The Dark Net, Jamie Bartlett

One theme that came out of Book Blogger Appreciation Week (thanks to everyone, again, for making it awesome!) was that there are a lot of bloggers who read nonfiction and wish for more nonfiction reviews by other bloggers, without in fact themselves reviewing all that much nonfiction. Leaving the week, I promised myself that I would write more often about the nonfiction I’m reading. Hence: Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net.

The Dark Net

Bartlett, a journalist and droplet for a UK think-tank, explores the grim and hidden corners, cultures, and economies of the internet, from neo-Nazis to drug dealers to amateur pornographers.

This is fundamentally a book about dissent, although not1 in the ways that many of its subjects would like to see themselves portrayed — as brave truth-tellers who have managed to resist the tyrannical dictates of the hive-mind. What became weirdly clear as I progressed through these chapters is the inescapability of in-group dissent. There cannot seem to exist any online space ever whose old-time residents don’t scowl blackly at newbies now and then, and wonder aloud if the new kids are even here for the right reasons.

The cultures of groups to which I do not belong — the norms and in-group rules that you can usually only learn by being in the group — will never fail to fascinate me, and this is where Bartlett really shines.

In a world awash with hardcore pornography, it’s personality and inventiveness that set the best apart. . . . “You have to be really, really imaginative,” Vex agrees. “It’s not easy.”

Vex has a strange knack of being able to twist everything into a part of her show. Her cat, Duchamp, keeps wandering in and out of the room, and is often brought on camera. Last year she started a sticker club, and created an enormous wall chart, with a list of regular viewers’ names. If you see Duchamp — sticker. If you tip a certain amount — sticker. It was wildly popular.

Sidebar: When I got to the chapter on camming, I was so, so relieved. I was like, Oh goody! I can read about amateur pornography now! Shit in this book gets dark, y’all.

One of the challenges of pop-nonfiction (I always find) is to strike the right balance between anecdote and context. Bartlett does this excellently. In each chapter, he runs down the history of his subject — particularly fascinating in the case of the Silk Road!2 — and shares stories of his personal encounters with the people involved in these worlds. Sometimes these are surreal, as this courteous and prompt email from a potential drug-dealer:

Vendor: Hi there! My advice is that starting small is the smart thing to do, so no problem if you want to start with 1 gram. I would too if I were you. I hope we can do some business! Kind regards.

Five stars, would buy illegal drugs from again.

Other times they’re a painful mix of sad and yucky, like the mild-mannered working man, Paul, who is perfectly agreeable until you get him on the subject of how brown folks running the government will destroy all beauty in this world; or the father and husband who accepts that he did wrong in watching pornographic videos of children, but also argues that it’s the internet’s fault for making it so easy to access. The echo-chambery-ness of the worlds these people choose to inhabit was upsetting in a way that made me want to spend a week or two in some corner of the internet where people think books are outdated and we should all abandon the written word forever. Like just to make sure I’m really being critical about why I like and think the things I like and think.

The juxtaposition of ferocious ideologies and the petty mundanity of the day-to-day squabbles and practical concerns makes for fascinating reading. I could have read a whole book about each of these chapters, and if Jamie Bartlett decides to write one, I gladly will.

  1. well, not only
  2. and other illegal commerce websites
  • Care

    Hmmm, scary stuff, methinks.

  • Oh yes, I totally want to read this now. I’d seen it and worried that it would be very…hmmm…insider baseball? Like you would have to have a techy background to understand it, I guess. But it sounds much more about the actual people and THAT I can get behind.

    • Yeah, you totally don’t need a techy background to keep up with what’s happening. In the first two chapters, maybe a LITTLE bit? But even there, it’s much more about the people than the tech.

  • olduvai

    Haven’t heard of this before but it sounds fascinating!

    • It was! I heard about it on the NPR Books Concierge at the end of last year, and I’m glad I got a chance to read it!

  • Alice

    Aghh this sounds interesting but hard to read

    • It’s not so bad! I mean the child pornography chapter is rough, but MOSTLY it’s not so bad. There are bits of the racism chapter that are really difficult to read, except then it starts getting into how totally ridiculous these people’s lives are, and that helps.

  • Oh dear. I’m intrigued but also kind of scared.

    • Well, on the upside, if there are chapters you can’t face, you can just skip em! Every chapter is interesting, so you won’t be sad to be on a different one.

  • I’ve heard very good things about this book. One of these days I hope to get to it!

  • Citizen Reader

    Oh, my.
    I’m reading a very similar book titled “Future Crimes,” about our lack of online, mobile, etc., security measures, and there’s an entire chapter on the dark web. I actually couldn’t read it all because it made me so sad. The phrase where I had to stop? Yeah, that’s right–“live child rape.”
    So I may have to take a break before I read this one. But so glad you brought it to my attention, and thanks for highlighting nonfiction!

    • Ooooo, that sounds really really interesting. I maybe might skip the chapter on the dark web if that phrase is a going concern in it, but otherwise it sounds like an excellent book. Did you like it? Apart from the darkness?

      • Citizen Reader

        Yes, I had to skip some of that chapter too. Ye Gods.
        It’s a FANTASTIC book. I think everyone who uses the Internet and smartphones (so, everyone) has an obligation to read it. I particularly like how the author “connects the dots”–talks about all these security challenges, implantable technologies, and then points out things like, yeah, right now it’s consensual for you to sign away your privacy rights, but eventually Google and Facebook will even own your fingerprints (under their terms of service). I’m kind of dopey sometimes so I appreciate it when an investigative author takes the extra step of picturing consequences down the line.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    This does sound fascinating. Though it also seems like something that would make me want to take a shower when I am done reading it.

    • Only in a few places! The chapter about racists and the one about child pornographers were really hard to read — but on the other hand, there was a lot of stuff about them getting their comeuppance? So it wasn’t as bad as, I guess, it could have been?

  • Alley

    This sounds super interesting but I am also worried about bits like the whole “amateur porn getting dark” thing.

    • Oh, no, the amateur porn is fine! That chapter was totally chipper and fun! The, uh, child pornography chapter was pretty dark though.

  • Christy

    “droplet in a think tank” – I like that. The customer-friendly drug dealer email is absurdly charming.

  • Aarti

    So true what you say about people from “the establishment” looking down their noses at newbies. This is true in all parts of everything about life, particularly when it’s white men that feel threatened.

  • etudesque

    oooh fascinating! *quickly adds to goodreads list*
    The quotes you set aside seem pretty chipper, considering its dark material. I’m still pretty new to “pop-nonfiction”, so if you have any other recos, let me know!

  • This is the kind of book I want to read about the internet mainly because it is horrifying all the bad things that happen online and then, like in your example above, people say that the internet makes it too easy to do something. That’s the laziest excuse ever (and I have a colleague who loves to blame other things for his faults) and it just makes me mad.

  • Kailana

    I hardly ever blog about non-fiction… But then I hardly blog about fiction either. lol

  • I have to read this book! Dark things are my jam! I feel like I need to give up Hamilton because it just is not happening right now. #gradschoolproblems

  • Nishita

    I recently heard about this dark internet from one of Lee Child’s books of all the things. It was slightly ill-making to read about, but fascinating at the same time. I should give this one a try too, and learn more about this stuff.

  • Great review! I was hesitant to pick this book up because the topic seems so sensational, but your review makes me want to give it a chance. I love how you related it to the way we interact in the book blogging community 🙂