The Dark Forest Marketing Agency

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Fiction

The Pasha sat gravely on a beautifully rendered Ottoman-era chair. A discreet timer hovered above his head, reading 0:15. To one side, the medieval Istanbul cityscape was visible through a window. The Pasha gestured me towards a chair identical to his own. I sat down, briefly registering the dissonance between the visual of the luxuriously cushioned antique chair and the hard barstool I was actually sitting on in my apartment. I did not have the budget for luxuries like adaptive texture chairs and 2d treadmills. But as usual, the dissonance was fleeting.

The Pasha spoke.

”Welcome to the Dark Forest Marketing Agency. I am required by Turkish law to disclose that I am Pasha7, a certified digital twin representing Mr. Ibrahim Pasha of Sultanahmet, the renowned human marketing expert with whom you have signed the contract for this initial fifteen-minute consultation at the low introductory price of 0.05 ETH. As per Turkish law, Mr. Pasha accepts full legal responsibility for my actions on his behalf, as an AI model trained to track and mirror his evolving expertise as a marketing consultant, and offer affordable AI-based counsel on his behalf. I will strive to provide services comparable to the full-price ones provided by Mr. Pasha himself, to the select clients he handles personally. Please indicate your awareness that you are speaking with an AI mirror model.”

I flicked away the terms-of-service popup. I wondered why they still bothered with these disclaimers. Like most people I prefer interacting with digital twins these days anyway. Real people are a pain.

”Before we begin, would you like to verify proofs of my service location for your tax purposes and the Pasha7 model retraining certificate for freshness assurance?”

“Yes please.”

Two PCD certificate modals popped up. A location PCD asserting that the Pasha7 model was running somewhere in Istanbul [location withheld for security] and that Pasha7 had been retrained 17 hours ago using a certified Class II Daily Refinement Update regimen [proprietary training protocol details withheld]. I was impressed. Updating a full human twin daily with a Class II DRU regimen would not be cheap, even in Turkey. At 0.05 ETH for a 15-minute session, Mr. Ibrahim Pasha, human original, would not even make up for the amortized daily retraining costs, even if he was running the model 24/7, fully booked. And he was apparently running at least 7 instances in parallel it seemed, which would need merging and synchronizing. This introductory consultation I signed up for must be a loss leader that really converts well, I thought.

A modal floated up, with options to “verify PCDs online,” “verify PCDs on connected device,” and “download PCDs and verify offline.” The third option is the only one you should ever use if you care about OpSec. The first two options were grayed out for me because I always have my MR headset security policies set as tight as possible; I’ve been scammed once too often by MITM online verifier flow phishing in seemingly high-trust metaverses. They’re getting really clever these days. One time, a scam shifted the pass-through view of my wrist assistant screen just enough that I hit accept when I mean to hit reject. Another time, when I was green enough that I used a hot wallet to verify a PCD via what I thought was a reputable online service, the scammer hijacked the connection and drained my wallet when I thought I was merely signing the verification certificate. That was supposedly a discounted virtual guided tour of the British Museum, but the expensively rendered waiting room dissolved instantly once I signed the “PCD verifier” transaction, like it did for several thousand others who fell for that scam. Luckily, the metaverse company that had hosted the “tour” lost the class-action lawsuit for the unpatched exploit that enabled that particular scam, and I got my money back. But now I always play it safe. Always do your zk-proof verifications offline. And sign them with an offline key when you pass the flow back to whatever metaverse experience you’re trying to trust-check.

So I selected the third option, the only one I could, and flipped up my MR visor. The Pasha’s room vanished and I was back in my apartment for the moment. The transmission indicator on my wrist assistant blinked yellow for a few seconds, as the PCDs downloaded, and then turned steady green. I flipped the physical toggle to take it offline, then plugged in the hardware signing-only key I always have on a chain around my neck. A message popped up on the small wrist assistant screen: “Verify downloaded PCDs?”

I clicked yes on my hardware key. A few seconds later, the screen read, “PCDs verified.” I disconnected the key, toggled the wrist assistant back online, watched it blink as it transmitted the verification back to the headset, and flipped my visor back on.

The modal now read, “PCDs verified offline. Verifier signature authenticated. Proceed?” I tapped yes.

The Pasha said, “Excellent OpSec sir; I wish all my clients were as security conscious as you. Shall we begin?”

”Yes.” The timer hovering above the Pasha’s head immediately began counting down, 14:59, 14:58…

”Very well, now in these initial short consultations I like to cut to the chase immediately so you get some advice you can immediately apply, even if we don’t end up working together. I see from the intake notes that you’re looking to market a financial services product? So my first question is: Is it a predatory, parasitic, or prey product?”

”I am not certain I understand…are those the only options? I should certainly hope I’m not developing a predatory or parasitic product, but I don’t like the idea of offering a prey product either. I like to think I create real value for my customers, but can’t be taken advantage of.”

”I’m afraid those are indeed the only three options in classical Dark Forest marketing theory, and unfortunately most products these days are indeed prey products. So I will proceed on the assumption that your product is as well. If you choose to retain my services, at a future session we can discuss your business model and make a proper determination. But even based on the brief description you provided in the intake notes, I am confident your product is indeed a prey product.”

“Hey now, that’s pretty rude…”

“Please do not be offended. The strength of Dark Forest Marketing theory is that it does not flatter our conceits. My own business model, I will freely admit, is a prey model. I have had clients attempt to exploit my services in various ways. I have stayed safe by following my own marketing protocols for prey businesses.”

”Which are? Or is that something I learn in a full-price follow-up session?”

“Why no! I do not like to tease or clickbait. You paid for 15 minutes of consulting advice, and you will get it. The answer is short and simple. Do not market at all. Design your product or service to be very hard to discover and buy.”

”That’s dumb. Even in the most hostile world, you have to market. You have to have a brand, advertising, channels…”

”After this call, I will be happy to share with you the many free resources I offer my clients, to help you design a profitable business model with no visible marketing. Indeed, it is an age-old practice that has been mastered by various secret societies and hidden organizations throughout history. In fact my own country has a long history of this tradition.”

”I’m not convinced. This sounds like bullshit.”

”That is what I would expect. Most of my clients are not convinced when they first hear the idea.”

”So…convince me.”

”Ah, that, I’m afraid, would take several custom-tailored full-price follow-on sessions, and at the moment I have limited availability. But as I have said, I can provide for free all the materials you need to convince yourself. It is an option many clients on a budget choose anyway. To be frank, I offer these introductory price sessions via AI twins more as a pro bono service, because I believe more people should learn the principles of Dark Forest marketing. It is my way of giving back. I have been fortunate enough in this line of work that I have more than enough business to stay busy. But enough about me; in the few minutes we have remaining, what else would you like to discuss?”

”Maybe you can explain this theory of yours. What exactly is Dark Forest marketing?”

”Certainly. My theory is based on the science fiction works of the well-known writer Cixin Liu. You have heard of him perhaps? Let me explain with an example. You are building a financial service product, so let us use a toy financial example. If you had $1000 in cash bills available to spend, would you advertise the fact? Would you flourish the cash?”

”Depends on the circumstances I suppose. In a store I might tell the staff I have $1000 to spend and ask for recommendations on what to buy. Would that count as advertising my cash?”

”Of course, but as you say, it depends. If you were walking down a dark, sketchy street in a dangerous neighborhood, with shadows lurking in alleys, would you advertise your cash?”

”Of course not. That would be asking to be mugged.”

“But you might discreetly hurry down such a street, enter a safe-seeming store that has things you might want, and advertise your cash there?”

”I suppose… but this feels contrived. Cash is something you use to buy, not something you sell.”

”Is that really a meaningful difference? But very well, think about advertising expensive possessions you might sell, like jewelry, if you prefer. Or your financial services that presumably cost something to provide. A cost of doing business that you pay for. But the key principle to appreciate is the idea of a Cixin good. Are you familiar with the concept?”

”Is that like a Veblen good?”

”Not quite. Cixin goods are goods or services for which the marketing value of a median unit of random attention is negative. In other words, if you tell a randomly chosen counterparty that you possess the good and wish to sell it, you risk provoking a predatory or parasitic attack rather than a mutually beneficial transaction. The expected value of any transaction that ensues is likely to be negative for you. And possibly for the counterparty as well, in which case it is theoretically a Cipolla-Cixin good. The corresponding concept for a parasitic product is a Trump good. All attention has positive expected value. Predatory products tend to be more complex. Some kinds of attention are positive value, other kinds are negative value, and the median can be either positive or negative. But since your product is likely a prey product, the appropriate concept to apply is that of a Cixin good.”

”But then how are you supposed to sell it? Sounds like Cixin goods are unmarketable goods!”

”The trick, my dear sir, is to only exhibit what you offer in contexts that are so high-trust, they market themselves, and you only have to say no when you find yourself oversubscribed. If you’re interested, I may be able to squeeze you into my entry-level dark trust experience engineering accelerator in the next cohort. But I’m afraid we’re almost out of time…”

“But I’ve already started doing some regular branding and marketing! There’s a bunch of spam and phishing in our inbound channels but…”

“Ah, in that case you will want my intermediate package that includes basic damage control and presence scrubbing support for unmarketing. I will follow up with my complimentary resources and follow-on options, though as I have said my bandwidth for full-service clients is currently very limited. Goodbye.”

The countdown timer hit zero, and the scene dissolved gracefully, the Pasha’s smile fading last.

I never did receive the follow-up outreach. I assumed the Pasha had concluded I was not a worthwhile prospect, and had dropped me. Still, I thought about the conversation a lot as I tried to grow my fledgling business, and tried to teach myself Dark Forest marketing theory online. But curiously, there was almost no useful material, and no mention of the free resources the Pasha had mentioned. And I could not figure out how to reach him again — I had found the discounted keycode for the metaverse room introductory session in a random forum, and I never saw it mentioned again. There was no trace of the Dark Forest Marketing Agency anywhere.

It wasn’t until a year later, when I was visiting Istanbul, that the story finally found something of a resolution. When I described my experience to my Turkish host and asked if he knew where I could find “Ibrahim Pasha of the Dark Forest Marketing Agency,” apparently with offices somewhere in the Sultanahmet tourist area, he burst out laughing.

”You fell for the introductory session metaverse scam? With a supposed digital twin of a famous coach? I bet the character you met called himself Pasha4 or something, and provided PCDs?”

”Pasha7! But wait, what do you mean it’s a scam? I verified the PCDs offline, they were legit. The model had been retrained that morning and had a verified Istanbul location.”

”Of course they verified fine! That’s not the scam!”

”Then what? There’s no way what I paid would have covered fifteen minutes of a freshly retrained human model. And the model I spoke to was definitely full-fidelity human!”

”There is no model! There are no daily retraining costs! At least not for a full human digital twin!”

”But I verified the PCD! It was for a Class II Daily Refinement Update. That would run, I don’t know… thousands of dollars a day for an up-to-date digital twin! And if they were running at least 7 Pasha models in parallel merged every night…”

”You still don’t get it! There are no models, let alone 7! It’s just one guy! The scammers use Class II DRU certs, but not for a full human digital twin model… it’s for a simple pass-through mask model! Much cheaper! And it’s only one. The scammer adds a number like 7 to suggest that many instances are running! Nobody ever thinks to verify a subtle suggestion as opposed to an explicit assertion. Fake Proof of Demand!”


“Then he simply hops the mask model through dozens of cheap non-persistent metaverse rooms in a day, running dozens of ‘introductory price sessions.’ They just run through the same script with everyone, then change the script every few weeks as people catch on.”

”You mean…”

”You were talking to a human inside a lightweight mask model all along! I haven’t heard of this Dark Forest Marketing Agency script before though. That’s a new one.”

I left Istanbul vaguely depressed, but somehow not mad at the mysterious Ibrahim Pasha.

I can’t help thinking, Mr. Ibrahim Pasha, whatever his real name, would have made for a great marketing consultant. I feel I did learn something in those 15 minutes, even if not from an expensively trained AI model. But damned if I know what.

Maybe he’d even have saved my business, which I had to shut down after a couple of years of bleeding. I ended up losing money on almost all my initial customers; hardly any of them subscribed past the free trial.

Thanks to Randy Lubin for the inspired notion of a Cixin good, Josh Stark for the idea of a Trust Experience, the folks at 0xParc for teaching me about zero-knowledge tech and PCDs (proof-carrying data blobs, which allow assertions by a prover to be verified cryptographically by a verifier) which I’m sure I mangled horribly, the city of Istanbul for general inspiration. And of course, Cixin Liu for thinking of the fertile Dark Forest allegory.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. One of your most intriguing reads to date. In fact, this was the most bewildering Dark Forest PashaRao10 experience I’ve ever had.

  2. Dark-forest marketing theory is such an intriguing idea. It appeals to our egotistical desire to seem elite.

  3. it might be interesting to consider a single company/product and see how it changes between predatory, parasitic, or prey product.
    same with cixin good vs trump good.