Alexandra Oliver reimagines the Darknet
THE OTHER DAY, my husband turned on the hall ceiling light in our apartment, roared, and in a fit of prickly exasperation, unscrewed the chamber-pot-shaped frosted glass bloodiment masquerading as a decorative fixture, wrenched the white, coiled eco-bulb from the socket and tossed it, still warm (do those bulbs get warm?), onto our son’s bed. Though we may disagree on many things, my husband and I are of one mind on the topic of light bulbs. I believe in being a good steward of the earth, but I shiver at the very thought of the cold, anti-glow of non-incandescent lights. On my first trip to Chartres in 1998, my then-boyfriend and I shared a motel room lit entirely by fluorescent bulbs. I kept looking around for the IV stand and bedpan. To make matters worse, Barb Wire was the only thing on television that night. I came down with the flu and missed my cathedral tour the following morning. My entire organism had collapsed in protest. I blame it on The Bulbs. Thirteen years later, I was staying in student housing at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, sleeping on something that resembled an exam table and studying under the same horrible lights. I ended up effectively sabotaging any image I ever had of myself as an easygoing person, as I spent evening after evening, after faculty readings, clutching the head program administrator by the forearm and mewing pitifully. I would have done anything for a normal desk lamp, even an ugly one. The incandescent bulb is going, going gone. Consider its luminous (pardon the pun) obituary in The Economist. It was a wasteful creature, granted, but let me be selfish now: what could ever replace the guilty loveliness of basking in its glow? Making a joke, but using the tone of a man who is about to put up a tent in a storm, my husband announced that we’d just have to start getting our incandescent bulbs off the Darknet.
I am not a tech-savvy person. I like Ye Olden Days food, Ye Olden Days books, Ye Olden Days Men. I like to listen to my music on LPs, and I have physically restrained dinner guests who have tried to play me anything off their phones. I have had the same laptop since 2009. It has a cluttery desktop and a loud, snorty fan that acts up when I do Too Many Things at Once. Whenever I have issues, I call my nine-year-old son, and he sorts me out. I know just enough to write, answer e-mails, keep my books, and help run The Rotary Dial. This does not mean that my interest is not piqued by certain tech-related matters. I am neurotic enough to know how to check my own computer for viruses, for example. And then there was the day when someone—I think it was a grad school colleague—told me about the Darknet. The what?, I asked. The Darknet. It’s dark. It’s hidden.
Imagine a massive iceberg. The tip is visible, while the bulk remains submerged. The “Surface Web,” which most of us access on a daily basis, is that very tip of the iceberg. In the watery shadows, reaching ever and ever downward (and reported by experts to be hundreds of times the size of its surface equivalent), is the Deep Web. The Deep Web is defined as that part of the Internet which can’t be indexed by search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Much of the Deep Web is innocuous enough; it is here that one finds large databases, libraries, academic resources maintained by universities and reams of websites that are accessible on a members-only basis. Sunk within that murk is the Darknet. People often use the terms Deep Web and Darknet interchangeably. The Darknet is not one and the same with the Deep Web, but merely a province within it, one which offers total anonymity to both surfers and publishers. This anonymity is achieved through the use of what is known as an “onion network.” In the world of the surface web, when I pay a visit to, say The Poetry Foundation or Expedia or The Guardian or The Sartorialist, my computer directly accesses the server hosting whatever site I have chosen to visit. It’s the equivalent of taking a direct flight to my destination. An onion network means that my journey will instead have numerous stopovers, bouncing me around a circuit of intermediaries (over 6000), before landing me at my final destination. The communication shows up on the network but my identity is obfuscated through the transport medium. My name is essentially erased from both my ticket and the flight manifest. I am an anonymous passenger in a land of secrets. This process is known as onion routing and was developed (not surprisingly) in the mid 1990s by U.S. Naval Research authorities, with the objective of safeguarding U.S. Naval intelligence communications online.
Apparently, accessing this land of secrets is easier that one might imagine. The first step is downloading browser software that allows one to engage in anonymous communication. The most popular is Tor (originally an acronym for The Onion Router). On The Other Side, many web addresses are a garbled mass of alphanumeric characters ending with the domain name “.onion.” One characteristic of numerous websites is that they have a distinctly primitive ‘90s vibe about them – lots of stodgy formatting of text in Times New Roman, for instance. But what makes the Darknet interesting is who goes there and why. There are the merely curious, of course. Then there are the proponents of heroic causes who find support in an environment where the identities of political dissidents, revolutionaries and whistleblowers (check out The New Yorker’s Strongbox Portal) are protected. Finally, we come to the demographic which has given the Darknet its darkest and most diabolical flavour: pederasts and purveyors of child/extreme pornography, human traffickers, terrorists, hackers (on both sides of the law, granted), those who deal in drugs, weapons, stolen credit cards and passports (in transactions involving the untraceable cyber-currency Bitcoin), as well as those who kill others for money. The offerings are immeasurable and, quite often, stomach-churning. As part of its Memex Program, NASA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is doing its bit to scour the Deep Web and the Darknet by analyzing complex patterns in search activity. New technologies coupled with dogged police work are making it easier to close in on criminal organizations, pedophile rings, and other shady elements. I am writing this article on May 26; three days from now, a 29-year old graduate student named Ross Ulbricht, convicted of being Dread Pirate Roberts, the owner and operator of the drugs/guns/you-name-it marketplace Silk Road, will attend a sentencing hearing that will determine whether or not he faces 30 years behind bars. His family members are fighting tooth and nail to clear his name, and Albricht’s followers are many, convinced that he is not a mercenary mastermind, but rather a Libertarian activist of the very purest stripe.
I sometimes wish that I didn’t know what I know now about all of this technology, all of these carryings-on. I was a Luddite before, and I was rather happy being one. Let me try and reinstate myself in my most tech-stupid, idealistic poet’s state of mind and reclaim the idea of the Darknet for myself and for people who think (a little, anyhow) like me. A less nefarious mirror image of the Darknet could be conjured up, if one put one’s mind to it. I’m going to take a quantum leap away from technology and now and turn to what is possibly my favorite poem by James Merrill. In “The Black Swan”, a lonely child contemplates the eponymous bird, as it glides across the surface of a lake.
Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.
Though the black swan’s arched neck is like
A question-mark on the lake,
The swan outlaws all possible questioning:
A thing in itself, like love, like submarine
Disaster, or the first sound when we wake;
And the swan-song it sings
Is the huge silence of the swan.
Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
Sorrow’s lost secret center
Where like a maypole separate tragedies
Are wound about a tower of ribbons, and where
The central hollowness is that pure winter
That does not change but is
Always brilliant ice and air.
Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
The blond child stands to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
Forever to cry aloud
In anguish: I love the black swan.
Here, the child is alone (perhaps, like Merrill himself, virtually abandoned by parents in the midst of an acrimonious divorce) and facing the very opposite of an archetype of “standard” purity. However, the bird is still resplendent in its gracefulness and, furthermore, travels across a membrane between the world of the everyday and the world of the unseen. For Merrill, the unseen realm incorporates the potential of adulthood, the capacity to love (and find love) beyond one’s immediate family, the limitlessness of creativity and (important, considering Merrill’s engagement with the paranormal) the ability to commune with the dead and what has been lost. All of these are thrilling ideas but, as a slave to nostalgia, I have to say that the hunger for things and people lost is what resonates in me, in the sweetest and unkindest way. And this is what connects me to what my mental image of the Darknet longs to be.
It could be a place where things that have disappeared would go. Wonderful vinyl, now out of print. Discontinued lipsticks that have no equal in the color palettes of today’s manufacturers—all those ‘90s silvery brown shades that ended up on some rockabilly guy’s chin in the back of some Yaletown Pool Hall. Old menus would go there—evidence of wonderful places from my childhood where the very décor (black velvet paintings of globe-eyed Keane-like waifs) was under attack by carbs and sausage, where smiling old men with dyed hair handed out roses to The Ladies. Fabulous ‘80s girls’ magazines. There was one called Jill; it was a bible of French nihilist nubility, and I used to bleat like a sick lamb until my dad drove me down to Seattle to get one at the special newsagents. In my special Darknet, there would be inflatable pink furniture. Fiorucci T-shirts with rocketships on them. Love letters and/or hasty notes with similar intentions. I had a few napkins tucked away in a cigar box. Feeling bold, on the eve of leaving for university, I flung them out thinking I would not need to remember. How wrong I was.
And what about the people, the people we loved who have disappeared? Claudette, my make-up artist friend in Paris who suffered a breakdown, borrowed money, sold her apartment and was never heard from again? Ilya my first boyfriend, all 6’6' of him, the one who wore mustard yellow day after day? (I phoned your cousin Ilya, and he hung up on me. What could have gone so wrong?) Christine, who had a Ph.D. in mediaeval history, flew out West to stay with me and then had to be sent home for “health reasons?” All of you are missing. All of you are missed. Where would you be, if not in That Dark Place?
The other day, I was walking my son to school. He hasn’t been in a religious school since 2012, and his own perspectives on things are shifting, changing, giving him pause. “Mum,” he said, “I really don’t know anymore if there’s a God…where we come from…where we go.” I told him my views in a nutshell, and then added that the final call was ultimately his. What if I told him about the Alternate Darknet, the place hung with velvet paintings, bulging with records and sausages, clattering with old accoutrements of the dressing table? Would he see not only the Weirdly Missing Ones but also people like his grandfathers and his grandmother? Lolling around on all that pink inflatable furniture, peering out happily from under their incandescent reading lamps? Probably best not to get into that now. And best to stop now before the Hydro people find out where they are and try to forward the electricity bill. Even people enjoying the light deserve the protection of the dark.
ALEXANDRA OLIVER is the author of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (2013). She is a contributing editor to Partisan.