If the natural world of trees and bees starts on the edge of our towns and cities, the digital world starts at our fingertips. Meaningful access to both requires the acquisition of secret languages and a deep understanding of their codes of existence but it is harder for the innocent to fathom the furthest reaches of the latter.
Those of us who dabble in social media or browse news websites are builders of sandcastles at the very edge of a vastness with deep, dark potential. Those who accrue to themselves great power based on mastering this vastness shimmer through public life like a super villain created by Grant Morrison.
Andrew O’Hagan’s new collection comprises three essays previously published in the London Review of Books. They are true stories in so far as they are truthful accounts of what O’Hagan was able to learn, not because they are necessarily the whole story. In their different ways, they are concerned with the ownership of identity and personal narrative as they become wireless. O’Hagan contends a reporter with the sensibilities of a novelist is uniquely equipped to explore the inherent ambiguities: ‘When I’m reporting I feel less like a news gatherer and more like an actuality seeker, someone for whom the techniques of fiction are never foreign and seldom inappropriate,’ he writes. Precisely what these techniques are could be clearer – an awareness might be better – but O’Hagan’s novels suggest a preoccupation with individual and collective identity. What was Maria Tambini’s prize for winning Opportunity Knocks for seven consecutive weeks if not an identity tethered to nothing? And can’t Our Fathers be read as a book about Scotland experiencing a personality crisis? He summons some of the old paper gods – Norman Mailer and Scott Fitzgerald, WH Auden and Joseph Mitchell – to support his argument that writers have long-known invention and concealment are key components of human experience.
The reports published in The Secret Life don’t amount to an argument that the internet is creating new human impulses. The online self is not the next stage in evolution but a way to indulge primeval urges with hitherto unknown ease. But it can also amplify existing problems and O’Hagan is eager to explore this conflict. Setting out his perception of the world he wishes to delve into, he describes the internet as ‘a marketplace of self-hood’ that gives ‘the tools of fiction-making to everyone equally’. Andrew Sullivan, in New York Magazine, worried ‘this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not living’. Such considerations are becoming less important, however, than the pursuit of validation in the form of relationships with online shadows. The implications of this are worth assessing with reference to the distinction Clive James drew between celebrity and recognition, but at the very least Andy Warhol’s prophecy needs a fresh lick: everyone can feel minutely famous if they have fifteen followers on Twitter.
Big issues are at stake in The Secret Life with no expectation they will be easily resolved. It’s fortunate, then, that birds sing hymns about O’Hagan’s pen: there is a perfect harmonization of tone and style in the cause of serenading the stories so they might be seduced into an orderly reveal of their details. It is a testimony to the clarity of the writing, its ability to arrange and explain, that the complex stories in this collection are presented just so. O’Hagan’s reportage has a serenity, a sense of something being deliberately controlled, that distinguishes it from his novels and reviews. The hot dust of Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song settles on first impressions for this reason but also because it exists in the alleyways between fact and fiction.
Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks guru, is the subject of the first story. Described as ‘the manifestation of a hyperventilating chatroom’, he emerges as a duplicitous narcissist with lecherous tendencies. A black hole for adulation, he has little tolerance for those with different opinions and even less understanding of how they might be arrived at. He is paranoid about the intentions of countless enemies so patrols the borders of his public story. This proves to be problematic for O’Hagan who is meant to be ghosting the autobiography Assange has contracted to produce. At one point, Assange claims he is helping O’Hagan write a novel, a rare acknowledgement of the games being played.
As someone who had made his name revealing the secrets of the powerful, the air of his fiefdom is thick with hypocrisy. ‘His pursuit of governments and corporations was a ghostly reverse of his owns fears for himself,’ writes O’Hagan. ‘That was the big secret with him: he wanted to cover up everything about himself except his fame.’ O’Hagan is much-too sanguine about the consequences of WikiLeaks, a conclusion that makes no demands on hindsight, but his respect for it is the counterweight to Assange’s shiftiness. The report is a junction where an old story about the relationship between power and responsibility meets a new one about the digital vulnerability of institutions to being devoured from the inside. The implications are unnerving and there’s no comfort in knowing Assange is the same old megalomaniac history has served up before.
O’Hagan believes the third report came from his work with Assange. Craig Wright is the focus this time. A brilliant programmer, cryptographer and mathematician, he is purportedly Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of the digital currency known as bitcoin. O’Hagan enters after Wright has fled Australia with the tax authorities on his tails. His financial problems are lessened when he agrees a deal with a Canadian company hoping to profit from his ideas. Things come badly unstuck, however, when Wright seemingly sabotages his public unveiling as Satoshi. O’Hagan concludes it’s likely he was Satoshi but couldn’t handle the consequences of this being public knowledge. According to O’Hagan, Wright ‘never stopped imagining different lives for himself’ and the diffuse nature of his identity was problematic even before his online activity ‘stripped him bare’. He imagines a future in which privacy will be protected by individuals being someone other than who they really but this was just a means of placing his own neurosis in the vanguard of social evolution.
There are broad similarities between the first and third reports but the middle one feels distinctly like the piggy. In the others, there is a strong sense that O’Hagan is guided by a code of ethics that combines with his personal diligence – he quotes from Frank Herbert’s Dune, Wright’s favourite book as a teenager – to provide the foundation of their integrity. Crucially, he is not the instigator of these stories so the boundaries of his responsibilities are more clearly demarcated. In the second report, however, O’Hagan is essentially the subject as he creates an online presence based on Ronald Pinn, a young man who died in 1984. The revelation that undercover police officers were stealing the identities of dead children serves as the justification but if we already know people can be created then what is O’Hagan trying to prove?
The means are crying out to be justified but the issues aren’t developed sufficiently to resolve the moral problems at their heart. O’Hagan refers to the new Pinn in the third person as though he were coming out of his pen onto a page rather than a version of himself interacting with people in online forums. The lines between creativity and the abdication of responsibility feel uncomfortably blurred at times: ‘I can only say that the Ronald Pinn I made up tended towards certain enterprises of his own volition and I let him.’ In time – less than you might think – Pinn has a tax code and a passport. Drugs are bought on the dark web using bitcoins, suggesting he might have been the co-creation of a lawyer or two.
O’Hagan’s attempts to piece together the life of the real Ronnie Pinn form the second element of the story. A tip-off about his mother leads to a door on the edge of London. ‘It seemed reasonable to expect that the story of Ronnie’s real life would be something she felt she owned,’ O’Hagan speculates. The story closes as the door opens and he is welcomed into her home. He has spoken subsequently about what happened next. Over the course two hours and cups of tea, Ronnie’s mother acted as though O’Hagan was her son coming home but seemed deaf to his explanations. They parted on good terms, with promises of letters and meals. Then his piece was picked up by the papers and Ronnie’s mother saw what she hadn’t before. Now she accused O’Hagan of taking Ronnie and who would feel differently?
It’s no revelation that individuals create new identities to become the person they think they should be. Who would want to be Robert Zimmerman or Norma Jean Mortenson when you could be everything they were not, everything they could never be? The question is just how far can these impulses can now be taken and what this means for relationships in the real world. If we are sacrificing our ability to interact in a context where we might also touch and smell then we might as well hit upload and be done with it. But something would be irretrievably lost, like a balloon sucked from the hands of a child. Laurie Penny recently implied she was a believer in ‘the moral purity of the digital future’. This statement jarred like knife steel hitting bone but O’Hagan the reporter has called its achievability profoundly into question. O’Hagan the novelist should be grateful because he would be redundant, like much else precious to human existence, in a world of clinical moral purity.