Colloquium: Robert Gehl (University of Utah)


Title: From Agorism to OPSEC: The New Informational Politics of the Dark Web

Speaker: Robert Gehl

Location: UTA 5.522 (1616 Guadalupe St., 5th Floor)


Perhaps the most infamous Dark Web site was the original Silk Road drug market, hosted as a Tor hidden service. From its beginning in 2011 to its seizure by law enforcement in late 2013, the Silk Road was arguably more than a market. Its founder, Ross Ulbricht, conceptualized Silk Road as a sociotechnical implementation of agorism, a radical market libertarian philosophy. Agorism holds that the modern state is founded on violence and is therefore illegitimate. Agorists argue that the twin expressions of state violence, warmaking and policing, both unduly impinge on human freedom. For agorists, free markets offer a new model for social organizing that does not rely on coercion, violence, or state power, where contracts, not law enforcement, could be the glue that holds society together. Ulbricht argued that every sale on Silk Road was not just a means for drug dealers to satisfy the desires of drug consumers; each sale was also a blow to the concept of the state itself. Here, drug dealing was not just for profit and recreation: it was a political program.

However, the Silk Road was seized in 2013, the (U.S.) state asserted itself, and agorism fell by the wayside in Dark Web market politics. This presentation takes up Dark Web markets post-Silk Road and post-agorism, considering how new Dark Web market vendors and buyers think about both state violence and market violence. In comparison to Silk Road, the new markets on the Dark Web are less overtly about libertarian ideology, but they are far more concerned with security. The state’s ability to find, take over, and eliminate the Silk Road leads to new concerns about securing markets against law enforcement. In response to this, Dark Web market participants have appropriated a state practice: "operational security" or "OPSEC," a term appropriated from the U.S. military and referring to specific practices of information security. As I will argue, OPSEC is the new politics of Dark Web markets: a social order built on "proactive paranoia." The presentation will explore the implications of OPSEC politics in building a social order.


Robert W. Gehl received a PhD in Cultural Studies from George Mason University in 2010. He is currently an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. His research draws on science and technology studies, software studies, and critical/cultural studies and focuses on the intersections between technology, subjectivity, and practice. He has published critical research exploring corporate and alternative social media, knowledge management, crowdsourcing, media theory, and the Dark Web. This work appears in journals such as New Media and Society, Communication Theory, Social Text, Fibreculture, Television and New Media, European Journal of Cultural Studies, and the Canadian Journal of Communication. His book, Reverse Engineering Social Media (2014 Temple UP), explores the architecture and political economy of social media and is the winner of the Association of Internet Researchers Nancy Baym Book award. At Utah, he teaches courses in communication technology, software studies, new media theory, and political economy of communication.

Homepage: http://www.robertwgehl.org/


1:15pm to 2:30pm


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