Ross Ulbricht finished a Bachelor's in Physics at University of Texas at Dallas, then went on to graduate work at Penn State before founding the Silk Road. Guardian: "US Attorney Preet Bharara called Ulbricht a 'drug dealer and criminal profiteer.'" Image Source: FreeRoss.org.
Imagine a world in which the Internet was never invented. The planet as it existed, circa 1988, moved forward with the computer technology of that time and developed it to serve purposes other than free global communications. Instead, human beings solved the energy crisis, or landed on Mars, or explored the oceans' floors. In that world, what would Ross Ulbricht have become instead of what he did become - the libertarian founder of the Silk Road? His criminal conviction is another of the Technological Revolution's little carbon footprints. It shows how certain sections of free, developed societies are moving out of sync with institutional seats of order; the latter are typically slower to change, or change according to their own internal logic.
Ulbricht's case also reveals how the middle class is fracturing generationally due to this trend. In case Generation Y's Millennials ever thought they could dodge the establishment, work around it, dump it, hack it, whistleblow it, they just received their wake-up call. On 29 May 2015, a US federal court in Manhattan convicted 31-year-old Ulbricht. He was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole, and ordered to pay a restitution of over USD $183 million. Finance Magnates: "'Everybody gasped' upon hearing the judge’s decision, remarked Alex Winter, creator of Deep Web, a documentary on Silk Road to debut [on 31 May 2015]." Judge Katherine Forrest remarked:
Ulbricht's response:“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence, referring to his pseudonym as the Silk Road’s leader. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its … creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”
The Washington Post tracked Ulbricht all over social media and determined that his profile led authorities to him; the newspaper also had a look at his LinkedIn profile to determine his motivations. Except for the startling fact that he had founded the Silk Road, he was a garden variety sophomoric libertarian:Ulbricht broke down in tears. “I never wanted that to happen,” he said. “I wish I could go back and convince myself to take a different path.” ... “I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives. ... to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”
Forbes found Ulbricht to be more frank on the Silk Road's community forums:He described, in an abstract personal statement on his LinkedIn profile, his attitudes toward capitalism and economic theory. It sounds a bit like a romanticized description of Silk Road:I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.
A member of the ... [University of Texas at Dallas's] College Libertarians group, he took part in on-campus debates that were documented by the school’s newspaper, The Daily Collegian. In one article from March 2008, Ulbricht is identified as a supporter of Ron Paul who had attempted to become a delegate for the then-presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention. “There’s a lot to learn from him and his message of what it means to be a U.S. citizen and what it means to be a free individual,” ... [Ulbricht] told the school paper. “[Ron Paul] ... doesn’t compromise his integrity as a politician and he fights quite diligently to restore the principles that our country was founded on.”In Silk Road’s community forums, the Dread Pirate Roberts always made the libertarian underpinnings of his organization clear. In Oct. 2012, he noted in a post: “Silk Road was founded on libertarian principles and continues to be operated on them … The same principles that have allowed Silk Road to flourish can and do work anywhere human beings come together. The only difference is that the State is unable to get its thieving murderous mitts on it.” He called Paul “a mighty hero in my book” in a note from Nov. 2012.
Screenshot from the closed Silk Road. Image Source: Silk Road via AP via Guardian.
Ulbricht's severe sentence makes him an example. He was part of the threat that new technology poses to the old establishment. Is he a martyr? Or did Ulbricht deserve the conviction and reflect the worst future brutalities of an inchoate order, worse than anything the old school military-industrial complex could imagine? Guardian: "Ross Ulbricht said he ‘wanted to empower people to make choices’. Prosecutors said he made $13m in commission on illegal deals – and attempted to order six murders." The Guardian observes that the Silk Road was tame compared to other Deep Web sites:
Libertarian though Silk Road’s philosophy might have been with regard to drugs, it nonetheless operated with a moral code. Child pornography was banned, as were stolen credit cards, weapons and paid-for assassinations – all of which were available on other, murkier dark web sites.After Silk Road was closed, however, rather than dampen the market, it fragmented it. Dozens of sites sprang up, not all of them operated by the same set of moral codes. Several, including the so-called Silk Road 2.0, which was set up by several administrators of the first site, have since also been raided and shut down. Others turned out to be scams: one, a large marketplace called Evolution, saw administrators exit with more than $12m in Bitcoin.Despite all this, the market has continued to grow, though because of its fractured nature it is difficult to properly assess its size. James – not his real name – is the editor of DeepDotWeb, a news site which focuses on darknet marketplaces and maintains an up-to-date list of which markets are on or offline. He said the current market was “WAY bigger” than it was in the days of Silk Road.James said it could safely be assumed that the daily turnover of the biggest markets – Agora is the largest, followed in no particular order by Nucleus, Middle Earth, Abrax, and Alphabay – is in the order of more than a million dollars a day. He estimated the market cap to be in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars.
Image Source: Social Anxiety Support.
Ulbricht's supporters see themselves as cryptoanarchists. Their alienation from the old guard makes me think of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground (1864; in Russian here and English here), a work in which paranoia, ennui, escapism and misdirected idealism surround an Underground Man. It is a proto-revolutionary piece, written over fifty years ahead of the actual Russian Revolution of 1917. Dostoyevsky opens his novella with a note to the reader of this fictitious diary:
The Underground Man is aware that society is a mess. He wants to change things, but is fixated on ideals which are so far removed from reality that he becomes a dystopic Hamlet, unable to act. The rift between his ideals and reality becomes more real as a force of change than his actual ability to change reality. There are three important things about Dostoyevsky's Underground Man which shed light on the Ulbricht case. One is that the character typifies a certain kind of toxic social alienation, caused by the society at large, and masquerading as strength and revolutionary virtue in the mind of its insecure protagonist. The Underground Man is privately crippled by self-doubt, but is consumed by a sense of personal 'specialness' and uniqueness that sets him apart to do great things, which he never achieves. He feels, through his advanced perspective, that he cannot accomplish anything through the system as it exists, and so feels he has a carte blanche to express his frustration and alienation misanthropically, by flouting social conventions, expectations, and the boundaries of social decency. With this psychology, the character is willing to exercise and defend his idealized free will even if it makes him socially destructive and self-destructive. Google Books: "The Underground Man so chillingly depicted here has become an archetypal figure loathsome and prophetic in contemporary culture."The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed.
Secondly, the Underground Man is an unreliable narrator. It would be best not to take him literally, because he is not the revolutionary he wants to be. However, the account of the Underground Man's miserable dilemma - the novella itself - is the meta-document which is presented as a force of change. This work was intended by Dostoyevsky to highlight a problem with marginalized citizens like the Underground Man, who perceive their country's moral bankruptcy and feel the shock ahead of the curve. They don't know how to resolve the problems they see, because the vast majority of the old society is still chugging along and does not believe their warnings. Finally, for libertarians, Dostoyevsky's novella is a treatise on how hard it is to exercise free will successfully, by which the great Russian writer meant responsibly and morally. Dostoyevsky asked how an idealized (virtual) push for change could be aligned with a complex reality that was moving in fits and starts, without enshrining nihilism and lawlessness.
Image Source: Invention Machine.