The Secret Life

Three things: Julian Assange appears to be quite unstable. The internet is scary. I still do not understand bitcoin.

These are the topics (at an extremely high level; emphasis on extremely) of Andrew O’Hagan’s three essay collection, titled The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age.

He starts with Julian Assange (Wikileaks founder) in an essay called ‘Ghosting.’ O’Hagan is hired to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography. Assange is committed—except for the tiny detail that he really doesn’t actually want the book written, despite a million dollar deal and a signed contract. Nonetheless, O’Hagan is given access, and the runaround, by this bizarre person. Assange obfuscates, makes excuses, slanders people who tried to work with him before, exudes paranoia, complains that “Men who reveal their private lives in books are ‘weak’” and “People who write about their family are ‘prostitutes.”

I gotta give it to O’Hagan. I probably wouldn’t have been so fair to Assange or given him as many chances to make right as O’Hagan did. We need to get over the whole attitude that “genius white men” deserve a lot of rope. Just let them hang themselves sooner. It’s better for everyone.

O’Hagan writes: “I felt quite sorry for Julian. And I continued to feel sorry for him. He was in a horrible predicament. He had signed up to a project that his basic psychology would not allow.” He also writes about how Assange eats with his hands, always looks slovenly, is an interrupter, acts self important and is probably a womanizer. He sound great.

“He is thin-skinned, conspiratorial, untruthful, narcissistic and thinks he owns the material he conduits.” Those sound like bad qualities to me. Veneration is dangerous. O’Hagan posits that maybe Assange is not motivated by “high principles but by deep sentimental wound.”

Culturally, we need to stop allowing allowing genius/intelligence or one goodish act from a dominant class of person wipe away people’s worst character traits. O’Hagan eventually decides that Julian is probably “a little mad, sad and bad, for all the glory of WikiLeaks as a project.”

The second essay ‘The Invention of Robert Pinn’ is O’Hagan’s own experiment. He takes the name of man who died in the ‘80s and creates a whole fictional online presence for him. His invention tools around on the dark web, buys drugs, gets mail at real, physical address, and O’Hagan figures it won’t belong before the Pinn ends up on the voter roll. It’s an eye-opening look at how easy it is to create and be a fake person online and how that person can become very real—via fake passport, a well researched story and other bits collected on the dark web. If fake people can get identification documents, phone numbers, friends, money, physical addresses, how do we determine what makes someone real?  If O’Hagan’s information is good (and I’m sure it is), the Internet is rife with fake people and stolen/morphed identities. Who is anybody, really?

I don’t even know where to start with the last essay, called ‘The Satoshi Affair.’ Another guy, this one making claims about being the inventor of Bitcoin, whose proof of this is good, but also falls short. Craig Wright, another guy that O’Hagan gets roped into writing an autobiography about, appears to be an unstable, slightly dishonest, computer genius who may or may not be as clever as he’d like us all to believe. It’s all very sketchy.

Despite my irritation and above rant, I like O’Hagan’s book. It’s interesting. It asks intriguing questions about our relationship with the Internet and what it means to live with one foot in reality and another in code. It acknowledges there are things we will never know about Wright and Assange, both of whom are highly difficult and at least a little dishonest. O’Hagan’s a thoughtful writer; he digs, he tries to keep his nose clean and he wants to present the truth. He sees when he’s in too deep. I think we’re all in way to deep with the Internet.

Andrew O’Hagan was at Events 48 (How Close Can You Get), 64 (The Proper Study of Mankind) , 86 (An Intimate Evening with Andrew O’Hagan) and 93 (Writing Now). O’Hagan was at Event 48 with Diego Enrique Osorno who will not be featured on the blog. Regretfully, his book, Slim, is in Spanish. I will not understand a word of it. It sounds amazing though.


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