A welcome to the dark side.
In some very fundamental ways, I’ve always been the slightly thick one. Too much focus on stuff nobody gave a rat’s ass about. All the dots everyone else could lickety split connect, I didn’t have the first clue about. For God’s sake, what are those dots, where are they to be found and can someone please explain to me what they are? Me and those bloody dots have always had an anguished relationship, to say the least.
I recall working very hard to wangle my way into a lecture on something totally new for the time which the Russians called cybernetics which therefore wasn’t approved of and which I should never have been anywhere near, but the man whom I’d come to hear kicked off with a very basic question – when it comes to understanding complexity, do we start at the top of the pyramid or the bottom? He was moving towards something called combinatorial pruning, though that term had yet to be invented. Very few people were in that area.
In a prescient way, he was talking about the software design of intelligent beings which was SciFi at the time but I was doing some way off the books math sketches about. Hands up the top downwards approach he asked, and my hand shot up straight away.
Patently, we start at simplicity and work our way down through the pyramid, finding and solving the complexity road blocks as we encounter them while drilling down into the problem. Looking around the lecture hall, I belatedly realised my rapidly shot up hand was in the minority apart from a girl who should never have been there in the first place anyway.
Girlies didn’t do hard science in those days and a pure math bozo like me shouldn’t be caught dead in a guest philosophy lecture. We both considered lowering our arms, but cringed together under the peer pressure and kept our arms defiantly up. We were later to became lovers at her insistence and to my consternation, but that’s a story for another day. She had the Mills and Boon theory of it all down flat, but the practise of it left a lot to be desired.
He then asked how many thought bottom upwards was the way to tackle it. Seemingly every hand in the place shot upwards but I saw no need to change my sense that we have to start at a simple understanding of anything and then begin to peel off the onion rings one by one to gain a deeper understanding. You will understand about onion rings later.
He let them hang there with their arms up like a Hitler youth symposium before hissing one word with a reserved but scathing venom you’d be hard pressed to miss – “amazing”. I’d read everything I could get my hands on that he’d ever written before hitting that lecture and wasn’t disappointed with the notes-free extemporisation that followed. The guy could rock your world, and I came out of that lecture with some big bastud ideas to think through.
I really haven’t evolved much since those days and still think a top down approach to understanding totally new and unfamiliar material is the way to go. Nothing much happens until I’ve found the book entitled the idiots guide to whatever. A quick read through and you can tell if all the hullabaloo about it was just piss and wind and it’s actually a load of old bollocks, or you gotta go out there and find the not so idiotic guide. Eventually you’re drag assing home some door stop books which are the excruciatingly detailed bibles of the area.
This is going to be the idiot’s guide to something you thought you already knew all about but actually didn’t, and there’s nothing more dangerous than that.
What follows will be conceptually accurate, but technically a tad less so, very much so to be frank. We’re going to do the top of the pyramid stuff before I tool you up for a walk on the wild side.
To begin at the beginning, computers don’t think. They don’t understand concepts, feelings, poetry, Dylan Thomas, language, words or all of that stuff your average one-year old is already getting a decent grip on. They never will. All they do is numbers and since they’re not blessed with the ten wiggling phalanges we all have, they can only wave two fingers at the world – zero and one. We will not be exploring the irony concomitant with that statement.
Being the ingenious little anthropoids only recently having fallen out of the tree-top foliage that we are, we impose to our benefit a meaning on all those ones and zeros by looking at them in clumps. We’ve settled on clumps of eight. It’s one of those powers of two things. There’s a certain combination of eight ones and zeros that represents the letter “A”, another that represents “B”, and another that represents “C”, yackety yack, et cetera, et cetera, you’ve probably got the idea by now.
So, when you sit down and type “thepointman.wordpress.com”, what actually happens is there’s something called a server that translates those words into numbers which el dumbo the thicko computer understands and you eventually end up looking at a page lashed out by a web server based in Texas. I lived there for a while, but that isn’t where I am, just where WordPress currently hosts all our blogging efforts. The BBQ there is something to die for, but I digress.
That thing providing that service of translating what you’re typing in eminently sensible English into a string of binary digits is called a domain name server or DNS for short. Not exactly catchy, but there you go. It’s a very nice orderly way to proceed and there’s years of people having a boring but steady career defining in excruciating detail how your typing of something which means something to a human being gets translated into ones and zeros.
It’s a wonderful system, very few people actually know it exists and everybody totally depends on it. It’s great, standardised, ordered and everybody was really smug and pleased as hell about it. The thing is, it was just so deliciously ripe for the taking, which it has been for only about the last fifteen years or so. If you’re a low down sneaky bugger like wot I is, the whole thing opens up a whole nest of possibilities for the noughty boys and girls of the internet. Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.
We all of course went after it big time. Once you do the stroll of getting in to the server and taking ownership, the world is your oyster but what do you do with it?
You gots all the choices as Van da Man would say. Do I redirect all those requests for Google to a good old raunchy porno site? Perhaps my own modest blog? Worst of all, a born again Christian site? The possibilities are endless once you have the power to misdirect people. You could do all of those things and become famous, because doing a half-brained hack these days is all about becoming famous, which would be anathema if you move in the very quiet Jaylene Slide circles that actually matter.
Let’s say for instance we don’t vandalise the internet and rather than ruin other peoples’ enjoyment of it, do something a little bit more constructive. Let’s get creative instead.
Is there some God up there who said you can’t set up your own DNS server? A baby DNS server you will never let Google near to index, but one that redirects people off down to a wild side you get to create. If perchance someone was to set up their own one, the possibilities become very interesting. There are servers like that all over the place.
Again, I remind you that the concept is very real but technically it’s a lot more complex.
So, what we’ve ended up with is a two tier internet, but that’s not exactly true either since everyone setting up their own name server is creating their own space. In broad terms we have the ordinary internet which is called the clearnet, but underneath it is what’s sometimes called the darknet, which is really several darknets. Don’t get hung up on it being dark; it’s just a name, somewhere where you’re free, though I’d have to admit some of the nets are dark indeed and there have been wars fought to close them down.
It’s always in a state of flux but it does have a few constants. It’s a functional arcology with its own currency (bitcoin), places to hang out, email services, the usual stuff and somewhere safe from all the snoopers determined to treat you as a criminal simply because you value your privacy.
It has no Google, no Facebook, no Hotmail, no Twitter. None of those old reliables I’ve come to distrust so deeply. It’s off the grid, because it’s underneath it. It can’t be controlled and refuses to be, because every time some compulsive controller tries to get its grubby hands on it, it changes form, transmigrates, moves, mutates out of sight.
There are of course dubious uses for such facilities, but there’s nothing new about that. You have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. If you accept for instance that as a general principle books are good, then you have to be prepared to accept that some books will be written which you will find to be objectionable. In some cases, deeply so.
The thing to consider is if by creating such shadowy places, are we acting as a force for good or bad? It’s a value judgement; there isn’t an absolute right or wrong – you’re going to have to wrestle with that problem in the wee small hours of your four am in the morning darkest moments, and if you’re a person of decent conscience, there will always be an element of doubt.
What is undoubted though, is that there are regimes and governments around the world who do not like their own citizens being able to tell the rest of the world the things like human rights abuses that routinely occur in their country. If they get caught telling that story, their government will kill them. All they’ll ever need is your name.
It’s as simple as that.
By providing darknets, we give them and their loved ones the needed protection, the oxygen that freedom of speech needs. Nobody actually knows how big the underside of the internet is, but in my experience it seems to grow bigger and bigger as the clearnet becomes more and more controlled. Possibly the biggest darknet is called Onionland, and is the one every journalist, freedom activist and source for WikiLeaks uses, because it’s secure. I can’t guarantee it, but it’s one I use myself and when it comes to watching my internet six, I redefine paranoia.
The way you get into it is by visiting the Tor project site and doing a single download of what is actually an internet browser. Please take the time to have a good read through the site before making any click to download and install decisions. Worst case, you’ll end up with a second internet browser which you’ll never use.
Best case, you’ll use the Tor browser and drop off everybody’s radar. You can still visit all your usual clearnet sites using it, but nobody will know who the hell is visiting and where on Earth they are coming from. You’re now off the grid. As far as any snoopers and your ISP is concerned, you’ve just blinked out of existence.
Welcome to the dark side.
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