NICK BILTON'S AMERICAN Kingpin is the story of the hunt for Ross Ulbricht, the man behind the website Silk Road. Its flaws resemble those of Bilton's previous book, the 2013 bestseller Hatching Twitter (Portfolio/Penguin), which largely ignored the social media platform's meaning to its users or the world at large, instead dishing on the founders' squabbles over control, credit, and money. Similarly, while the ostensible topic of American Kingpin is an amazing combination of technologies that produced something new under the sun--a way to buy drugs that tended to be safe from the law as well as from rip-offs and overdoses--Bilton doesn't seriously explore the technical or social side of Silk Road. Nor does he delve much into the legal and ethical issues surrounding the drug war. Instead he tells a lurid cops-and-crooks story.
The founder of Silk Road wanted to improve the world by creating an anonymous online space where people who enjoyed mind-altering substances could buy and sell them with no physical risk from each other, connected with a community rating system that added unprecedented--though never perfect--safety and quality control to the drug market.
Starting in 2010, as the prosecution tells it, Ross Ulbricht worked relentlessly for about three years scaling the site up and keeping it running nearly flawlessly. Throughout this time, he was harassed by hackers, extortionists, and rivals. He is alleged to have earned for that work at least 174,000 bitcoins, whose current value would be over $300 million. Ulbricht was arrested by the FBI in October 2013, and is now in New York's Metropolitan Correction Center under a life sentence with no chance of parole.
Bilton's "narrative non-fiction" approach means no fact is directly sourced in the text (though it's generally easy enough to guess who told him what). The boringly relentless quest for novelistic detail that comes along with that approach both overburdens the reader and underserves anyone interested in understanding the website. Readers of this book won't find a good explanation of the system whereby Silk Road protected buyers and sellers by holding their money in a cleverly designed escrow system, for example, but they'll get plenty of paragraphs about how certain federal building plazas looked or what was on the radio as a cop drove around on a certain day. Bilton got an old girlfriend of Ulbricht's to spill hours' worth of stories, and he transcribes what feels like nearly...