Daniel Moutia reviews American Kingpin by Nick Bilton
American Kingpin by Nick Bilton (Virgin Books, £12.99)
DRUGS, guns and illegal porn are said to be the only things you can buy with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin and this well-written book chronicles its centrality to the rise and fall of the Silk Road, the site on the dark web — the hidden part of the internet — the people behind it and those tasked with bringing the virtual marketplace to an end.
The creation of the Silk Road, the “Amazon of drugs,” came about at the perfect time, according to American Kingpin’s author Nick Bilton. In its ascendancy, Bitcoin allowed online trade to flourish anonymously and all that was required was someone willing to take advantage.
Enter Ross Ulbricht, creator of the Silk Road, who developed the site to allow people to purchase illicit goods — drugs, firearms and human organs — that he believes should be legal and out of a wish to take down the US government.
Those aims align perfectly with his idealistic yet intensely libertarian mindset, outlined in the early chapters of the book.
One of American Kingpin’s strengths is that Bilton humanises the individuals involved in the Silk Road, through an immense attention to detail and his ability to sift through chat logs, email correspondence, phone calls, social media postings and even travel itineraries and weather reports.
This is used to chilling effect when an Australian teenager’s overdose on a Silk Road product is juxtaposed with one of Ulbricht’s weekends camping and meeting girls.
Such attention to detail enables Bilton to create a rounded portrait of the Silk Road founder, although he was the one person that the author was unable to interview for the book.
Preserving his anonymity by naming himself Dread Pirate Roberts after a character from the fantasy film The Princess Bride, Ulbricht began operations by growing magic mushrooms in a rented building and Bilton goes on to detail the personal and financial issues confronting him, turning him into someone chasing profits while simultaneously getting in over his head, culminating in his eliminating those who “wronged” him.
American Kingpin is an entertaining read that seamlessly ties together the different and simultaneous narratives that accurately represent just how fractured the hunt for Ulbricht was before the denouement, where justice is served.