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The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age by Andrew O’Hagan

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age
Looking for a book to kick off 2018? There’s Andrew O’Hagan’s “The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age” for timeliness and relevance.

The end of one year and the beginning of another prompts reflection of what was, introspection of what is, and resolutions for what may come, and this is no less true than the seeing out of 2017 and the welcoming of 2018. 

To that end, there were a number of topics which were top of mind as 2017 came and went: the proliferation of so-called “fake news” supported by algorithms know as trolls and bots; the rise of Donald Trump aided by foreign involvement mirroring the fall of Hillary Clinton coinciding with WikiLeaks disclosures; and the mania of bitcoin as it became a household name and the cryptocurrency reached dizzying valuations on the back of speculators’ FOMO (“Fear of Missing Out”).

All of these narratives fit hand in glove with Andrew O’Hagan’s book. 

O’Hagan takes the craft of writing seriously, as his accomplished bio shows, and he plies his trade with three distinct yet interwoven pieces in The Secret Life.
They’re related because of their unique proximity to our digital existence in 2017 –something unfathomable even at the turn of this century. 

The first story, Ghosting, builds upon O’Hagan’s (same named) essay in London Review of Books describing the author's increasingly fractious relationship with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange when O'Hagan was assigned to ghost write Assange’s biography.
Assange looked like a counterwarrior and a man not made for the deathly compromises of party politics. And he seemed deeply connected to the Web’s powers of surveillance and countersurveillance. What happened, though, is that government opposition to WikiLeaks’s work—which continues—became confused, not least in Assange’s mind, with the rape accusations against him. It has been a fatal conflation. There’s a distinct lack of clarity in Julian’s approach, a lack that is, I’m afraid, only reinforced by the people he has working with him. When he heard I was writing this he sent me an e-mail saying it was illegal for me to speak out without what he called “appropriate consultation” with him. He wrote of his precarious situation and of the FBI investigation into his activities. “I have been detained,” he said, “without charge, for 1000 days.” And there it is, the old conflation, implying that his detention is to do with his work against secret-keepers in America. It is not.
The excerpt gives a taste of Assange’s inability to see another point of view. The Australian hacker is polarizing at the best of times – I admit to being fascinated by the Wikileaks project and its ostensible attempt to hold the powerful accountable for their actions, but have been appalled by the rape allegations associated with Assange. He simply isn’t a sympathetic figure.

Replete with behavioural quirks and an unhealthy dose of narcissism, on Assange O’Hagan writes that “Julian had a way of making himself, in his own eyes, impervious to the small matters that might detain others. If you told him to do the dishes he would  say he was trying to free economic slaves in China and had no time to wash up. He stood at the center of a little amateur empire, and any professional incursions, from lawyers, from filmmakers, from publishers—all of which he had encouraged—were summarily dismissed.”

In the next chapter, “The Invention of Ronald Pinn”, O’Hagan details the invention of a digital persona that is possible today and all the more believable thanks to algorithms like Weavrs:
“Weavrs are “personality-based social-web robots” that “publicly blog about how they feel, where they go and what they experience.” An article by Olivia Solon in Wired magazine questioned the guys behind it. “The team … won’t reveal exactly how the Weavrs algorithm works— referring to it as their black box,” Solon wrote, “but say they create personalities from social data that then ‘blog themselves into existence.’” It’s taken for granted in these circles that digital robots are becoming a tool of big business; in China, for instance, Weavrs are used to collect data on young people and their preferences. In the old days researchers would speak to individuals, but nowadays the invented “person, the digividual, is more reliable when it comes to showing what people want.”

The revelations of what the Dark Web entailed in this story were striking, as was the ability of a digital persona to live in it: “Once he had the means, the credentials, the bitcoins, and the passwords, he was, in a sense, free, like a character in fiction who must express himself not merely according to his author’s wishes but according to some inner mechanisms embedded in his past and in his nature.”

But the Dark Web cannot exist in the wild west, anarcho-capitalist manner it does without the anonymity of cryptocurrencies, and the emperor of cryptocurrencies today is bitcoin. But who created bitcoin? This is where the final chapter, “The Satoshi Affair” come to the fore and O’Hagan meticulously provides the reader both a play by play and colour commentary of his meetings with Australian Craig Wright, who — for a short time — was outed as Satoshi Nakamoto, the supposed creator of bitcoin, only to open up a Pandora’s box of questions, subterfuge, recriminations, and a fall from grace. It made for fascinating reading. In Craig Wright’s own words:

I walk from 1 billion or I go to jail. I never wanted to be out, but if I prove it, they destroy me and my family. I am the source of terrorist funds as bitcoin creator or I am a fraud to the world. At least a fraud is able to see his family. There is nothing I can do.

O'Hagan's book was published in June of 2017 but in my opinion it deserves a second look by those who reviewed it at that time. It is arguably more timely and relevant as a read now.


Blog Post by Arijit Banik, who remains a bitcoin skeptic, but a believer that the disruption we are seeing in this digital age is just getting started.