To use Silk Road, you have to download an IP anonymizer (for instance, you can use the Tor browser, available here), and then you just go to the Silk Road website (this is the link I used to access it, but it changes regularly because of federal crackdowns) and set up an account. Users rate sellers, à la Amazon, so you reduce the chances of giving your street address to the DEA.
One of the most interesting aspects of Silk Road (as if there’s anything that’s not interesting about the Amazon of narcotics) is that there are some items you can’t buy there. For instance, you can’t get stolen passports, child pornography, credit-card numbers, etc. The theory, as I gather it, is that even anarcho-capitalists subscribe to moral law and that there’s an element of pride in the site’s ability to self-regulate, paltry though that self-regulation may be. (I mean, you can get meth there. METH.) It’s an oddly human impulse to claim moral high ground. In the sterilized, pixellated, intactile world of the Internet, it feels a little incongruous, but it’s kind of dear. Anyway, you pay for your drugs in Bitcoin.
A lot of Bitcoin aficionados will probably take issue with my next point here, but I’m pretty sure history will eventually be on my side. My theory is that Silk Road is Bitcoin’s gold standard. Bitcoin, from what I can tell, isn’t valuable because of idealistic Ron Paul supporters who feel it’s in their rational self-interest to invest in a monetary future unfettered by Washington; Bitcoin is valuable because you can use it to do something that you can’t use other forms of currency to do: buy drugs online. As long as Bitcoin is the best way to buy drugs online, and as long as there is a demand for Internet-acquired drugs, there will be a demand for Bitcoin.
That strikes me as the only practical guarantor of Bitcoin’s value, at least in the near term. Now, most Bitcoin transactions are perfectly legal and have nothing to do with websites named after Marco Polo–era transit routes. But I’m convinced (open to being persuaded otherwise, but still convinced) that Bitcoin’s most significant advantage over other currencies is inextricably linked to Silk Road or other Bitcoin-based black-market websites that I’m not aware of.
Back to Bitcoin
Anyway, my personal relationship with Bitcoin will probably seem pretty anticlimactic after all that, but here goes: Basically, the National Review powers that be decided that they wanted to know what it’s like to subsist solely on Bitcoin for a week, and that I was the person to tell them. So, without further ado, here is how I lived for seven consecutive days (a Tuesday through a Monday) without completing any monetary transactions using Federal Reserve notes.
The first step was actually getting my e-hands on some Bitcoin. I used Coinbase because it had a YouTube video explaining how it worked that was pretty. Coinbase is self-explanatory; you go to the website, give them all your bank information (that sounds ill advised, but my identity hasn’t been stolen yet, so I guess it’s safe to do), and then buy some Bitcoins. It takes about three days for the Bitcoins to show up in your account, and then you’re set.
The next step was finding ways to meet my basic human needs. I take the D.C. Metro to work every day, and you can’t pay your fare using Bitcoin (the Metro is the worst, I know), so I did the only thing a rational human being would do: meet a stranger on the Internet. I found a friend of a friend of a friend through Facebook — the aforementioned Justin Malkin — who met me at a Metro stop in Alexandria and bought me a Metro card using Federal Reserve notes. It took me way too long to pay him back for it because I couldn’t figure out how Coinbase worked, but I eventually got him the appropriate amount of Bitcoins by sending them to his receiving address.