Sand in the Machine
The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
(Melville House, 2015)
For many of us, the Internet has been normalized to the point of seeming benignity. Its integration with virtually every facet of contemporary existence has created a sort of homogenization of online expectations. Far from a site of transgressive potential, the Internet feels, broadly speaking, safe, staid, even a little predictable: we curate, we read, we chat, we shop; indeed, there’s something somnambulistic about web experience at this point, a kind of dream-walking through familiar patterns of sites, a repetition of gestures, a dulling of the gleam. But if the surface web has been co-opted and crushed by the enormous pressures of market logic and its attendant mass culture, the deep web—a clandestine matrix of vice, crime, ambition, perversion, and unmediated personal freedom—serves as a troubling, if bracing, reminder that our accepted paradigms of connected life are illusions. Beneath the web’s habitualized exterior lies an almost unimaginable frontier, one replete with acolytes fiercely protective of what they see as the last possible manifestation of radical individuality. Where a moral framework might intersect with this dark net remains unclear; or, rather, it could be said that the unalloyed freedom it affords subsumes any principled schema. It is the most fervent libertarian dream given illicit digital life.
This is the provenance of Jamie Bartlett’s fascinating new book The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, a provocative journey through the deep web’s history, its varied guiding philosophies, and the bizarre, iconoclastic, often criminal behaviors it conceals and energizes. Utilizing both face-to-face interviews and digital dives into the web's darkest corners, Bartlett explores a series of secret communities inhabited by vicious trolls, pornographers, entrepreneurial drug dealers, sex workers, skinheads, cypherpunks, and crypto-anarchists, each espousing a more radical Internet ideal than the next. That Bartlett also finds these environments suffused with creativity and innovation frustrates any knee-jerk moralizing; indeed, he navigates these subterranean worlds without overt judgment, eschewing Manichean constructions in favor of emphasizing the obscured humanity that underpins the dark net’s ostensible ethos. If the deep web allows for behaviors and activities that breach social decorum—to say nothing of the law—it is also “a place without limits, a place to push boundaries, a place to express ideas without censorship, a place to sate our curiosities and desires.” It is a testament to Bartlett’s nuanced research and narrative acumen that we remain fascinated and provoked by our time in this shadowy borderland; in lesser hands, its very foreignness and ambiguity could come across as a mere cautionary tale: shrill, shallow, and certain.
Instead, Bartlett makes use of the dark net’s extremity as a lens through which to study the broader implications of contemporary web experience, an exploration governed by questions as perceptive as they are relevant: Does connected anonymity free the darker sides of human nature? Are our online personas distinct from our “real” lives—and if so, what does that distinction look like? What are the limits of free expression when every idea—from heinous to heroic—is a click away? The Dark Net is perhaps most successful when it shows how these liminal cases at the edge of the web are in fact microcosms of issues we explore everyday: privacy, security, surveillance, communication, subjectivity. Viewed in this context, the underground Bitcoin community, possessed by the idée fixe of the anonymous payment system, is not merely a cabal of crypto-anarchists looking to disrupt global capital; rather, through Bartlett, they become fascinating, even sympathetic figures committed to decentralization through tools meant to increase the “spheres of freedom” of their users. “There are so many people just complaining and doing nothing about,” says Amir Taaki, a leading coder at the Calafou cyberstead. “We actually make things. We solve problems.” Similarly, in our ever-increasing desire for digital affirmation, Bartlett reveals how trolls—individuals who turn online “life ruins” into an art form—can be seen as tempering agents who help us recognize the dangers of over-sharing and inculcate the caution (and thick-skin) necessary to have safe and meaningful web experiences.
Of course, not every niche community explored in The Dark Net can offer such instructive takes. For every libertarian hacker or ambitious, autonomous sex worker usefully challenging cultural norms, Bartlett also uncovers “young, time-rich, technologically literate” nationalists whose profoundly xenophobic voices have found amplification within the deep web, to say nothing of child pornographers who have used the cover of the dark net to create distribution systems of unthinkable complexity and cruelty. To his credit, Bartlett interviews members of both camps, lending a recognizably human voice to these often appalling acts. “I ache to have a voice,” claims Paul, an otherwise considerate and seemingly likeable Islamophobic youth whom Bartlett profiles with sensitivity. Still, I found myself coldly unsympathetic, though this was perhaps by design: Bartlett’s reminder that The Dark Net is, in both name and activity, often a place of darkness, a platform capable of energizing exploitation and hatred in ways that society (and the surface web) has limited, if not stamped out.
Bartlett’s concluding remarks examine that tension in greater depth through the conflicting views of two rival groups: techno-utopian Futurists and anarcho-primitivists, speculative communities whose disparate approaches to technology highlight the fraught ambivalence of prevailing opinions with regard to connectivity (and beyond). For the Futurists, who boast such public figures as Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, death is believed to be “a biological quirk of nature, something we do not need to accept as inevitable.” According to these self-identified transhumanists, this ambition—to transcend the human condition itself—is not only possible but probable with an eventual total integration with technology in what has become known popularly as “the singularity” (a Kurzweil neologism). Anarcho-primitivists, on the other hand, advocate “rewilding”: large-scale deindustrialization meant to erode the systems of control and surveillance they see as inherent to modern technology. Acts of terrorism are not out of the question for these techno-pessimists; neo-Luddite Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, was an anti-technology extremist. This raises a question that, for me, hovered over much of the text: what can we glean from the co-existence of these discordant views within a particular subterranean slice of the deep web?
The answer to that question may be, finally, what Bartlett’s book has been grappling with throughout. If the dark net is a world “of expression, of creativity, of information, of ideas,” it also endows our destructive faculties with the means and the communities to turn harmful impulses into criminal, deeply hurtful behaviors. In a sense, what makes the digital underworld marvelously freeing is the same thing that makes it potentially terrifying. As Bartlett states, the deep web is about “power and freedom.” But in the dark net, as in analog life, what this power and freedom generates is highly dependent on motive and context—power to do what? And freedom for whom? The truth is that most of us sit somewhere between the Futurists’ utopian vision and the anarcho-primitivists’ techno-pessimism; or, as Bartlett says “the dark net is not black and white: it is confusing shades of gray.” His book has gone some way towards articulating the stakes of connectivity, and as we navigate the existential and moral complications of connected life, we would perhaps do well to remember the dark net is, in the end, only a mirror: “distorted, magnified, and mutated by the strange and unnatural conditions of life online—but still recognizably us.”
DUSTIN ILLINGWORTH writes about books and culture for the LA Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.