The Dark Net

Jamie Bartlett’s new book The Dark Net is the fruit of years’ research into digital crannies dank enough to make concerned parents immolate their child’s iPhone: trolling and cyber-stalking, the politics of hate and terror, the consumption and performance of pornography, illegal drugs and suicide pacts.

It’s a roll call of tabloid bogeymen. But, disappointingly for any journalist in search of straw men to burn, what’s actually on offer is a meticulous, discomforting account of the human stories behind each headline. And perhaps the greatest discomfort on offer is the fact that – no matter how distant the digital underworld may feel from ‘real’ life – the temptation to place it in some safe, separate box proves in every case misguided.

Take the second chapter’s protagonist, Paul. The author first meets Paul in a working men’s club: a young man ‘with a handsome face, short dark hair, and tattoos that climbed up his neck. He was good company… until, that is, talk turned to politics.’ At which point Paul begins to spill out his devotion to a cause: White Pride. ‘What do you think the world will be like under black or Paki or brown rule? Can you imagine it? When we’re down to the last thousand whites, I hope one of them scorches the fucking earth, and everything on it.’

What’s new is not Paul’s fear, hatred or one-dimensional view of the world. It’s the fact that technology has turned him into a ‘one-man political party,’ spreading his message on social media, painstakingly gathering and contributing to meetings of like minds, rising through the ranks of the English Defence League’s Facebook presence. Far from skulking in some outer darkness, his is a strident public voice, mere clicks away from every screen’s daily churn of news, status updates and noise.

For many people who care about politics, Facebook is little better than a punchline: something to do if you don’t actually want to do anything. Stories like Paul’s give the lie to this. For him, Bartlett makes clear, it is online that his actions have reach and resonance. Paul himself is ambivalent about the power he taps into onscreen – ‘I was becoming too hate-filled, too paranoid, it was seeping into my blood’ he tells Bartlett, explaining second thoughts about his digital presence – but at the same time he hungers for community, validation, influence.

Is the internet a breeding ground for terrorism and horror, for abuse and exploitation? Unquestionably – just as it unquestionably fuels many of modernity’s most remarkable stories of collaboration, education, co-operation and investigation. How do the dark and the light balance out? This is a harder question, and one for which Bartlett offers no easy answers, not least because ‘the internet’ itself is something of a fiction: a noun containing multitudes. Instead of weighing its vices and virtues in the scales, he suggests, what we need is to listen to the news it brings about our own condition in the 21st century – and to ask what freedoms we value most.

‘The inflicter of suffering may be fooled, but the sufferer never is.’ This was the poet Philip Larkin’s comment on his great 1950 poem ‘Deceptions’ – but it’s also a line that whispered through the back of my mind while reading The Dark Net.

As soon becomes clear from Bartlett’s time among cyber-libertarians, dissidents and those preaching the gospel of anything goes, political posturing often masks a version of freedom that avoids all questions of consequence: of who is paying what price, and where, for your pleasure or passion. Technology can be an astonishing leveller in giving voice to the marginalised, the timid, the disadvantaged, those far from the centre of things. But it can also be an astonishing excuse for narcissism and collusion: for fooling yourself about others’ suffering precisely as much as you wish to be deceived.

There’s much that’s precious about the open internet, and urgently worth protecting; but there are also profound trade-offs entailed whenever one person’s freedom “to” meets another’s freedom “from”: freedom from surveillance and snooping; from stalking and abuse; from theft, piracy, illicit trade; from invaded privacy, or a door kicked down by those who don’t like what you’re saying; from stolen secrets and confidences.

In his final chapter, Bartlett traces the anything-goes vision of freedom to its logical conclusion in the techno-optimistic cult of transhumanism: a place in which ‘there is no ‘natural’ state of man. Freedom is the ability to do anything, to be anything, to go as far as our imagination can take us. We’re always changing and adapting, and embracing technology is simply the next step.’ Against this are ranged the claims of the ‘anarcho-primitivists’: those claiming that ‘technology tends to distract and detract from our natural state, pushing us ever further away from what it really is to be free humans.’

Both tribes consider our current relationships with technology inadequate. Yet both also offer — it seems to me — willfully inadequate prescriptions for the future, based on a fundamental misreading of what it means to live with technology.

Our responsibility is not to some abstract vision of human potential – whether enhanced by ultimate technology, or denuded of it entirely. It is to each other, as we can best understand our circumstances: compromised, enmeshed in history and contingency, bound by ties we have not chosen.

To become more free, here, is not to pretend that the mirrors our machines hold up to us show anything entirely new. It is to look more carefully at how we live, with them and without them, and hope to become less deceived.

A version of this article first appeared in the Demos Quarterly