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Andrew O’Hagan: ghostwriter of the dark web

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In The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age, Scottish author and non-fiction writer Andrew O’Hagan presents three very different tales that explore the idea of identity in the digital era. 

Two are based on real-life encounters. O’Hagan was commissioned to ghostwrite the autobiography of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, only for Assange to refuse to sign off the 70,000-word draft, which went on to be published as an “unauthorised autobiography”. 

In another unnerving experience, O’Hagan spent six months exploring the claim of Australian computer programmer Craig Wright to be Satoshi Nakamoto – the name associated with the as-yet-unknown founder of bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency which has been used to fuel trade on the dark web.

The third story in the collection chronicles O’Hagan’s experiment in creating a series of fake online identities for a dead person, Ronald Pinn, whose name he found on a tombstone in a London cemetery.

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The stories tell us much about the dilemma of ‘self’ in an era of too much choice and also about the distance that digital technologies create between humans and the real world. Daniele Rielli spoke to O’Hagan to find out more:

Why did you choose to tell stories that are so closely linked to the digital world? 
As a novelist, I’ve always been interested in characters. Each character has a secret and a novel is a way to reveal those secrets. At the same time, as a non-fiction writer, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that many key figures in the digital world feel the need to become invisible, to not have an identity, basically to not be ‘characters’ at all. So I tried to use book-writing techniques to investigate the deep and hidden motivations of each one. Which aspect of his personality would Julian Assange prefer to keep hidden? What is it about being the inventor of bitcoin that is so difficult to face? In reality, they’re all deeply human stories.

Telling this type of story is very difficult. For example, if this was done for the cinema, you’d risk having too many computer screens and hardly any human interaction. What literary difficulties does an author have to overcome when writing about these topics? 
The problem is that many people already expect the internet to be a place where it’s easy to hide yourself. It’s a place where you can wear an infinite number of masks. In fact, Facebook told me that there are at least 60 million fake accounts. That means there are at least 60 million people out there leading secret lives on the internet. This is why The Secret Life is a fundamental expression of our times, so much so that it has become the title of the book. I wanted to demonstrate how you can take a journey to discover these secret identities, many of whom are actually not as mysterious as they might seem.

What were you expecting when you accepted the offer to become Julian Assange’s ghostwriter?
I have always thought that in some way all novelists are ghostwriters. We borrow the voice of someone else and we write as if we are them. It’s one of our jobs and many non-fiction writers feel the same; you have to get inside someone else’s skin. With this book, I had to do the same thing, the only difference is that these people are not exactly flesh and blood characters, or at least they’re not perceived as such. They’re cyber, they’re a digital phenomenon, lost in the heart of technology. I wanted to tackle all this, while still telling the story of a human being. Julian Assange had read my books and wanted someone to tell his ‘truth’. But it didn’t work out.

You created a digital identity from scratch. What did you discover while doing this? 
One of the frontiers provided by new technologies is the possibility of inventing a new identity, completely from scratch. Borrowing the techniques of cinema and fiction and by using the birth certificate of a deceased person, you can actually create a new personality. I wanted to see in person how all this was possible. So, almost like an investigative journalist, I started from the birth certificate of a child whose name I’d found on a tombstone in a London cemetery, and I tried to see how far I could take the deception. I asked myself if people on the internet would see this fake identity as a real, living person. And they did. At the end of the experiment, the fake Ronald Pinn had far more mentions on the internet than the real Ronald Pinn, and this really says a lot about the times we’re living in. 

Did you also manage to make him commit crimes? 
Yes, I wanted to demonstrate how this ‘new person’ could play a role in the dark web, a place where you can buy arms, drugs and counterfeit money. He did all this, or, more precisely, I did it under his name. I felt I had to get as close to danger as possible to prove how extreme the possibilities of a made-up identity are today. Investigative journalism can’t just stop before it gets to the truth, it has to go all the way. This was my job. And, to be honest, it went far beyond what I was expecting. 

Do you feel that all the research you did for the book has changed you in some way? 
In the beginning, I thought all these stories had nothing to do with me on a personal level, but I gradually realised that I was only fooling myself. In the end, the result was a book that is unintentionally autobiographical. It was a way to tell the story of my own relationship with these ever-changing technologies and my difficulty in finding a sense of identity in a historic moment where identity is no longer the solid and unambiguous concept that I knew when I was growing up. I was basically writing about my own personal identity crisis. This happens to writers a lot; you always end up choosing a subject that touches on something that’s important to you, even if you don’t always realise it at the start. 

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