Silk Road was a “deep web” online marketplace, hidden from standard search engines, where, between early 2011 and late 2013, users could order illicit substances of all types and have them delivered safely and anonymously to their door. It had its own currency (bitcoin), moral code (no weapons or child porn), and leader, the enigmatic “Dread Pirate Roberts”, whose arrest by the FBI triggered its collapse.
Former lawyer turned journo Eileen Ormsby followed the website’s teetering naive first steps, its rise as a libertarian utopia and finally its fall as hackers, scammers and the law moved in, culminating in the alleged transformation of charismatic “Roberts” from benign drug tsar to ruthless criminal.
The deep web is a world of jargon, cyphers and shadows. Its community relies on pseudonym, so how can you trust your sources when none of them are who they say they are? Nonetheless, Ormsby has delivered a triumph of narrative journalism, meticulously researched and gripping, a skilful mergence of tech jargon with human drama.
She goes out of her way to be impartial, with a measured tone in stark contrast to the sensationalism of most writing on the topic. At times, though, this impartiality strikes a false note. As someone who wrote in-depth on the subject for years, she became involved as a minor player in the story, a fact that is skirted around. At one point an Australian busted for dealing drugs through Silk Road claims one of her articles inspired him to start, and she spends half a page defending herself.
Still, Ormsby’s is a welcome voice among the hysteria. There’s a strong argument, amid the myriad failures of “the war on drugs”, that informed use of peer-reviewed or standardised, professionally assessed recreational drugs might be a less harmful scenario than the current model, where the ravenous Australian market is serviced by criminal cartels – a far cry from the idealistic community of the Silk Road.
Ormsby doesn’t say as much, but she provides enough anecdotes from gentle stoners scoring pot and MDMA without having to fraternise with criminals, and functional heroin addicts whose lives are enriched by being able to support their habits safely, to make the point.
Here, Ormsby presents the Silk Road users as tech-savvy and mostly urbane, rather than degenerate – closer to actual trainspotters than the gang from Trainspotting. ZC
Macmillan, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Eileen Ormsby, Silk Road". Subscribe here.