Frank Cottrell Boyce and Geoff White; Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Orbit stage, July 8 2017.

Just as science and theory offer endless opportunities to invent and reinvent stories, so do our existing narratives, and the ‘What if?’ question pops up again, this time in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s incredibly entertaining talk.

Stories? He queries. Oh, stories, well they’re all about the ‘Wouldn’t it be great if..? and then What if..? and, well, it’s just ‘stealing ideas!’ Fabulous. Boyce’s humour is infectious, children, lots of them, and grown-ups are in stiches for the most part of his talk, and it’s not just Boyce’s accomplished performance of The Unforgotten Coat. How does he know? How does he know exactly how to pitch that scene of power play between the teacher and the student? (as a former teacher who’s had her fair share of engaging in similar power plays, I’m super impressed by Boyce’s skilful interpretation and his comedic take on it). But humour aside, this children’s story about Chingis and Nergui, two brothers from Mongolia carries a sobering message about the cruelty of the immigration system. But it’s also about the beautiful, and often magical, transformative power of storytelling.

As somebody who works with The Reader Organisation (set up by Dr Jane Davis, MBE, a volunteer organisation devoted to improving well-being in communities, reducing social isolation, and building resilience in diverse communities through shared reading), Boyce understands all too well the magic of gifting stories and how that can change lives. ‘The pattern of giving is very important in storytelling, writing, telling, each other stories, you’re building a charge in the listener’s heads. Boyce is talking primarily of his work as a children’s author here, but the same is true for whatever the age of the listener. ‘Pleasure gets conflated with fun, there’s a profound form of attention that helps keep something in your brain,’ he draws on a beautiful image, Einstein as a child on a bicycle, watching the sunbeams and dreaming, ‘what would it be like to ride on a sunbeam,’ and we all know where that took him. Boyce tells us another story, about a Romany Gypsy he met out in Switzerland, ‘I read Heidi’, she told him, and reading Heidi freed her. She wanted to give her children a better life, not the life she’d led. ‘Societies can be like prisons: class, race, masculinity, reading will free you’, is Boyce’s message.

Stories, for Boyce, are about connections. He returns to that idea of an all connecting pattern in the giving and receiving of stories, ‘I was six years old when a Nun at my school told me Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, and it sat in my head for years, before it became Millions. It doesn’t stop there though, The Pardoner’s Tale has been doing the rounds for hundreds of years: Shallow Grave, A Simple Plan, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – see, it’s all connected.

In Arabic, there’s a saying, do a good deed and throw it in the sea. This is what storytelling is about, throwing good deed out there. ‘You’re entering a transmission. Who knows what it will bring you back.’

At the end, lots of little hands shoot up in the air for the ‘Any questions?’ section. The questions are excited variations on: ‘Can you sign my book please?’ ‘Can you sign my light sabre?’ Boyce is charming and accommodating and I think it’s fair to say he’s thrown out more than a few good deeds today, so here’s to riding on future sunbeams.

Now, delightful as it all is, let’s face it, when it comes to Science, Technology and creativity, it’s not all sunbeams and rainbows, there’s still that ‘misery in art’ hanging around (thank you Adam Marek). Enter the dark web and its numerous spin offs where creativity is finding an unlikely home, or so I hear tell. I caught up with Geoff White (Channel 4 News) after his engaging and informative talk on the mystery that is the dark web, ‘The Dark Web explained,’ (he brought along his pink gonads and live surfed the dark web). Such is the interest in his topic that not only is the tent crammed to bursting, but there are groups of people massed at each entrance. I too was curious about what else the dark web had to offer, other than posing, ostensibly, as a honey trap for the criminally inclined, and Geoff was kind enough to answer some questions.

In our brief chat, Geoff outlines what he sees as some of the benefits of having an online anonymity cloak.

GW: There’s the obvious political aspect, you can use it to escape oppression, you can use it to visit certain websites you wouldn’t normally be able to in certain countries and that, as far as I’m aware of is the bulk of the use. The hidden websites where all the criminality happens, is actually the minority of the dark web use, as I understand it. However, the impact of that criminality, the brazenness of it, and the widespread aspect of the criminality, for me, still makes it worth paying attention to. If you say a hundred people in this room are great, but there are two serial killers present, you’re going to pay attention to the serial killers, you can’t use the bulk of it to completely negate the others. And I do think we have to ask questions about why you would have those hidden sites. So I get the good side, but I do think the bad side is worth paying attention to.

On the value of trying to shut down the dark web, Geoff points out the beginnings of YouTube as an example.

GW: It was full of illegal content when first set-up, but now it’s ‘come good’, cleaned up its act, so to speak. The assumption on behalf of the people who support the dark web, and who don’t support the criminality sites, but are not in favour of shutting the website down, is that something similar will happen here. Their point is yes, you’ll start with criminal behaviour, you’ll start with pirate Radio stations, and you’ll end up with Radio One. People forget YouTube when it was launched was full of pirated content, it broke the law and then gradually, you know, it came good. So the assumption is that this will come good. What I’m interested in though is the fact that we’ve had this technology, for what, twenty years, or thereabouts. At what stage are we going to start seeing massive benefits to the hidden websites? People have done research on this and have shown that the vast majority of these websites are used for criminality. I kind of feel that we’ve run the experiment long enough, that if it was going to come good, and there were good reasons, we’d know about it, about them, by now. I don’t really buy the social good, doesn’t mean I’m not ready to be convinced, but the evidence doesn’t seem to be there for the existence for these dark websites. But hey, maybe they will turn into those legitimate Radio stations, I don’t see it.

So what is the future for these websites?

GW: I think using the internet in an anonymised way, using encrypted chat apps, that is going to happen. So we’re already at the stage where most internet traffic is encrypted, people are using encrypted chat apps, so I think that’s definitely going to keep happening. In terms of hidden websites, there are already other dark webs emerging, other dark web-style networks, so people might shift to those, but what’s interesting is if there is a crackdown on the dark web, people will shift to point to point connection. Networks for criminality might just get smaller and tighter, people will start to send encrypted chat app messages instead.

One final question, in all his wandering around the Dark web, has he ever been tempted by anything. It elicits a laugh.

GW: Frankly no, I’m not a massive drug user so none of that would tempt me. (He pauses to think for a moment) ‘um, the most bizarre things you come across though are the things that are completely innocuous, but are being sold on the dark web, so there was a guitar tutorial book on how to play the guitar and I thought well that’s weird because it was sandwiched between, (I’ll just say here two fairly dodgy sounding sites, and Geoff continues) I thought, I’d like to buy the guitar manual, but your advertising in the wrong place. No, I find it intriguing, but I’ve never been tempted.

So what got you interested in the first place? Silk Road is the answer (and we’re not talking of the ancient network of trade routes connecting the East to the West). The Silk Road Geoff is talking about was one the first online black market sites, operating as part of the dark web.

GW: There was a piece about it in Gawker (2011) and lots of journalists thought this was interesting, we covered it and after that I was kind of hooked. Because the dark web as I’ve said, you know, is small enough that you can get your arms around it, it’s a few thousand sites. I have a nostalgia about when the internet was that small, and the dark web is so fascinating because you see the same sites going around, there’s not that many of them, it’s a small community. It feels actually friendly, and I know that’s counterintuitive bearing in mind that it’s peopled by a lot of criminals, but as I’ve said – it’s not just that.

Geoff ends on a word of caution, the dark web is not something to be taken lightly, you have little control over what you see, unless you know your way around. One minute you can be scoping around, the next you’ve been bounced onto an illegal site. Whether you got there by accident, or on purpose, is irrelevant, you’ve immediately committed an illegal act.

So what about these artists/writers who apparently choose to use only the dark web to post their work?

GW: I can’t say that I’ve come across any, but I’ll let you know if I do.

And we leave it there, for now.

Usma Malik

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