An infohazard is a discrete piece of information that, by itself, causes major, fundamental shifts in your worldview. It does not need to be true, or meaningful. Bostrom provides a more detailed taxonomy.

It’s a common theme in fiction — particularly horror fiction & the weird’. For instance, the “Yellow Sign” in the play-within-the-book The King in Yellow causes those who see it to become thralls to the titular King, and the play of the same name in that book causes anyone who reads its fragments to go mad. Likewise, the infohazard is a common element in Lovecraft’s work, usually as media, although in Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jerimyn & His Family, it is a secret about the protagonist’s ancestry. However, the infohazard is not unique to horror fiction — it also appears in theology (for instance, in the form of the magical properties of the true name of god & the ability for a mental image of the ain sof to physically blind people, in jewish theology).

Infohazards are necessarily rare: humans have extremely well-developed defenses against even small changes to how they think about the world. World-changing ideas — things that could have qualified as infohazards had understanding them truly implied accepting their implications (like natural selection, for instance) — typically do not manage to fully circulate, even among professionals, until a generation dies off and a new batch (for whom the world-shaking revelation is common sense) takes its place.

Nevertheless, we have a couple real-life candidates for things that were once potent infohazards:

  • Cantor’s continuity conjecture — which both Godel & Cantor spent months trying to prove or disprove before succumbing to death related to ongoing mental illness
  • Godel’s incompleteness theorem — which was probably at least partially implicated in the stress-induced paranoid flare-up that caused his death (although he was working on the continuity conjecture at the time)
  • Some core ideas of the french existentialists (for instance: the idea that the world is without inherent meaning & any telos is our own invention)
  • Roko’s basilisk (which, when unleashed on a community who had been spending years reasoning about the mechanisms that make it operate, caused a panic)
  • Plato’s theory of forms (which inverts & externalizes the mental model as a directly-perceived eternal domain upon which the real world is said to have been modeled) and Cartesian dualism (which reifies the mind as immaterial) — both of which, like herpes simplex, have infected basically the whole human population

On the more concrete side, there are some images that due to their structure cause permanent or semi-permanent visual damage.

Candidates for still-live infohazards include the collected essays of Nick Land.

The fortean (or high strangeness) is distinct from the infohazard in a few ways. One is that where an infohazard disrupts existing categories and assumptions and produces new ones, high strangeness is merely resistant to categorization.

Things can be both, for sure! A lot of close encounters are both fortean (in the sense that they don’t hang together in a way that is amenable to rational thought) and info-hazardous (in the sense that the people who experience them end up undergoing rapid personality change). Usually, this is the result of an attempt to figure out under what ontology would these experiences make sense. (For an extreme example, see Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis, or the collected writing of Witley Streiber, or read Rigorous Intuition.)

Sometimes there’s not enough information to even make guesses: for instance, the Simonson case (described by Jacques Vallee & later by Robert Anton Wilson), wherein a craft landed in a man’s back yard, the crew of the craft asked him for a pitcher of water, and they proceeded to make him some whole-wheat pancakes with the water and then leave. (This is my favorite example of high strangeness because it’s also not particularly numinous the way that most instances of it are. It’s merely essentially inexplicable: any possible explanation of the crew of saucer-shaped flying craft making random folks free pancakes but forgetting to bring their own water is in contradiction with way too many things we all believe about reality.)

(This post is adapted from a conversation on secure scuttlebutt at %+3IwyiasfP+l+TRBvxIeUV56wlnZHNzCx6veYfPvk2o=.sha256)

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Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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