Last summer, Andrew O’Hagan undertook the peculiar experiment of borrowing “a dead young man’s name and see[ing] how far I could go in animating a fake life for him.” In the resulting meditation on identity and “the ghostliness of the internet and the way we live with it,” O’Hagan describes how he plunged his fictionalized “Ronald Pinn” into the dark web, “where one can be anybody one wants to be”:
There were areas I wouldn’t allow him to go into – porn, for instance – but the Ronnie who existed last summer was alive both to drugs and to the idea of weaponry.
It’s one of the contradictions of the dark web, that its love of throwing off constraints doesn’t always sit well with its live-and-let-live philosophy. There are people in those illicit marketplaces who sell ‘suicide tablets’ and bomb-making kits. ‘Crowd-sourced hitmen’ were on offer beside assault weapons, bullets and grenades. One of the odd things I discovered during my time with cyber-purists – and Ronnie found it too – was how right-wing they are at the heart of their revolutionary programmes. The internet is libertarian in spirit, as well as cultish, paranoid, rabble-rousing and demagogic, given to emptying other people’s trash cans while hiding their own, devoted not to persuasion but to trolling, obsessed with making a religion of democracy while broadly mistrusting people. Far down in the dark web, there exists an anti-authoritarian madness, a love of disorder as long as one’s own possessions aren’t threatened. The peaceniks come holding grenades. The Manson Family would feel at home.
When Ronnie Pinn went to see this world he found it welcoming and vile. He saw Uzis and assault rifles, bomb-making kits, grenades, machetes and pistols. As a man with cyber-currency, he was welcome in every room and was never checked. He was anybody as well as nobody. He could have been a teenager, a warrior, a terrorist or a psychopath. So long as he had currency he was okay.