How much has cyber space desensitized us to real crime and its effects? The recent court case of Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, has made me think of the desensitizing effects that the internet has had on humans. How has the distance that the internet has created between us and real physical activity changed us? Think about the low threshold for spewing filth of obnoxious and anonymous commentators on regular news websites and social media. And trolling as a prime example where people feel no shame in bullying others, famous or not, into submission and even doxing their targets (the activity of identifying and publishing someones identity with often shameful facts, fabrications and imagery to back it up). This in turn has led to catastrophic real-life events as awful as suicides, acts that cannot be enacted in cyberspace and can destroy lives of the targets and their relatives. Other examples where the lines of reality get blurred with our lives online can be found in online grooming, of underage children or recruits for fanatics on a mission to carry out their holy war.
How does all of this relate to Ross Ulbrichts’s case and the unraveling of the Silk Road, an underground version of Amazon for drugs, weapons and other illegal stuff? Well, I truly believe that as we have shifted from mostly off-line, brick and mortar and face to face activity to a much less tangible way of interaction over the last few decades that humans overall are still adapting. Adapting mostly in how to distinguish from what is fake or real, and often right or wrong. Are humans perhaps not genetically programmed yet so that norms that we value in daily life may also apply online?
How many of you have, or still do, download music or movies and don’t really consider this as real theft? Equally, what if people were to interact with each other in the local supermarket the way they troll and try to outwit each other on online forums or in the endless trails on facebook and other media? We are still having to get used to the fact that we now live in two worlds, one where people can see and hear how we interact directly in the real world, in the supermarket, the pub, your local sports club, the office and so forth. Behind a shroud of anonymity however many of us seem to forget about the values by which we like to live our normal real lives. It is almost as though the internet has made us into split personalities, one persona which we use in our day to day life and quite another and often more sinister one for our online existence. Just for fun, do a Google image search of Ross Ulbricht and tell me whether he looks like what you would expect a drug or illegal arms dealer to look like? Ideal son in-law more like. I know that looks can be deceiving, but if this is combined with some of the background information available about him you would think Ross to be a pretty normal bloke. Less the Dread Pirate stuff of course.
In some of the recent coverage on the Ulbricht case there was one constant, his mum’s conviction of her son’s innocence. Let me paraphrase some of her commentary to the press: “He would never do such a thing, Ross is a good boy and believes in making the world a better place”. This does make me think about that person walking his pitbull in the park that just bit you, stating “he’s never done that before.” Is it possible that Ross Ulbricht, quite likely not an evil person at all, got sucked into the dark web and was unable to appreciate the trade performed over Silk Road for what it really was?
As long as the dark web provides the sort of anonymity it currently offers, and the chance for the drug trade to step out of dangerous and bullet-ridden alleys to be performed from the comfort of your desk, it will provide the ideal platform for illegal and highly organised trade. It is no surprise than that next versions of Silk Road and many other nefarious markets flourish on the dark web today, with very many Bitcoin millionaires trading on them. The big question is how schizophrenic we are as humans and our ability to differentiate between on and off-line? Understanding that online actions can have catastrophic off-line consequences is a start. Ross will likely have the next two or three decades to ponder this behind bars, the verdict is expected mid May this year.