The week of September 28, 2014

Me IRL: Alex Winter

By Kevin Collier

Of all the second acts in Hollywood history, few have swung to the other side of the spectrum like Alex Winter.

Years after he reached stardom alongside Keanu Reeves by playing Bill S. Preston, Esq., in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Winter has reinvented himself a documentary filmmaker. That’s not to say he’s ever lost his affinity for his excellency—just last week Winter announced that a long-awaited Bill & Ted 3 is actually happening—but his modern work explores the unheralded but massively influential movements that shift the Internet.

Fresh on the heels of 2013’s Downloaded, a deep dive into Napster’s invention and impact, Winter’s hard at work on his follow-up, the Kickstarter-funded Deep Web: The Untold Story of Bitcoin and the Silk Road.

“There’s a misconception that Bitcoin is anonymous. It’s actually the most transparent form of currency that exists.”

The Kernel caught up with Winter, who just announced a third Bill & Ted, as he drove through Los Angeles. He talked about the Deep Web, evil dwarves, and why U.N. health workers believe in Silk Road knockoffs.

First screen name:

I can’t tell you what it is, because I still use it as a password! It’s so flipping weird and obtuse. It’s a great password, but related to a character in one of my favorite novels. Suffice to say, it refers to an evil dwarf.

How you first got online:

I am so freaking old that I got online like 25 years ago, in the late ’80s. I got my first Mac in ’83. Was it… Compuserve? There was an internal modem application within the Mac that was really labyrinthine, pain in the ass, that seas connected to a really bulky external modem setup.

Favorite social network:


Figure from history you’d love to see online:

Karl Marx could have been the ultimate troll. [Danish philosopher Søren] Kierkegaard somebody like that, who’s this really crusty thought police of their era. It would have been great to see somebody of that kind of genius interacting with the world community. I don’t think Gandhi would have given a shit about the Internet.

The Internet in five years:

It depends on whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership succeeds or not, and whether net neutrality is alive.

My hopes are that we’re able to retain a democratic and accessible Internet globally, and if we are, then I think that we see a continuation of this sort of ideological rise to power of a legitimate global community. I don’t think it’ll be all rainbows and unicorns, but I think it’d be powerful, and not dismissible. I think if we do fall prey to things like the Comcast-Time Warner merger, the TPP, and the death of net neutrality, then I think that cryptographers will actually build an under net, something new. I think that would be a shame, but it would be necessary.

Might that get built anyway?

My film is kind of about that. I think the Deep Web, the sort of terrain of unindexable data is a really good place to traverse online that way; that’s a really good place for an under net. I think Bitcoin showed us many things. The blockchain is so unbelievably sophisticated and far-reaching. Something could happen like the blockchain in the next five years and turn all of this upside-down.

Do you own much Bitcoin?

Sure, of course I do. And I’m not a speculator. I don’t use it like a hedge fund guy would.

What was your most recent purchase with it?

I gave to Freedom of the Press [Foundation, for its] SecureDrop technology.

Are you an Internet saint?

I’m just involved.

The Internet would be better if:

We socialized broadband—meaning nobody anywhere pays for Wi-Fi. The Internet could do on a global level what so few people understand, which is realize that it’s an actual terrain, an actual community. It’s a tangible environment, and no matter what their class or what sort of government they live in, people should have access to it. I know that’s not gonna happen in totalitarian regimes; I’m not naive, but it really should happen in first and second world cultures. It’s a negligible cost and it’s kind of ludicrous that anyone has to pay for it.

Some big cities have experimented with free Wi-Fi.

It’s really cheap and there’s a way to advertise and monetize, so it should be done. I mean, if I’m sitting in an airport and I wanna get Wi-Fi, I can look at banner ads in order to do it. We’re long past the world of not knowing how to make money off this stuff. I think part of the problem is like how the Comcast-Time Warner deal is trying to go down. I think it’s kind of an unfair stranglehold on a commodity that should be available to everybody.

“People want you on the Deep Web. They want to be found, and they’re there to be found. They’re not hiding: There’s anonymous and there’s private, and there’s a difference.”

What’s the biggest misconception of the Deep Web?

That it’s the dark net. Because it isn’t. Deep Web refers to something administrative and mundane, which is just a technological component of function of the Internet that allows for the traffic of data that’s not indexed. That’s all it is. It doesn’t mean anything else. It’s certainly not a den of contraband and inequity.

Is the dark net dark?

It’s not. It’s partially dark, but it mostly serves a practical, productive, and positive function. There’s some that there’s stuff going on in it, like how on one small street corner of your town, there might be somebody buying child pornography. But the dark net is primarily a force for good.

Do you have a favorite place or discovery on the Deep Web?

I think that a lot of what the dissident journalists are doing is amazing. I think that the whole idea of Bitcoin and building technologies on top of the blockchain is amazing. I notice that the Deep Web is interwoven with this movement. The philosophy of [pseudonymous Bitcoin creator] Satoshi [Nakamoto] is very similar to the philosophy of the [Silk Road creator] Dread Pirate Roberts.

What value do you see in the blockchain, outside of its normal function with Bitcoin?

I’m not a technology expert; I’m just interested in this area. But there’s a misconception that Bitcoin is anonymous. It’s actually the most transparent form of currency that exists.

The blockchain, so far, five years down the road, has not been broken. It’s a hard and fast ledger of all activity. A ledger can be used to exchange goods and services, but there’s no reason why not to use it for contracts. You could literally put a university through the blockchain, a place where people can commune through the blockchain where your identity is verifiable. A couple’s getting married on the blockchain. It’s woven into the nature of two-step cryptography, which, again, so far, has not been broken by nefarious hackers or the NSA.

Ever worried you’ll run into something you don’t want to see?

I haven’t really uncovered anything like, “Oh my God, I’ve found someone who wants to murder his wife.” Just like in the early days of the Internet, before it got regulated, I’ll occasionally see something I wish I hadn’t. I don’t wanna end up looking at child pornography or something like that, something that’s really depressing.

Did you face any resistance for trying to probe such a secretive world?

When we did the Kickstarter [to initially fund the movie], I got a lot of feedback, a lot of contacts from the Deep Web who I wanted to use in the movie. Some of them were members of Silk Road, and most of them were very glad I was doing the film. I got a couple of trolls who were like, “The Deep Web is supposed to be a secret, go away.” And to them, I say that’s really bullshit. My teen son is on the Deep Web. Anybody can operate Tor. These services need to be used. Tor is proliferated by the Navy on purpose. People want you on the Deep Web. They want to be found, and they’re there to be found. They’re not hiding: There’s anonymous and there’s private, and there’s a difference.

“Privacy and anonymity technology will become more mainstream.”

Is the future of the Deep Web to become more standardized and streamlined, the way the Internet as we know it has?

I think privacy and crypto technology is going to get woven into our basic front-end apps. So things that are currently a pain in the ass, like PGP and mailveope, will become ubiquitous. My mom won’t have trouble sending an encrypted email. Privacy and anonymity technology will become more mainstream.

What about the dark net?

That’s a whole different animal. The way in which that would be more regulated—and Dread Pirate Roberts wanted this; it was kind of his whole M.O.—is there’s a lot of people who think that the drug war should be over. It’s doing more harm than good, costs too many lives, an enormous amount of money, and has failed on every conceivable level.

So as it becomes clear that the black markets, with their ubiquity and the robustness of their services, aren’t going away, we may have a Napster effect. We might someday get somebody like Steve Jobs, who was able to see the record industry was wrong, the RIAA is wrong, nobody gets it, and was entrenched enough in the mainstream. He came in and created the iTunes store and legitimized what [Napster developer Shawn] Fanning created.

We might end up with that happening with drugs. Not today, though they’re legalizing marijuana in a lot of places. But we may see that these markets begin to shift drug policy and change the way we view certain forms of contraband.

Even if the need is there, convincing people in government of that is a different story.

I’ve actually spoken with people within the U.N. who are actually pro- these drug markets. They believe they’ve taken a lot of violence out of the game, and that they are helping address mental health issues. I know that’s a provocative thing to say, but it’s coming from people within the health industry.


Illustration by J. Longo