Shortly after receiving my review copy of Nick Bilton's American Kingpin, I accidentally dumped the contents of my World's #1 Dad coffee mug all over it. Turns out, the stench of 100-per-cent Colombian is pretty much the only way to read this caffeinated, drug-stuffed procedural. Bilton is a Vanity Fair special correspondent who focuses on business and tech with some commitment – according to the press material, his dog's name is Pixel. His latest book, which follows his similarly brisk, comprehensive history of Twitter, will surely emerge as the definitive account of the Silk Road saga.
The Silk Road, for those of you who don't buy fentanyl or Tec-9 guns online, was a virtual souk that trafficked in every species of contraband, and become the bête noire of various law-enforcement agencies after Gawker broke news of the site in June, 2011.
With the following four legendary sentences, reporter Adrian Chen pounded the Silk Road website into the global mainstream, and caught the attention of casual coke snorters, libertarian Ayn Rand fetishists, hard-core heroin junkies, ambitious FBI agents and right-wing moral-panic artistes:
"Making small talk with your pot dealer sucks. Buying cocaine can get you shot. What if you could buy and sell drugs online like books or light bulbs? Now you can: Welcome to Silk Road."
The Amazon for drugs, baby! Finally, a place to procure all of your actual favourite things, safeguarded behind the wizard's curtain that is Tor, employing the fungibility of the untraceable cryptocurrency bitcoin. The rise and inevitable fall of Silk Road ended up destroying one of the Net's abiding shibboleths – that cyberspace was an anything-goes MMA bout that democratized information and value exchange, while freeing global citizens from the tyranny of government oversight. If there was a virtual final frontier, the Silk Road hoped to define it.
Which is not at all how cops from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and elsewhere, understood things. The Web, just like the real world, was something to be policed and regulated – weapons purchased online weren't used to kill Grand Theft Auto's pixelated scumbags, but rather actual humans in the real world. Even before Chen broke the story, a Homeland Security Investigations agent named Jared Der-Yeghiayan was trying to interest his superiors in what he understood to be a new phenomenon: Single pills, or small quantities of vacuum-packed psilocybin, were arriving bubble-wrapped and enveloped at Chicago O'Hare. Der-Yeghiayan assumed that the contraband was being bought over the Internet, and correctly hypothesized that he was only intercepting a minute percentage of the inflow. By illuminating the most tenebrous crannies of the Web, what horrors would skitter into the light?
Well, a lithe young Texan named Ross Ulbricht, mostly. Ulbricht was a feckless math savant, handsome but unlucky in love, who had hoped to pursue an academic career as a physicist. He was supremely gifted at smoking weed and taking the odd fistful of mushrooms, but was by no means a hard-core drug user. Living in the rarefied hipster confines of Austin, he had no use for semi-automatic weaponry, even on a recreational basis. But as he slouched his way through a degree at Penn State, his libertarian views hardened into a Weltschmerz: The government had no right to dictate what people put in their bodies; all drugs should be legal; gun ownership protected citizens against the authoritarian impulses of the government. Ulbricht swore by a line he'd culled from V for Vendetta, a dystopian comic-book adaptation he urged his Silk Road followers to watch: People shouldn't be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.
On his own, funded entirely by his meagre savings, Ulbricht undertook what must be the most astonishing act of entrepreneurship in the history of the United States. He conceived of, designed, coded, marketed and maintained a website that would, in a matter of years, turn over half a million dollars in revenue a day, while at the same time planting and reaping the site's first batch of magic mushrooms. In comparison, Twitter is an embarrassment. Money was important to Ulbricht, but he didn't spend the tens of millions he earned – bling was not his thing. Nonetheless, before long he was one of the world's most notorious drug kingpins, an El Chapo in an artfully rumpled T-shirt, known only by his avatar Dread Pirate Roberts, a reference to – what else? – The Princess Bride.
In law-enforcement circles, Dread Pirate Roberts was first prize – catch him, and your career was made. American Kingpin traces the various and converging attempts to stem the upward sweep of Ulbricht's J curve. In this, Bilton has produced an astonishingly well-researched narrative that, while it ends up reading more like John Grisham than Lawrence Wright, provides a Netflix-ready summation of the Silk Road case. The tale is driven almost entirely by character and incident, a trick that is nearly impossible to pull off in the journalism game. And yet, Bilton's storytelling bears not so much as a trace of fat; the book he's conjured is so sharp and bright that it can be whipped through in the airport lounge before the flight takes off. (Make sure to pack reinforcements.)
And if these days you find the Internet to be a tight and cloistered space, where the worst of humanity's impulses are pumped into your consciousness every nanosecond via a high-bandwidth receiver, remember that Dread Pirate Roberts once had an alternative vision: an emporium of guns and drugs and human organs, a libertarian free-for-all in which the virtual and the real worlds were conjoined behind a Tor, underwritten by cryptocurrency. DPR reimagined our politics, one Glock and one gram at a time. His Cartesian mantra was simple: Injecto ergo sum.
Richard Poplak's most recent book is Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa's Changing Fortunes. He is currently working on a book about mining. He splits his time between Toronto and Johannesburg.