Matthew Wisnioski is an associate professor of Science and Technology in Society and a senior fellow of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech. He is the author of “Engineers for Change.”
By Jamie Bartlett
Melville House. 308 pp. $27.95
A league of trolls, anarchists, perverts and drug dealers is at work building a digital world beyond the Silicon Valley offices where our era’s best and brightest have designed a Facebook-friendly Internet. Most of us spend our days on the commercial surface of the World Wide Web, unaware that the “darknet” on which these outliers seek unfettered freedom is as much as 500 times larger than what is captured by Google’s search engines.
The shadow realms of the Internet are increasingly familiar territory. From teen sexting to terrorist recruitment videos, the nefarious elements of our electronic world dominate headlines. Studies such as Andy Greenberg’s “This Machine Kills Secrets” shed light on the cryptography-based activism of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden that blends world-class programming with libertarian politics. The digital underworld similarly looms large in fiction, including the recent Canadian horror series “Darknet.” Imagination and reality often intertwine in these accounts. In May, the two worlds collided when the documentary “Deep Web” (narrated by “Matrix” hero Keanu Reeves), about the online drug bazaar Silk Road, was released and the site’s founder, Ross Ulbricht, who lifted his well-known alias “Dread Pirate Roberts” from “The Princess Bride,” was sentenced to life in prison on a variety of counts including drug trafficking.
In “The Dark Net,” Jamie Bartlett, director of the Center for the Analysis of Social Media at the British think tank Demos, provides a bracing tour of this digital underworld. He describes the humiliation of a user on the anonymous bulletin board service 4chan; trolls tricked her into placing identifying details in the nude photos she uploaded, then sent the images to her friends and family in a malicious practice known as doxing. He explores how white supremacists forge connections via social media. He uses the crypto-currency Bitcoin to purchase pot on Silk Road 2.0, which emerged online almost immediately after Ulbricht’s arrest, with a new Dread Pirate Roberts in charge. He visits communities dedicated to anorexia, cutting and suicide. He even appears in a webcast with “camgirls” who perform on-demand sex acts for an international audience.
Bartlett defines the darknet more broadly than most. He includes what is typically known as the darknet, encrypted sites accessible with the anonymizing software Tor, which was originally created for political dissidents by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. But he also counts the deep Web, an expansive terrain of password-protected and limited-access pages not indexed by search engines. Moreover, he asserts that the darknet goes beyond software. To him, it is a collective idea of “freedom and anonymity, where users say and do what they like, often uncensored, unregulated, and outside society’s norms.” He thus expands his scope to the fringe corners of mainstream social networks.
In lesser hands, a travelogue of the Internet’s dens of iniquity would amount to a sermon or a stunt. But Bartlett combines an insider’s expertise with a neophyte’s tale of discovery. Rather than measure the pros and cons of the Web, he maps its frontiers without judgment. The result is a lucid inquiry into the relationship between technology and freedom that’s also a captivating beach book.
“The Dark Net” lets inhabitants of the digital underworld speak for themselves. Each chapter explores a different Internet activity or community in historical context. The opening chapter on trolling, the practice of provoking online disruption, traces the activity from the early days of the federally funded network Arpanet to the dial-up Bulletin Board Systems of the 1980s (on which I spent my childhood) and the Usenet flame wars of the 1990s. To simulate being online, the author intersperses chat logs throughout the text, including harrowing conversations among teens with eating disorders. The book’s anchor and its unique strength, however, are the interviews Bartlett conducts with people he finds in the virtual world and then meets in the physical one.
These intimate portraits pay dividends. We learn that, prior to the Internet, the supply of child pornography was “vanishingly small.” In 1982, federal enforcement agencies did not consider it “a high priority,” and in 1990 the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children estimated that only 7,000 images of child pornography were in circulation. Bartlett tracks how the Internet has aided a massive proliferation of such images. “Between 2006 and 2009,” he writes, “the U.S. Justice Department recorded twenty million unique computer IP addresses who were sharing child pornography files.” In a powerful chapter, a middle-class businessman with a daughter explains to Bartlett the gradual descent that led to his arrest for possession of more than 3,000 images. “I remember thinking at the time that it was terrible,” the man says about one unconscionable video. “But I kept it, just in case.” We then venture to a suburban office park where Bartlett joins Internet Watch Foundation workers who describe their coping mechanisms as they combat the spread of such videos.
The darknet isn’t all dark, however. At a cypherpunk commune in Spain, the activist-programmer Amir Taaki, creator of Dark Wallet, tells Bartlett how Bitcoin will help topple corrupt governments. At a cafe in northern England, the appropriately named Vex describes how she makes a comfortable living by “posing, chatting, stripping, and masturbating” from the comfort and safety of her home. A cheery entrepreneur, she maintains a dedicated fan club, talks books and politics with regulars, and cultivates a “real girlfriend experience.” Across these uneasy profiles, Bartlett’s aim is to “rehumanize” the people behind the screen while highlighting the blurred lines between online and offline identities.
Bartlett’s experiential picture of the darknet is limited by whom he persuades to talk: We meet white-pride nationalists but not organized Islamic extremists; despite their certain presence, government agents remain silent; there are no weapons traffickers or violent crime syndicates. His conclusion also is uninspired. Instead of suggesting what we might do with his findings, he sets up the opposing camps of transhumanists (who argue enthusiastically that technology and human biology are converging) and techno-primitivists (who claim that technology is eroding human liberty), and knocks down both positions in favor of viewing the darknet as shades of grey.
Still, “The Dark Net” is an excellent book that entertains as it takes its toll. You happily follow Bartlett vicariously. But you worry for the author. He assures that he acquired no new taste for illegal pornography or drugs, though he admits to becoming “accustomed and habituated to horrible and troubling things.” In a clever trick of witnessing and distancing, Bartlett alleviates your queasiness and shock as you acclimate yourself to whichever destination he shows you next. But unlike him, you can simply close the book.
The book’s medium thus softens the blow of its message about the digital underworld’s accessibility. “I came to realize,” Bartlett writes, “that everything is close to the surface.” What, then, would warrant a visit? Bartlett finds “breathtaking creativity” and “astonishingly adaptive and innovative” idealists, whistleblowers and entrepreneurs. The digital revolution, he concludes, has not unleashed a new age of barbarism, but it has dramatically enhanced access to humanity’s extremes. His premise is that to understand our technologically mediated reality requires removing our blinders. Only then can we confront what is new about the Internet, what is inherent to the human condition and how the two co-evolve.
Seasoned dwellers might scoff and trolls will troll, but nearly anyone else with a Web browser will learn from “The Dark Net.” Discover at your own risk how darkness drives innovation as much as does light.