EILEEN ORMSBY Silk Road. Reviewed by Lou Murphy
A toxic mix of timing and questionable ethics: the fascinating true story of the dark web’s most famous site.
Silk Road is a story about a trade route, a trade route equivalent to the Silk Road network established during the Han dynasty of China, which linked the regions of the ancient world in commerce. This new trade route, however, was a contemporary, technologically-driven and illegal one that managed to blur the boundaries of the possible and the real.
Established in 2011, Silk Road was an online black market created by the self-styled ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ (DPR). Its pseudonymous founder dreamed of setting up a utopian marketplace where you could buy and sell almost anything in secret, with a particular emphasis on drugs. DPR created a market with no contracts, no regulations, and scant government interference. He believed in total economic freedom and embraced an agorist (anti-economics, anti-state) philosophy. Much more than ‘a new era of drug dealing’, Silk Road was imbued with liberationist philosophy. The site became a tool to fulfil DPR’s vision:
Anything you do that is outside the control of the state is agorist, so in some sense we are all agorists whether we know it or not. Some people just take those actions because of the personal gain they can obtain, which is perfectly fine, but some do it as a conscientious objection and act of rebellion against the state as well …
The Silk Road charter included lofty ideals like ’empower[ing] people to live as free individuals’, and listed its core values as ‘self-ownership, responsibility, equality, integrity, and virtue’.
Synonymous with Silk Road’s success was its online community, which included an online book club and movie club. Silk Road worked by establishing anonymity and trust among its members and on online community boards like Reddit and 4chan. The discussion forums became ‘… a lively, intelligent home of self-styled revolutionaries united in their fight against the war on drugs’.
Part road map of the underworld of the internet – its lawlessness and power to corrupt – the book Silk Road covers fascinating terrain; that of online subcultures and activists, contemporary warlords and conmen. It makes forays into the ‘hidden wiki’, or ‘dark web’ – a collective term for the many ‘darknets’ that exist, sometimes referred to as ‘the internet’s evil twin’. On the dark web you can allegedly access, among other illegal markets, child porn, assassination markets, money laundering, snuff movies, illegal organ markets and, of course, drug markets:
... The dark web has spawned all types of myths, as well. Some people speak in hushed tones about real-life gladiator fights to the death, contract-killing services or live streaming of pay-per-view torture. Others will swear you can access details of live human experiments or obtain made-to-order snuff films. There is a black market in human organs, they’ll tell you, and the places you can buy genuine human slaves …
You don’t need to be tech-savvy to enjoy this cracking read. Ormsby explains in simple English the ins and outs of the technological innovations involved – from clean-cut descriptions of ‘Onionland’ – any site with an onion domain name (eg ‘.onion’ instead of ‘.com’ or ‘.org’) – part of the hidden network of sites, to detailed explanations of the cryptocurrency called bitcoin, the escrow third-party payment system that enabled buyers and sellers to eliminate payment tracks and made the sophisticated online black market possible.
Through her clear rendering of the facts, Ormsby makes the intricacies of the technology involved accessible to even the most technophobic of readers. The tone is conversational and friendly while the content is intriguing and increasingly dark. In her quest to uncover the mystery behind the enigmatic DPR she uncovers a story of subterfuge, replete with conspiracy theories and hidden identities, that is rich with anecdotes.
At its heart, Silk Road is the story of an entrepeneur, clumsy with technology, who stumbles on success through a toxic mix of timing and questionable ethics. The enigmatic quality of DPR – hero and visionary – leads Ormsby to much fascinating theorising about the convoluted and sometimes contradictory motivations behind his web persona. In the process she exposes the pervasiveness of the internet and its unceasing capacity for adaptation and change and explores the theme of trust and exploitation in a technological age. More than anything the Silk Road website was an idea for a world few people can ever hope to inhabit or understand.
Eileen Ormsby Silk Road Macmillan 2014 PB 352pp $32.99
Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LouMurphy
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