Nick Bilton’s American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road is a superbly-researched book that reads like a thriller. Mr. Bilton successfully recounts the rise and fall of Ross Ulbricht, known by his pseudonym, “Dread Pirate Roberts.” Bilton follows Ulbricht from his undergrad days at the University of Texas, when he became captivated by libertarian thinkers, to his 80-hour workweeks building the Silk Road, and finally to his arrest and conviction. Though Bilton could easily have filled his work with moral judgments, he abstained, allowing the reader to come to his/her own conclusions about Ulbricht and the Silk Road.
In my mind, Ross Ulbricht will be remembered as a maverick, of sorts. And part of the reason for this is that Bilton’s psychological portrait is at once complex, humanizing, and horrifying. While True-Crime books often flatten criminals into archetypes, Bilton’s Ulbricht is a human who wanted to change the world for the better. The book reveals two separate versions of Ulbricht: the Eagle Scout, a boyfriend who ran a non-profit bookstore and loved Breaking Bad; and the Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR), who created the Silk Road and ordered the murder of at least four individuals. Most people’s knowledge of Ulbricht is limited to what the FBI found on his computer–namely, the DPR account. After years of attempting to log into Ulbricht’s personal account, the DOJ gave up and sent the laptop to the Newseum in Washington DC. In this book, however, we begin to form an understanding of who Ross Ulbricht truly was based off of over two million words from his personal chat logs, messages to his employees, and social media accounts. Everyone has personas and secrets, but these forms of media show the immense depth of Ulbricht’s. Bilton builds a narrative from both lives, and in doing so he presents Ulbricht as a genius who, like Steve Jobs, wanted to, and did, change the world.
Now, if that were the end of the novel, I’d probably say it was a good work, but not great. The book becomes great through Bilton’s ability to weave into the story the lives of the complex characters who attempted to capture DPR. These characters include Carl Force, a DEA “double agent” who became a drug dealer and sold information to DPR; Jared Der-Yeghiayan, a DHS rookie who went undercover on the Silk Road; Chris Tarbell, an FBI agent who led the task force that arrested Ulbricht; and Gary Alford, an IRS worker who connected DPR to Ulbricht. These complex characters have motives, desires, and intentions which make them every bit as entertaining as Ulbricht. Moreover, from them we learn why it took so long to capture Ulbricht— they double-crossed each other, withheld information, and tipped off the very person whom they all were trying to capture.
Nick Bilton demonstrates precisely how a nonfiction book about the Internet should be written. By using massive amounts of data, social media posts, EXIF data, chat logs, interviews, weather almanacs, old Craigslist ads, phone records, and visiting sites, Bilton harnesses the age of information to both humanize and bring history to life.
The Silk Road will and has made a lasting impact on our generation. For anyone remotely interested in the Internet, cryptocurrency or the Dark web, I would highly recommend this book. Not only will you learn how Ulbricht created the Silk Road, why the site was a success, and why it took so long to take down; you’ll discover how a nonfiction book about the internet should be written, and you’ll have one hell of a time reading it.