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, writes Brian Doherty.