them. We cannot control this access, but we can control our reaction to actual or perceived cooption.

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Trenton Van Epps

Trenton Van Epps

Current: Coordinating @ Ethereum Core Dev call. Past: Community @ ETHGlobal. Interested in how chain culture manifests.