The permissionless nature of Ethereum has costs — but it’s necessary & beneficial
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.
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.”
This comparison usefully described the Ethereum mempool, a virtual space where pending transactions wait to be included in blocks. The mempool is closely monitored by bots of unknown origin who monitor transactions and their potential end states. If there’s profit to be made, they will ruthlessly frontrun or outbid these transactions. Profit equates to detection in the dark forest, and as Dan and Georgios painfully experienced, it’s nearly impossible to avoid these predators. Their objectives did not align with those whom were lurking in the shadows.
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.
A few examples:
- 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
When this happens, it feels like others are freeloading on infrastructure they haven’t contributed towards. If it’s other community members, that they are abusing infrastructure or bandwidth that could better be used.
While the impact of Ethereum’s permissionlessness can be frustrating and disorienting at every layer it is expressed, we must remember that it behaves this way by design. In fact, an alternative ecoystem where we’ve lost its chaotic inputs is actually much more concerning, and ultimately yield less interesting projects. It would be indicate a loss of antifragility and weakness: we are fortunate this hasn’t occurred yet. This current blend of characteristics are what make Ethereum revolutionary and worthy of our continued investment.
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
Think about that for a moment — this is an amazing set of properties all in one ecosystem! All of these are the result of Ethereum’s origination and growth as a Dark Forest ecosystem: permissionless, chaotic, and open to all.
These attributes run parallel to one of the Ethereum community’s favorite frames, the Cathedral and the Bazaar. Both the Bazaar and the Dark Forest are sources of continuous energy for the community. Anyone, from any background and any country, can access what we are cultivating — this is a powerful motivation for us to continue our efforts.
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.
Again, it is worth reminding ourselves that Ethereum enables:
- 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.
This summer’s yield farming escapades once again highlighted the schism in community narrative expectations. On one side, prominent voices raising concerns about the speed of experimentation, callbacks to “The DAO” and ICO fervor. On the other, the celebration of radical experimentation and of participation in those experiments.
The community contains different perspectives on how quickly and in what ways the ecosystem should develop. It’s crucial to understand that this is the latest manifestation of an old pattern that will continue as long as blocks are produced. There will be future manias, rampant speculation, unending schemes to twist the capacity of Ethereum.
All of these can be ascribed to Molochs: opportunistic meta-monsters living in the forest with us, with the sole intent of perpetuating coordination failures (Meditations on Moloch). Manias like yield farming introduce uncertainty into our expectations, upend norms, strip collective meaning from our individual frameworks — not least of all putting gas prices through the roof.
All three layers (technical, social, political) host a myriad of other non-community or community-adjacent entities. These entities sometimes have wildly different end purposes for Ethereum, but they all look to leverage its Dark Forest capabilities.
They may try to use the social and political layers to gain support or funding, even diverting attention from worthwhile projects. Some entities will end up having negative long-term ecosystem or regulatory impacts. Some will foment their own manias, and some will gaslight the core community into confusion about what are worthy goals and how to pursue them. Given the permissionless access to the tech and the malleability of the social and political layers, it’s impossible to anticipate or prevent every possibility.
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.
Do we believe there are still worthwhile technical, social and political experiments to be had on Ethereum? Then we must get better about weathering the temporary feeling that we’ve lost the beautiful vision.
The space for purpose-driven positive outcomes is as strong as ever, and will continue to blossom — even if it might feel more hidden right now. Focus on maintaining your own resolve until the mechanisms that you value are valued by others. And not just others in the ecosystem — there’s the entire rest of the planet to welcome into the Dark Forest!
Both now and in the future, we’re building this as a community. This is a massive collective experiment. The forest requires a diversity of interests, backgrounds and skills as inputs to craft its cooperative games and coordination machines. It needs some people that urge caution, and others that push the envelope. This is how it should be, and it is our ability to negotiate between these poles that makes me as hopeful as I’ve ever been that what we are building together will continue to be realized.
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.
In times of rapid narrative change, we must remind ourselves of the foundational reasons we first started. We should double down and recommit to our efforts of cultivating Ethereum’s Dark Forest. After all, the space for positive outcomes is as strong as ever.
Molochs will always live in the forest with us. I’ve chosen to continue building Ethereum while they sleep — I hope you will as well.