Book Review of The Dark Net

The Dark Web first came to widespread notice with the publicity surrounding the arrest of the founder of Silk Road, an anonymous online market place. The Dark Web itself is subject to multiple definitions, although the most common is that component of the web that cannot be accessed by standard browsers. To access this part of the web, one must use a specifically designed browser, such as TOR. In his new book, the Dark Net, Jamie Bartlett takes a more expansive approach to the web, which he conceives off as the underworld of the internet, beyond the reach of the government and the authorities.

The book is a tour-de-force of research, which involves meeting key figures in online forums and tools, from radical nationalists to a webcammer. Some parts of the book are difficult to read, such as the chapter “the Werther effect,” which examines websites that support anorexia, cutting and suicide. Yet the subject matter is critical, given the growing importance of these and other sites in youth culture.

One theme that emerges in this work is the gendered aspect of the Dark Web. While the web sometimes skews male, some components -4chan, Reddit- combine a strongly male membership, with a shocking streak of cruelty, which is obvious from the book’s opening chapters. While this was an important topic, it could have been further explored in the book. One of the work’s strengths is that it is written for a popular audience. At the same time, a deeper discussion of gender and feminist theory might have helped us to interpret some of the more disturbing aspects of the Dark Web.

Another key theme of the work is the distinction between peoples’ online personas, and those in a face to face context. In the conclusion, the author stated that he typically met people first online, and only afterwards face to face. He always liked people better in the face to face meetings. As the work makes clear, people project their hopes, fantasies and fears onto the web. In part, they may do so because they believe that human problems can be solved by technology. Anarchists and libertarians, who are unlikely to change the world at the ballot box, turn to crypto-currencies and encryption. Ann Rand adherents look to digitial freedoms to defeat the state. Transhumanists even look to technology to overcome human suffering and mortality. It is as if the Transhumanists were modern Buddhas, who look not to Enlightenment, but rather to cryogenics and avatars to release them from aging and disease. Most of these technologies are helpful. None seems likely to achieve the grandiose goals of its creators. As Jamie Bartlett makes clear in his conclusion, the Dark Web is made by people, and it reflects us –our hopes, ideals and flaws. It is less mysterious and more ordinary than you might expect. Often, it is also disturbing.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Dark web is the proliferation of child pornography. Material that was once difficult to obtain is now available with a few clicks, and in staggering quantities. Does this draw some people to explore areas of their sexuality that they would not have otherwise? By exploring the life of “Michael,” Barnett recounts how porn can become a trap for some individuals. Still, the larger point is that the web tends to facilitate extreme behaviors, positions and personas, because of the anonymity that it offers.

There are positive arguments to be made about the Dark Web. Perhaps online drug markets are safer than buying drugs in the street. Then again, the head of the online marketplace Silk Road tried to murder his co-worker. All the crime in the real world would seem to be able to migrate into the virtual world. Technology doesn’t purge illegal activity of violence. The drugs are still just as destructive as before. How much harder must it be to kick your addiction when you don’t have to find a dealer, but only to go online?

In the end, there seem to be few technological solutions for human problems. Not everything in the Deep Web is evil or dangerous. Are women who work web-camming worse off than people who do sex work face to face? Probably not. Their exposure to violence, disease and abuse must be much less than before. The chapter on webcamming is almost humorous in its depiction of sex work, which appears to become almost a strange reality game. Having done interviews with sex-workers for my book on HIV/AIDS in Latin America, the world of these workers bears no comparison to that of the women trapped in brothels or walking the streets in Brazil.

My main critique of the book is that I would have liked to have seen more coverage of the positive aspects of the Dark Web. For example, how to activists in repressive states use the Dark Web? Still, the author’s intent is to capture vignettes of people whose lives are embedded in the Dark Net. He was very effective at this, and one has to be impressed by the quantity of research that he did, from buying marijuana online, to interviewing a radical English nationalist.

This was not always an easy book to read because some of the content was emotionally difficult and disturbing, even though it was both well-written and engaging. Through first-hand accounts Bartlett creates a nuanced, horrifying, fascinating depiction of an alternative world, which is as close to all of us as our laptops. This book should be read by anyone interested in digital culture, crypto-currencies, social media, and the web.

Shawn Smallman

International and Global Studies

Portland State University

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