Dread Pirate Nemo
The Silk Road is not about drugs
Time sure catches up to us sci-fi writers.
My esteemed colleague Jules Verne used to write inventive techno-thrillers, such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. This cool book is about a dread pirate. Captain Nemo is an anonymous tech-genius anarchist, a stateless marauder who lives inside a self-built, mysterious, super-machine. Quite a catchy notion by Jules there. It really sticks with the reader long-term.
This is the same geek power-fantasy that fueled the “Silk Road.”
Jules Verne was a penniless Paris bohemian scribbler — but when his best sellers made him rich, he got elected to public office. Then Jules experienced some real-world power politics, and he figured out that his gallant techno-anarchists were mere fantasies. After that, his sprightly, high-tech novels got gloomy and downbeat and morally ambiguous. Nowadays, nobody reads those later, darker books of his.
Well, okay, I read ‘em myself; but only from a sense of morose obligation. I see that as an obscure public duty on my part, much like writing these pained political screeds for Medium.
I used to write my own sci-fi novels on a manual typewriter, Jules Verne steampunk-style. And that felt great, but nowadays, my overcrowded laptop screen is crammed with astral, spooky, contemporary figures such as Julian Assange, and that faceless crypto-genius “Satoshi Nakamoto,” who invented and launched Bitcoin, and “Anonymous We Never Forget We Never Forgive Expect Us,” and Edward Snowden and his peculiar circle of sober, well-groomed spook dissidents, McGovern, Rowley, Radack, Drake, gosh, some of them are even women… You’re likely losing count already, and I can’t blame you, but Jules Verne helps me out in situations like this.
His cogent historic example helps me to comprehend dispiriting, modern apparitions such as Dread Pirate Roberts, a guy who appeared on our public scene in a harum-scarum tale that out-Nemos Captain Nemo. Dread Pirate Roberts was — (really, IRL, no-kidding) — the secret mastermind of a globe-spanning narcotics market. Federal agents tackled him inside the science fiction section of the San Francisco Public Library. His 39-page federal indictment is all about drug running, money laundering, computer crime, conspiracy and attempted murder.
So who is Dread Pirate Roberts, in his starkly nonfictional reality?
Well, he’s a green techie with a physics degree in engineering solar power. He’s a major fan of second-hand bookstores. He likes taking hallucinogens and drawing cool weird underground comics. He’s also the one-man guiding light of a booming narcotics tech start-up. He’s not from Paris, like Jules Verne was. He’s from Austin, like me.
Dread Pirate Roberts is a smart, personable, hip, keep-Austin-weird dude. Yeah, he’s from Texas, like me, and like that strange Austin law student who likes to build lethal pop-guns from open-source 3D printers, and like Barrett Brown, that Dallas hippie journalist who’s in the slammer awaiting a century in prison for involving himself with LulzSec and, much worse yet, Stratfor, which is also from Austin… Dread Pirate Roberts is from Texas, just like Ron Paul is, like Ted Cruz is, like Stratfor is, like Bobby Ray Inman is.
Contemporary Texas has some Jules-Verne-sized weirdness going on. Kooky, paranoid, radical, sinister things, big, disruptive, scalable, web-culture things, occurring in a trigger-happy, honor-based society, always keen to avenge a slight no matter the consequence. If you’re Iraqi, you may have noticed that about us Texans.
I would likely overlook this whole matter if it were just a fellow Texan who sold lots of drugs. But, no: For a visionary like Dread Pirate Roberts, the mere narcotics trade is not half enough to satisfy. Dread Pirate Roberts is a dreamer on the Vernian scale. He carefully sets up an entire, ranting, Alex Jones parallel-world ideology while he constructs his smash-the-state, cypherpunk, Bitcoin Candy Mountain. He builds a peer-to-peer dope-trading platform that becomes an instant, explosively popular Woodstock Nation for anybody on the planet who groks crypto, Tor and cocaine.
Dread Pirate Roberts is the Napster of meth, he’s the Facebook of ‘shrooms. He’s also a man of almost 30, who, despite his degree in science, has apparently never been employed by anyone. Dread Pirate Roberts, through a cruel twist of history, is a Depression Millennial. Nemo 2.0 here, this pseudonymous, legendary, subaquatic figure, is scraping along in conditions of grave hardscrabble obscurity, very much like some period Jules Verne Parisian bohemian. Basically, he’s a failure-to-launch. He can’t get his foot on the ever-narrowing ladder of America’s stricken capitalism.
Dread Pirate Roberts, he of the dashing cloak and cutlass, is also a gray-man survivor. He is covert, invisible, zero-history. Quiet as a mouse in his out-of-state den in San Francisco, he roars like a lion to a gathering network army of deeply impressed potheads. He’s “Josh,” a clean-skin with no distinguishing marks. He’s a no-hoper from an oppressed and neglected generation, quietly waiting for his fake ID from Canada. While he waits to change his name, fantastic heaps of Bitcoin funny money sift into his cypherpunk wallet. He’s a thriving multimillionaire, but never in possession of actual dough.
Dread Pirate Roberts is one of the new ones, folks. I mean those strange guys who are colossal on the Internet, while simultaneously crammed and repressed into tiny physical niches.
Dread Pirate Roberts is the fake-named roomie, “Josh from Craigslist,” who always pays cash for his Bay Area garret. In that sense, he is at one with Julian Assange at bay in his Ecuadorian library, and Bradley Manning naked in his solitary terror cell, and Edward Snowden sacked out in the Moscow airport lounge.
Loyal to his liberatory dream, Dread Pirate Roberts buys his fresh fake Canadian ID through his own marketplace. He’s keen to encourage that trade, fake ID being an unalloyed good for the sovereign individual. Everybody should have some fake ID. The less governments know about us nowadays, the better for everyone.
That’s become quite a popular sentiment.
Technically speaking, the Silk Road is very Captain Nemo and the Nautilus: it’s a weird, powerful, secretive machine, manned by a silent crew of nameless and faceless coder loyalists who were somehow recruited from BitCoin chat sites. Politically speaking, though, the Silk Road is an entirely modern emanation of drop-the-hammer, right-wing Texan radicalism.
It’s very modern-Texan: You may think that Dread Pirate Roberts and his Bitcoins are economically far-fetched, but, well, Texas has elected public officials who directly voted to crash the American federal budget. Try counting the number of Texan Congress people inside the “Suicide Caucus.” They’re far more reckless than their younger compatriot, Dread Pirate Roberts.
When Ted Cruz told his horrified fellow Senators that they weren’t “listening to the people,” these were the people that Ted was talking about.They elected Ted because they’re Texan prepper types during the Obama Apocalypse.They believe the dollar’s already doomed: they’re all bug-out bags and gold bars. And when liberal weak-sisters thought that Ted wouldn’t smash-up the US government for the greater glory of Ted, they were out of their minds.
I can recall some trouble vaguely along this Silk Road line before. Back in March 1990, some federal agents from Chicago arrived in Austin, and they raided the premises of a publisher acquaintance of mine. This suspect specialized in inventing weird sci-fi games. When he created a cool new game about computer hacking, well, the feds hauled off all his computers in white Chevy vans. They had it figured that he was a nexus of a hacker plot against America’s long-distance phone system.
He wasn’t, he was just some Austin game publisher, but it took me a couple of years of legwork to partially sort out the fact from fable there. In 1992, I published a nonfiction book about that subject, “The Hacker Crackdown, Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier.”
That was then. This is now. It’s a full two decades on, and boy howdy: Moore’s Law and wireless broadband sure had their way with my beloved River City. When I wrote “Hacker Crackdown,” Austin had scattered tribes of computer enthusiasts, a dozen here, a hundred there. Now it’s got vast, all-trampling hordes of SXSW entrepreneurs who run thicker than stampeding bison.
No one guessed in those lost days of dial-up hacker bulletin boards that a seething social-media startup like the Silk Road was remotely possible. The Silk Road is a nightmare scenario, in many ways. And yet, I still see a certain cultural continuity there.
Dread Pirate Roberts may be a digital Captain Nemo, yet he’s quite the Austinite. He’s a readerly guy. He took pains to establish a studious book club inside his globalized drug bazaar. Being a Ron Paul scholar, he reads what the Tea Party reads. He’s into “agorism, counter-economics, anarcho-capitalism, Austrian economics, political philosophy, and freedom issues.”
That’s because he recognizes, correctly, I think, that the American radical right is the vanguard party of economic destruction. He desires that chaos himself, because the financial status quo is entirely to his own disadvantage. Dread Pirate Roberts (and anybody else who is 29 years old and facing student debt with no employment prospects) has a whole lot of economics to be radical about. Like the Tea Party, he may not share the majority opinions of the benighted mainstream sheeple, but he’s damn sure he’s right, and that’s enough for him.
Dread Pirate Roberts is one digital entrepreneur among many such. He invented a web platform that would liberate the users of narcotics from the harsh strictures of the present world financial system.
People who still find this idea weird should do a little web surfing. Try a few sub-Reddits, for starts. Then you’ll see how sincerely grateful Silk Road users are to Dread Pirate Roberts, how much they admire his dash and integrity. I don’t think they’re grateful enough to take up arms and rescue Dread Pirate Roberts from the federal doom he now faces. But, I can’t doubt that Dread Pirate Roberts will become a drug-culture figure of legend. He fully deserves that distinction. He should rank with Leary, Owsley and even Minnie the Moocher.
One hears — through his recently hired, high-powered lawyer — that Dread Pirate Roberts plans to claim, in his forthcoming trial, that he’s not “Dread Pirate Roberts” at all. Of course, as yet all his crimes are merely alleged, and he’s not proven guilty of anything. It seems that, in his trial, he will assert that it’s all a case of mistaken identity, and the feds have caught the wrong man, and also grabbed the wrong laptop, inside the library’s sci-fi section.
I hope for his sake that’s true, because even Captain Nemo, despite his clear lack of a settled ID, would never escape this exceedingly detailed federal indictment. The criminal complaints against Silk Road were written up by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Fans of effective financial-crime prosecution have heard of them.
Dread Pirate Roberts lacks the affect of a violent tough guy. He’s never been charged with any serious crime before, and to judge by his YouTube videos, he seems affable and soft-spoken. But when somebody threatened to shake down a bunch of his Silk Road users, he swiftly decided to have that offender liquidated.
Dread Pirate Roberts knows all about using crypto black markets to hire assassins.
This grisly prospect has always been there, ever since Tim May wrote his first hair-raising cypherpunk manifesto in 1992. It’s new to me to see that way-out notion put directly into practice, but there was always a nugget of murder in the heart of the Blacknet.
One can see by his captured emails that Dread Pirate Roberts is quite suave and super-villain about ordering a rubout. Nothing hasty or sudden or hot-tempered about his decision to torture, interrogate, kill and then share the digital video. This severe but necessary action is entirely consistent with his ethics. Holding the individual fully accountable has always been the central pillar of his ideology.
Dread Pirate Roberts is an apostle of rugged self-reliance, but he became the slave of his digital community. He’s no longer a mere jobless theorist, swapping economics books online: because of his Silk Road start-up, he became a brilliantly successful entrepreneur, the manager and guide of a vast, million-strong, para-political money laundry. Easy enough to say, “Don’t be evil” — but, well, things do get complicated.
Let’s look at it his way. Dread Pirate Roberts has to defend his imperiled user-base. He must defend them, because no one else can or will. He can’t remain secret, encrypted and anonymous, and also call the cops on a blackmailer who threatens to dox his best users. As for the offender himself, he is guilty of breaking his Silk Road omerta. Any mafia don would kill for that act of disrespect. Digital or not, that’s how an underworld always works. So Dread Pirate Roberts hitches up his cutlass and goes for it.
Of course the situation was a set up. As a Texan, one hates to say that FBI cointelpro guys from wicked old Manhattan can play Texan hackers for saps. But, listen: repressing political threats from extremists is a form of political theater.
In political theater, you want to make the villain look bad. It’s necessary. That’s what prosecutors do, when they publicly transform some guy who looks like you and me into some wretched perp who belongs in a prison. A scheming, murderous extremist is a hundred times easier to convict in court than some blathering libertarian. Dread Pirate Roberts took that rope and knotted his own noose.
It’s all about freedom. Freedom was the whole point of Silk Road; the great cause was never about mere drugs. Of course his users evaded the cops and found freedom, to their glee and profound gratitude. But the Silk Road users never found any freedom from one another.
It was up to Dread Pirate Roberts to meet their community need for justice. He knew plenty about digital markets, because he built himself a colossal market in less than three years. But when it came to justice, and civil society, and due process and similar off-the-books trivia, well, that stuff couldn’t be bought with Bitcoins.
No Woodstock hippie getting knifed by Hells Angels at Altamont could have been more surprised and indignant than he was.
So, to restore his thriving website to its pristine state before the troll arrived, he appointed himself judge, jury and executioner. His forthcoming judge and jury will likely find that of great interest.
With that established, well, I’m not going to blame a political extremist for his effort to liquidate a traitor to his cause. Except to concur with the FBI that, yeah, he’s a political extremist struggling to liquidate a traitor. How clever of them to arrange to have that pointed out. That was genuinely deft. I’m sure that police in other nations are admiring that trade craft and taking careful notes.
The police are gonna need those notes, too. Austin is a bellwether city for trends, and in its own modest, cranky way, it’s well nigh as avant-garde today as Jules Verne’s Paris once was. In the early 1990s, Austin had a cyber underground that was novelistic; it was nine-tenths hype, a dark fantasy. This is the Austin of the early 2010s, the capital of a powerful, increasingly reckless state in the grip of terror-war, depression, and some truly off-the-wall network-society politics.
Time passes, things get different. And even Jules Verne knew that doesn’t always mean an improvement.