“You have looked upon the faces of Good and of Evil,” my Mentor said. “And now it is time for you to know the true face of the Enemy.”
“Yes, I understand,” I immediately said.
I didn’t really understand at all. I had seen torture, slaughter, betrayal, and every shade of cruelty. What could be left? What could be worse?
“Here,” my Mentor indicated for me to move forward once more. I did so, and my vision once again faded to black.
A new scene erupted before me.
“Standard civilization fare,” I thought, as time accelerated forward. I was everywhere at once, seeing the events play out in tandem.
The quadrupeds had found tools and began crafting. Small clusters of them began to operate as groups. I frowned, as time raced by. What was I to look for? A small percentage of them were violent, but this was nothing in comparison to some other species. Nor did I see any major warning signs of a moral catastrophe.
After a few time shifts, they discovered automatons and increased their resource harvesting activities. “How droll,” I thought, and I sped up the playback. I watched the quadrupeds move, generation by generation; it seemed too slow to parse their actions at a slower rate.
Then a chunk disappeared from the world.
Not literally. But a tremendous amount of environmental strain had appeared in the span of just a few generations.
I frowned and manually paused the playback. Something was amiss. I hadn’t seen any ambitious quadrupeds attempt such any large-scale actions. Slowing it down, I examined the actions of each being in greater detail. Indeed, no one had decided to deliberately sabotage their universe.
It was if the damage had just… happened.
Speeding through, I watched as the quadrupeds further developed their communication system. Individually, none of them were contributing to the damage, yet it appeared on the timescale of generations. Somehow, the group behavior had manifested in an atypical way.
“This isn’t merely emergent behavior,” I thought. “These are super high level phenomena. And these beings recognize the disaster that’s happening.”
Yet, in spite of such common knowledge, the deterioration around them, continued to happen.
It was unprecedented.
The quadrupeds networked their communication system together. Their combined system allowed them to send information rapidly across channels. I watched their initial messages— conversations, public notices, knowledge, flitter past.
Time moved forward again, as they began to optimize for communication. Not content, but the very structure of how the quadrupeds interacted with the medium:
Typical conversation was replaced by baited messages, which intentionally withheld information. Public notices sacrificed accuracy for ease of comprehension. Repositories of knowledge made their archives difficult to navigate, to maximize “user engagement”. A shift towards information designed to inflame, focusing on outrage to increase communication, had come about.
The type of content spread over the communication channels had somehow mutated, twisting into something else entirely. The messages that spread the furthest were the ones that incited visceral emotions for sharing, which overrode rational thought. Which meant that it was these offending messages that would, in turn, spread further.
In less than two generations, their core values had degenerated into violating one another’s sensibilities, optimizing for outrage, disgust, anger, and shame, all of which fueled such future communication.
A vicious cycle that propagated itself, outcompeting other communication and draining resources. As devious as a virus, but as intelligent as a rock. There was no wizard behind the curtain.
So this was the Enemy. Without face, without body, without mercy.
Abruptly, the scene in front of me turned black once more.
I was back. My Mentor was in front of me, waiting.
There was so much to process. I took several moments to collect my thoughts. “Disparity between propagation and value systems,” I tried summing up the terrifying, terrifying phenomena I had just witnessed.
“Mentor,” I managed to speak. “Those beings, what became of them? And the Enemy?”
“Part of that is up to you,” my Mentor said, “for the Enemy still stands.”
I reeled. This was an Open Problem?
“Surely you can’t mean,” I said, “that you— that you would require— that you would want me to—“
“Indeed,” my Mentor said. “We need more soldiers on this battlefield. Are you capable of fighting?”
“Yes, I am capable ” I immediately said.
I didn’t really feel capable at all. How could you fight something that wasn’t there? Something that merely came about? This was no mere Enemy in the territory. The Enemy was the territory.