Review published on September 17, 2017.
Modern society has become utterly reliant on the internet. It is pervasive and has many positive and negative aspects, from the way that it can bring people together to the troubling undercurrents of the dark net. In The Secret Life, Andrew O’Hagan brings us three different stories, one of a man who courted public opinion whilst holding it in contempt, a man who was thought to be someone else and shies away from the spotlight and a final story about a man who does not exist. All of these individuals live in the hazy zone between real and online life.
His first story concerns Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, the website that looks to get under every government’s skin. Assange had signed a fairly substantial deal with Canongate to tell his life story, and O’Hagan is brought in to interview, document and prepare a readable text ready for publication. Assange is a hugely complex character who suffers from justified paranoia, vanity and narcissistic tendencies, who wants to portray a particular image of himself and his website; he reviles excessive state controls that some countries apply, whilst missing the irony of applying similar rules to those that work for and with him. O’Hagan somehow manages to cobble together a manuscript for the publishers, but has come to realise that Assange doesn’t want to publish at all, merely to have the prestige of being an author.
The second essay describes how O’Hagan uses the identity of a deceased young man, Ronnie Pinn, to construct and fake an online profile. After obtaining a birth certificate, he starts by signing up to a couple of social media platforms, as the fake identity grows and the credibility of the identity is established, he starts to venture into the murky world of the dark net where illegal items are easy to obtain. It is all simple to do, but it didn’t really tell O’Hagan who Ronnie Pinn actually was, the more he investigated he realised that he was a much of a ghost in real life as he was on the net. Until one day he found out that his mother was still alive.
The third and final story is called the ‘The Satoshi Affair’ about the mysterious and elusive creator of Bitcoins. For ages no one really knew who Satoshi Nakamoto was, or if it was a group of people who pulled together the code to make the blockchain database that is the foundation of the Bitcoin credibility. There was lots of speculation as to the identity. O’Hagan was then asked to write the story of Satoshi Nakamoto, who may be an Australian web developer and former academic called Craig Wright. He had just avoided being arrested shortly after it was suggested by a website that he was Nakamoto and had headed to the UK with his wife. As O’Hagan interviews him, there are points of lucidity and certain moment when no one is actually sure if he is trying to pull the most elaborate hoax ever.
O’Hagan has bought together three fascinating stories of the modern day blend of real world and online personas and identity. It is quite shocking is some ways just what someone can achieve and obtain in the dark recesses of the net with little or no effort. The essay about Assange made for entertaining reading, just to see what he was actually like from an insider’s view was quite an eye opener too. Craig Wright’s story was the hardest to get a grip on, even though he is a clever bloke and more than capable of coming up with the blockchain, there are still elements of doubt as to whether he is the legendary Nakamoto or not. Overall, I thought that this was an enjoyable book of our modern age.
Paul Cheney 3/3
The Secret Life: Three True Stories by Andrew O’Hagan
Faber & Faber 9780571335848 hbk Jun 2017
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