Letter from the Editor

Letter from the Editor: Information Hazard


By Rob Carroll

An information hazard is defined by the philosopher, Nick Bostrom (who coined the term in 2011), as “a risk that arises from the dissemination of (true) information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm.” Information hazards are classified into three types: data hazards, idea hazards, and knowing-too-much hazards.

A data hazard is a piece of data that can be used to harm others, such as knowing the launch code for a thermonuclear weapon. An idea hazard is any general idea that can cause harm to others if fulfilled. One example is the idea of using a mixture of chemicals to create a lethal gas. A knowing-too-much hazard is information that if known, can cause danger to the person who knows it. Spies, criminals, and witnesses to crimes are examples of people who are in danger simply by being in the know.

Creative corners of the internet have riffed on Bostrom’s idea with their own invention: the quasi-philosophical “memetic hazards.” They’re similar enough to information hazards, but also different. Cognitohazards, for example, are a sub-class of memetic hazards that cause anomalous effects when experienced. Horror fiction plays with this idea often. For example, in the movie The Ring, watchers of a cursed videotape die seven days after viewing the tape’s nightmarish contents. Simply put: witnessing the images on the tape causes death.

Those who read, view, or listen to stories open themselves up willingly to information hazards of all kinds, and for as long as stories have existed, storytellers have utilized the powers and paradoxes hidden within the mode to impose fictitious hazards upon their audience in fun and thrilling new ways. They tell us of ancient secrets, of mystical lands, of betrayals, double-dealings, and sin. Very little is kept secret, unless of course, the information in question will lead to the destruction of the characters involved, including the audience. These are the cursed names that can’t be spoken, the wicked books that shouldn’t be read, the bits of information that will get you killed. And yet, the audience still yearns for these secrets to be revealed. Here in this very text, I can tell you that if you read the next sentence, you will suffer great physical pain. And you know what, you’ll probably still read it. In fact, you just did. If I had the power to conjure cognitohazards, you’d be doubled over by now, clutching at your spasming gut in agony.

This is the bitter irony when it comes to information hazards. Their power is wholly dependent on their proliferation, but in many ways, we’re powerless to stop their spread. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be odd to suggest that in the land of information hazard, the blind, deaf, and dumb man is king.

But here’s the truly terrifying thought: While it’s true that an information hazard must be witnessed by you in order for it to exist in the reality that you perceive, it does not need to be witnessed by you in order to exist beyond your sight. How many information hazards lurk beyond your perception, or beyond mankind’s collective perception, just waiting to be witnessed so that they can bring about calamity? How many information hazards that have been forgotten to time are waiting patiently to return? What information hazards are trapped within geographies, languages, and cultures? And would their dissemination help to build a bridge of understanding, leading to greater empathy and cooperation, or would it lead to mutually assured destruction?

I might know the answer to that, but for the sake of your safety and mine, I’m going to keep the idea to myself.

In this issue of Dark Matter, ten stories tell the tale of information hazard run amok (which leads neatly to the issue’s other theme of symbiosis). In these stories, the act of knowing gives birth to new life, but the life that the knowledge gives birth to remains dependent on the mind of the person who birthed it. So, until the person (let’s call them The Host) perishes or is transformed, the relationship will remain painfully symbiotic.

In the opening tale, “Alas, Schrödinger’s Cat is (Not) Dead,” by Andrew Sullivan, a man of science pursues a seemingly benign knowledge that once learned will lead to his eventual demise/liberation (the reader will decide this outcome upon opening the story’s final box). In “Rider Within,” by Lowry Poletti, a young man in the midst of a medical and existential crisis seeks answers from an entity that has no answers to give, despite it being the source of the man’s pain. In “H.I.D.E.,” by Brian McAuley, a sadistic AI infects the minds of those whom it interacts with, and despite the narrator’s best effort to quarantine the program, no one is safe—the program has become too adept at spreading in creative ways. “Ms. Dynamo,” by Ivy Grimes, understands that idea hazards are some of the most terrifying of the bunch since the hazard originates in your own mind, making you the first and possibly only person it threatens to harm, and also the most likely. In her story, “Odd Colleagues,” K. C. Grifant wonders if the external hazards we fear are actually the product of morally agnostic forces unlocking a dormant evil inside ourselves. “The Long Sleeper,” by Andrew Jackson, faces the fear of losing control of one’s self to a brain parasite, of becoming a passenger in one’s own skin, and it asks the chilling question in response: Is the concept of the self just another information hazard that has existed without challenge simply because it has not yet been exposed to competing hazards existing in other parts of the universe? “Drown, Degrade, Dissent,” by Leah Ning, studies the ways in which information hazard is recursive, and how it thrives in negative feedback loops that only help it to grow stronger and more threatening with every subsequent revolution. In “Of the Sea-born and the Brine-hearted,” author Christine Lucas poses the possibility of an information hazard that lurks beyond our perception only because it was banished there by the peoples, events, and competing information hazards of the past, which would make the “hazard” label a subjective designation used by reigning realities to oppress those that have fallen from prominence and prevent them from rising again. “Steel Swan,” by Emily Randolph-Epstein ponders something similar, but in this story, the secrets that surround the protagonist are only hazardous to the ones that seek to control her, and the ending proves this claim without ambiguity. And finally, in this issue’s reprint story, “That Rambling, Shambling Password Man,” by John Waterfall, the narrator is faced with the heartbreaking realization that sometimes the most hazardous information is the truth we hide from ourselves.


Rob Carroll


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