Dérive on the Shadownet

Psychogeography of the darkweb.

Guy Debord and the Situationists pioneered a radical way of interacting with the urban environment, a method for revealing, and later mapping, the subtle psychic flows of the city. They called it the dérive and these psychically attuned walks became an integral part of the situationist political strategy.

"In a dérive one or more persons ... let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there..." Guy Debord wrote in 1958. "From a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones."

Half a century after situationists mapped the arrondissements of Paris, it is time for a next generation of rebels to explore the dark, subterranean cities that Debord could not have accessed: the hidden shadownets that flow below the surface of today's global internet. Let this be a first attempt at a psychogeographic exploration of the illicit darkwebs, the anonymous networks and clandestine sub-cultures of today's cryptoanarchic shadownet.

Just as the situationist of yesterday would begin their dérive with a choice of cities, our journey begins with a decision between the three main anonymous networks: Tor, I2P and Freenet. Each holds unique challenges and has a particular culture but today we shall make our decision based upon the chance flip of a coin and begin in Tor's onionland.

Although many people are aware that Tor allows for anonymous browsing of the mainstream, corporate internet, fewer realize that Tor also includes a so-called "hidden onionland" where both users and the servers they are accessing are anonymous. These hidden websites are distinguished by their .onion URLs, hence the name onionland, and our interest will be in staying entirely within the network of these sites that are inaccessible outside of Tor.

Every journey begins with preparatory steps. For us that involves anonymizing ourselves so that we may pass into the shadownet. But aside from the technical steps necessary to gain access to the darkweb, we must also be attuned to the very real dangers that we face. Debord was careful to explain that all dérives come with risk, and the stroll through onionland is no exception. We are entering an network where anonymity allows for the open exchange of illicit information along with, as we shall see, virtual and real goods. The danger for us is that we shall bring back traces of the shadownet and that these illegal residues will linger on our computer.

To protect myself on this particular journey, I have constructed a special Tor-only laptop that is incapable of long-term memory. The hard-drive has been physically removed and the entire operating system is run off of a read-only Linux livecd specially designed for exploring Tor. All of my traffic data will be encrypted and anonymous. When the system is powered down, it will be incapable of remembering what occurred. As I shall save no mementos of our walk except my memories, there will be a physical, and virtual, separation between these two worlds.

I insert the cd, turn on my amnesiac computer and begin my stroll. As the first .onion page slowly loads, it feels as if the empty room in which I sit is invaded by the specter of the law. Faced with complete freedom, the invisible police inside my head makes its presence felt. Prohibition shakes its stick. I note this sensation of risk as a part of the psychogeography of onionland and continue strolling. From a general directory site listing, I make my way towards community. I want to know who else is in this world and find that there are plenty of message boards where active discussion is being held.

One site in particular, The Opensource Vendor Database, grabs my attention. Here I stumble across my first taste of the illicit: an anonymous website where all manner of drugs is for sale including marijuana by the pound, LSD from Europe, and synthetic designer drugs discreetly shipped from special laboratories. The site includes a reputation system to protect buyers from the feds and scammers while sellers hide behind complicated payment systems that involve a gold-backed digital currency called the Pecunix. From the comments left by satisfied users, the site is clearly a hub of international drug trafficking but the friendly tone of the sellers and the simplicity of dealing via postal mail has the strange effect of making one feel as if they have entered an alternate reality where buying drugs is a no big deal.

We leave behind this underworld and follow links until we come to the Hidden Wiki, the definitive guide to the darkest recesses of onionland. A war is raging here between those who want the hidden darkweb to include everything and those who want to exclude at least one thing: child pornography. This debate plagues all anonymity networks because of the crypto-anarchist position that any ability to filter content on the hidden web would represent a flaw in the anonymity system. After all, their argument goes, if we can block abhorrent pornography than tyrannies could block politically dangerous content. Freenet is notorious for building "censorship resistance" into its anonymity system: no one, not even the creator, can remove content from Freenet because it is an entirely p2p, distributed datastore without servers that can be knocked offline. Content drifts in Freenet like flotsam in the ocean. Tor, on the other hand, relies on currently operating servers which results in a profound psychogeographic disparity that is akin to knowing one is reading a book versus talking to a real person. Tor feels alive whereas Freenet often feels dead or ghost-like.

Walking away from the Hidden Wiki war against child exploitation, we find ourselves at talk.Masked, an anonymous discussion forum that will be the final destination of today's dérive. Here we discern a strong anti-corporate bent and experience shivers as we overhear participants discuss the possibility of provoking an armed insurrection or civil war in America. It is just talk for now, but it is clear that there is a seriousness that suggests it might not be talk forever. Will onionland be the place where an anti-corporate revolution is planned?

After several hours in the underground, I turn off my computer and fall back into the "real world". In onionland, I observed the international drug trade, assiduously avoided the child exploiters, and listened with keen interest to emerging revolutionaries. As I blink my eyes and come back to the ordered world of domineering law, I sense that my relation to this world has profoundly shifted.

Later, as I walk the real streets of my neighborhood, a residue of the dérive sticks to my consciousness. That the shadownet exists, that there is a hidden, anonymous world easily accessible, works to re-enchant the tired commercialized reality that I had until now occupied. Psychically liberated for a moment, I taste the revolutionary potential of the digital dérive.

Micah White, micah (at) adbusters.org