We’re in the Wild West era of the Internet. The frontier. Outlaws drift from town to town and cowboys kill each other over card games. There are gold rushes, bank robberies, shootouts. The law doesn’t exist out here.
Out here, it’s just people. The good, the bad, and the ugly, all of us figuring out this new territory together. We’re exploring it and mapping it. Civilizing it. Fighting, pioneering, and getting rich.
It’s not a pretty place. The hazy opium dens and the tobacco-smoke saloons disappeared from dusty California mining towns long ago, and they’ve since set up shop here. You want opium? You got it. How about Craigslist prostitutes? pirated textbooks? fake I.D.s or stolen credit cards?
The saloons here are darker than any Butch Cassidy ever visited. Only half-jokingly, XKCD declared Rule 34 of the Internet: “If it exists, there’s porn of it.”1 Child porn, necrophilia porn, rape porn. If you go through browsers like Tor and websites that end in .onion, your options expand to the darknet. In both places, the hazy and the dark: animal abuse, celebrity nudes, pictures of dead kids.
New websites like these appear daily. Some are outright illegal, like the black-market dens where you can buy factory-produced methamphetamine or unregistered firearms. Others are gray-market, their shelves stocked with analogue drugs that haven’t yet been explicitly outlawed, drugs whose designers follow formulas passed through these saloons in PGP-encrypted emails. Some of these websites come complete with shipping options, USPS tracking numbers, and product reviews. You can leave feedback on quality, price, speed, and shipping stealth.
You can find anything if you know this territory. And if you don’t, it’s easy to meet someone who does. Just spend some time in 4chan or 8chan or Voat. Or visit Reddit subdomains like r/steroidsourcetalk or r/heroin. These places are poolhalls where everyone gathers, and where a little digging can lead you anywhere.
These are the places where anonymous strangers convince lonely and wavering people to commit suicide. These are the places where vigilantes found and identified the perpetrator behind the Boston Marathon bombing—incorrectly. They publicized an identity and harassed a family, spurred on a manhunt and stirred up chaos, and sent death threats to the innocent victims of their failed witchhunt. These the are places where several years ago, a man in my hometown of Port Orchard posted pictures immediately after murdering a woman.
“Turns out it’s way harder to strangle someone to death than it looks in the movies,” he wrote. “Her son will be home from school soon. He’ll find her and then call the cops. I just wanted to share the pics before they find me.”
The police found the woman’s body later that day. The information slowly made its way into the traditional news reports, out of the Wild West and into the settled territories of our normal lives.
But it’s not all bad out here.
For every outlaw, we have ten homesteaders trying to settle this new place. There are bitcoin miners creating an entirely new currency, and there are bitcoin investors trying to get rich off it. There are developers who construct open-source programs like Linux and Firefox, developers who work for free, doing it for the love of their craft and the betterment of the community. We’re exploring in this frontier together, after all.
If you wander across this wilderness, you’ll find TED talks and free college lectures. Harvard professors teaching anyone willing to listen. You’ll stumble upon how-to videos for changing a CV boot, making fricassee, formatting with InDesign.
The generosity goes outward, too. Crowdfunding campaigns have bought wheelchairs for veterans and saved struggling restaurants, supported migrant families and paid for medical procedures. Humans of New York pioneered a fundraiser for an underprivileged middle school, and it took all of forty-five minutes for the Wild West raise the first $100,000. Things topped out at a million dollars.2
And let’s not forget the giants, the Amazons and Googles who are turning these frontier settlements into full-fledged towns, and then turning those towns into cities, and then turning those cities into metropolises. Amazon has a population of almost 40 million Prime members,3 and the world’s online shopping sales are expected to hit $279 billion this year, up from 2010’s annual count of $176 billion.4 The Internet is now creating 2.6 jobs for each one lost to technology-related efficiencies.5
Even if you step foot in the poolhalls of this place, you’ll find more help than harm. The number of people who belong to Reddit’s community of r/drugs, for instance, is 220,000, while the number who belong to r/art tops four million. You can sit down with the people at /fit/, a 4chan board dedicated to fitness and weight training, where the regulars will recommend fat-burning programs and check your squat form–they’ll be rude about it, but you’ll usually end up with good advice. In subreddits like r/entrepreneur, r/marketing, and r/design, professionals trade resources and suggestions, and they answer newcomers’ questions about entering the field. And in those same saloons where strangers encourage wavering people to commit suicide, they also talk other people out of it.
You’ll meet people like Bill Gates out here. People like Barack Obama. They both hosted “As Me Anything” sessions on Reddit, in which they answered they received questions directly from pioneers and homesteaders. Probably from outlaws, too; it’s almost impossible to tell who is who out here. Other visitors to these poolhalls include Gordon Ramsay, Elon Musk, and Sir Ian McKellen. Bill Nye the Science Guy and Astronaut Chris Hadfield. Chris Pratt, Harrison Ford, Daniel Radcliffe. The list goes on.
Most people in the Wild West weren’t shooting each other, and most people on the Internet aren’t watching torture videos.
But it’s still unregulated out here. Still wild.
We witnessed a bank robbery last week in which T-Moblie lost the personal data of fifteen million customers. Those records are now for sale on the darknet: a dollar for a social security number.6 And the outlaws who did it? Unknown and unpunished. Even in a country of recorded phone calls and monitored text messages, this wilderness has proxies, laundered bitcoins, and self-deleting messages. If you try hard enough, anyone can hide.
The FBI did manage to bust up the Silk Road a few years ago, the main black market at the time. But like any frontier, this place keeps growing. The number of online drug listings has tripled since the bust, and the estimated number of buyers has increased four hundred percent.7 The FBI is outnumbered and outgunned.
It goes beyond privacy and purchasing power. All the automatic rifles and tear gas in a police station’s arsenal can’t stop people from filming, watching, and sharing home-recorded child porn. The strongest navy in the world can’t defend the United State’s outdated electrical grid from a virus.
The Internet might have begun as a government project, but the government sent Lewis and Clark out exploring, too, and Lewis and Clark found a country that was too wild to control. The Internet is even wilder.
We’re in the lawless era of a new civilization, and it’s something bigger and broader than anything we’ve ever seen. This territory crosses oceans and state lines. It spans social classes and income gaps. Eighty-five percent of U.S. adults use the Internet regularly8, and forty percent of the world has a stable Internet connection. All those people have access to the same smoke-choked saloons. The same open-source software. The same fundraisers. The same poolhalls.
The frontier is not Alaska, no matter what the license plates may claim.
It’s not space.
It’s here. It’s the screen I’m typing into and the screen you’re reading from. It’s the phone in your pocket and the satellites orbiting above us. This is where we’re building civilization.