UoL Goldsmiths has a department with the promisingly Mulder-esque name of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. They run a glittering speakers series whose link I am sharing reluctantly, because they’re free and up the road from my gaff and nobody seems to know about them and I don’t want them clogged up with Other People.
No, it’s fine really, come on down. A couple of weeks ago I went to hear Jamie Bartlett talk about his new book The Dark Net, which I haven’t yet read owing to its lying full fathoms five in a cardboard box in a secure unit somewhere in Beckenham. Bartlett is a great speaker, and has that ability to create controversy by disclaimer that is catnip to non-fiction publishers. We were going to find some of these topics, he told us, uncomfortable. The more he investigated drug dealing, child pornography and far right political activism on the internet, the more moral ambiguities he found, and meeting some of the people involved prompted a sympathetic response that unnerved him. This schtick made me wonder if absolutely everyone embarking on research for a thoughtful bestseller table book subconsciously designs a neat personal growth process for themselves, so that they can finish up by saying, “I went into this expecting to find that x, but in fact I was struck by y.” It shows you’re open to ideas, man. What kind of unreflective moron would you be if you found roughly what you expected to find and were pleased about it? Well, a research scientist, I suppose.
I’ve not bought drugs from the Silk Road, so for all I know Bartlett is right that the operation of a review system and a dazzling array of choice is driving up customer service standards and product quality (what, drug dealers aren’t motivated enough to investigate ways of gaming a website review system and search facility? Really? Even Amazon has astroturfing.) But one thing I have dabbled in is online political activism, and about this I think Bartlett was wrong in a fairly important respect. He is impressed with the passion that far right online political activism generates, and the fact that a Facebook group was used to organise an EDL march thousands strong in Waltham Forest. The Labour Party, he said by way of counter-example, never managed that sort of turnout, and mainstream political activism online had a lot to learn from the far right if it was going to survive.
Now, I am first with the custard pies when it comes to attacking our uninspiring political culture, and yes, membership of all political parties is in decline. But Labour, like other major parties, quietly gets high dozens or low hundreds of people onto the streets every single Saturday, and they certainly use Facebook among other things to achieve that. They’re just not doing anything that attracts Bartlett’s attention. Mild social democrat delivers Labour leaflet is not news. Racist delivers BNP leaflet is an ominous indicator of well-organised hatred in the heart of our political system. Actually, the far right are pretty unremarkable in the tools they use and the way they use them. Elsewhere in politics, Bartlett was spot on about the pedestrian nature of the techniques used by the ISIS Twitter account to create publicity, which have been hailed as technical wizardry in some corners of the press. It’s odd that he doesn’t see how the same applies to other political groups in the spotlight.
But then, if your thing is to turn a given picture through 90 degrees and be satisfied with the first counter-intuitive angle you find – paedophiles are sometimes nice people, political extremists are pretty successful campaigners, online drug dealing is a perfect free market in harmonious operation – you are going to finish up with contradictions. It’s controversialism that, in spite of the serious-minded warnings at the beginning, isn’t going to frighten anyone or get to the bottom of anything. I was entertained and informed – did you know that the biggest selling item on Silk Road before it closed was fake £20 Tesco vouchers? – but there were no true 180 moments when you realise the world is actually the other way up from how you thought it was. For those, presumably you have to take a look at the dark net for yourself.