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‘The Dark Net’ Peers Beyond the Headlines About the Hidden Web

Part investigative journalism, pop-anthropology, and travel diary, The Dark Net finds a bizarre world; a funhouse refraction of our surface interests, intents, motivations, and mores.

“When the earliest Vikings started moving into the northern oceans, there’s one story about finding this huge fuckin opening at the top of the world, this deep whirlpool that’d take you down and in, like a black hole, no way to escape. These days you look at the surface Web, all that yakking, all the goods for sale, the spammers and spielers and idle fingers, all in the same desperate scramble they like to call an economy. Meantime, down here, sooner or later someplace deep, there has to be a horizon between coded and codeless. An abyss.”

― Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge

Written as part investigative journalism, part pop-anthropology, and part travel diary, The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld traverses an online world much removed from the recognizable terrain of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It pulls back the curtain on a hidden web of networked communities composed of radical politics, cam girls, drug dealers, cryptographers, neo-Nazis, and pro-suicide advocates among others. It’s a kind of Bizzaro world internet; a funhouse refraction of our surface interests, intents, motivations, and mores.

The book reads more like a collection of essays than a cohesive investigation. While it covers a lot of ground in its 320 pages, much of which rarely surfaces in the mainstream media beyond the occasional attention-jarring news item, The Dark Net never attempts to provide any kind of context. It’s a laudable effort in itself, covering this much terrain beyond the headlines, and there is a concerted effort not to accept surface answers. It’s an attempt to understand fringe subjects that often do not appear nuanced in the press through exploring their motivations — neo-fascists, transhumanists, collectors of child pornography, anarcho-primitivists — using headlines as a jumping off point.

In the case of neo-fascism, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is the springboard; the Johnny Depp character based on Ray Kurzweil from Transcendence for transhumanism and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski emblematic of anarcho-primitivists serve as recognizable figures to ground the stories. From these headline dominating figures, The Dark Net introduces us to smaller players representative of these subcultures.

In the chapter titled “The Lone Wolf”, named for the term describing a terrorist acting alone, which follows the rise of the right online, we are introduced to a supposedly affable racist, Paul (affability, aided of course, by the fact that the author is white). The Dark Net describes organizing strategies and documented growth for the right wing movement it follows within the broader context of political organizing in Europe and throughout the states in a digital era from Occupy to Obama. All of this depicted in the shadow of Behring Breivik’s mass murder event.

Later, in “Lights, Web-Camera, Action”, we follow Vex, a popular webcam performer who, like Paul, acts as a kind of introduction, guide, and lens through which we can understand the growth of this business. As the internet created a glut of easily accessible pornography for every kind of fetish imaginable, the fantasy seems to have shifted from an emphasis on “perfection” to “‘the real girlfriend’ experience, warts, and all… a more realistic and meaningful experience.” (p. 189-90)

Throughout the book, I found myself hungry for some sort of broader context. Economics are almost completely absent not only from the two aforementioned chapters, but even the chapter explicitly about alternate economies. Even without going full Marxist it’s clear that the growth of the right wing and Occupy Movements have to do with the recession, income inequality, disenfranchisement, and unemployment. Technology may accelerate ideological dissemination, organizing, and mobilizing, but it’s not the rationale behind it. These factors are occasionally noted, but never fully explored. Economics are equally as present in commerce along the digital Silk Road and commodification of cam-models, but absent from discussion.

While Julian Assange and Edward Snowden make brief appearances in the text, with a surface discussion on privacy issues and surveillance as a part of the chapter on cryptography and the quest for untraceable currency titled “Into Galt’s Gulch”, broader discussion on these issues and underlying economic factors are frustratingly left out. Similarly, the author skimmed the issue of gender. It’s not explored in relation to cam-models, nor is it referenced in the chapter on trolls as more than a footnote, in spite of acknowledging that women make up the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of victims.

Jamie Bartlett for his part, seems an uncertain and at times insecure guide, a bit like an East Coast cityslicker setting foot on the muddy streets of Deadwood during the mining boom, wearing expensive leather shoes and a finely tailored three-piece suit. He admits in his conclusion that he set out to write an exposé, believing that he “would lift the lid on the seedy underbelly of hidden internet subcultures, revealing the dangers of life online. I prepared (maybe I even hoped?) to be indignant and outraged. I imagined this book would conclude with a series of very clear moral declarations,” (p 239) but he never breaks enough from this approach to offer a more nuanced analysis.

Bartlett works for Demos, the UK-based research, policy development and advocacy think tank, as Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media. The organization may have leftist roots, but it emphasizes cross-party political views in its investigation into education, employment, health and housing. Demos, meaning people, strives to consider the human aspect of democracy. This pretense toward a mix of perspectives is inherent throughout The Dark Net, but as a result every chapter, if not each page, seems to be yearning for some kind of political analysis. As with the absent through line, the missing context makes the book disparate in its focus.

When I first heard of the book, I pictured Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Lost at Sea) crossed with Glenn Greenwald (No Place to Hide), but found instead a pop-anthropologist professor wrestling with Geraldo Rivera. These two tones in harmony, while not the book I envisioned, wouldn’t have been a bad thing in itself. The professorial perspectives and unearthing fragments of hidden history makes for some of the most compelling portions of the book; a healthy dose of Geraldo-caliber outrage is not inappropriate when discussing child pornographers, neo-Nazis, or inexplicably malicious trolling. Bartlett, however, never finds that tonal balance. Instead the two voices work cross purpose with each other.

RATING 6 / 10