The Tragedy of Light

I’ve never been a huge anime fan, but Death Note is the one show that I’ve really enjoyed. The intricate plot can be simplified as follows: Yagami Light, a bright high school student, finds a magic notebook that lets him kill anyone whose name he writes on it (modulo various rules.) He proceeds to launch a crusade to rid the world of criminals. While personally maintaining a low profile, he starts anonymously killing high profile criminals to set an example. According to his plan, once people realize was going on, the crime rate will drop like a stone, and people realize that someone with a godlike power is responsible. His social crusade will end with him as the god of a new, crime-free world.

The only problem with this plan, as we shall see, is that it is not ambitious enough.

Mencius Moldbug once wrote up a thought experiment. Imagine that someone found a magic ring that gave him the power of life and death over anyone in a Pacific island. For all intents and purposes, he has become the absolute monarch over that territory. What would that regime look like? Well, things would actually work surprisingly well. Suppose our new King were a greedy man. He would rationally institute sound economic policies to turn it into a first-world country, and tax at the Laffer limit. He has no interest groups to pay off. His rule is absolutely secure. So he has no need for secret police or limits on free speech. Let the people say what they like, as long as the gold keeps flowing. And if their cause were truly and obviously hopeless, there will be very few outright rebels.

Well, Yagami Light had that magic ring. And instead of using it to seize political power for himself – with a tough-on-crime platform that would be pretty popular and the threat of the notebook itself to keep challengers at bay – Light instead tries to wield his influence anonymously from the shadows. And so a story that could have ended with Yagami Light on the Chrysanthemum Throne instead has him hunted like a dog.

This is fun as far as fan-theorizing goes, but Light’s failure also points to a more general nerd failure mode. Nerds, who understand better than anyone the power and value of technology, often act as though understanding technology alone is enough to bring influence. They systematically underestimate the importance of actively seeking power, whether on a small scale in office politics, or on a grand scale as powerful, active investors or CEOs. Light’s instinct was to rely heavily on the power that’s the Death Note gave him, paying no attention to gaining conventional political power or even creating a pseudonymous public persona, even when both of these tactics would have greatly helped him to realize his goals. [1] [2]

Peter Thiel has pointed out the remarkable fact that aside for some very brief, very contingent points in history, inventors of new technologies have captured almost none of the value that they created through those technologies. Even though science itself is a powerful force, and innovation extraordinarily valuable, it’s a mistake to assume that individual scientists and innovators are themselves powerful. Mostly, they’re withdrawing from overt contests for power and influence, whether at the corporate or political level, and dreaming that they will quietly change the world through their inventions, publications, and anonymous blog posts. The tragedy of Light shows how much they’re leaving on the table.

[1] (At least he avoided an even more extreme nerd failure mode: he at least targeted high profile criminals to create a media sensation, rather than mechanically killing anonymous criminals in the abstract sense that it would change people’s incentives on the margin.)

[2] It’s not surprising that Death Note functions as such a good allegory for this nerd failure mode. It was written, in part, as a way to appeal to teenage power fantasies, and a lot of the fun in watching the series is thinking through what kind of strategies you yourself would use if you were in his situation. That his instincts are those of his typical teenage fans is no surprise.