The Secret Life
The slippery online ecosystem is the perfect breeding ground for identities: true, false, and in between. We no longer question the reality of online experiences but the reality of selfhood in the digital age.In The Secret Life: Three True Stories, Andrew O'Hagan issues three bulletins from the porous border between cyberspace and the 'real world'. 'Ghosting' introduces us to the beguiling and divisive Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose autobiography the author agrees to ghostwrite with unforeseen-and unforgettable-consequences. 'The Invention of Ronnie Pinn' finds the author using the actual identity of a deceased young man to construct an entirely new one in cyberspace, leading him on a journey into the deep web's darkest realms. And 'The Satoshi Affair' chronicles the strange case of Craig Wright, the Australian web developer who may or may not be the mysterious inventor of Bitcoin, and who may or may not be willing, or even able, to reveal the truth.What does it mean when your very sense of self becomes, to borrow a phrase from the tech world, 'disrupted'? Perhaps it takes a novelist, an inventor of selves, armed with the tools of a trenchant reporter, to find an answer.

The Secret Life Details

TitleThe Secret Life
Author
FormatHardcover
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJun 8th, 2017
PublisherFaber & Faber
ISBN0571335845
ISBN-139780571335848
Number of pages256 pages
Rating
GenreNonfiction

The Secret Life Review

  • Blair
    January 7, 2017
    The Secret Life (beginning)In the introduction to The Secret Life, Andrew O'Hagan explains that 'the leading figures in this non-fiction book, each of whom is real or began real, depend for their existence and their power in the world on a high degree of artificiality'. The secret life of the title is that created by the existence of the internet, that 'marketplace of selfhood' where 'the average user [is] a ghost'. The subjects are 'both masters of the internet and victims of it', and these acc The Secret Life (beginning)In the introduction to The Secret Life, Andrew O'Hagan explains that 'the leading figures in this non-fiction book, each of whom is real or began real, depend for their existence and their power in the world on a high degree of artificiality'. The secret life of the title is that created by the existence of the internet, that 'marketplace of selfhood' where 'the average user [is] a ghost'. The subjects are 'both masters of the internet and victims of it', and these accounts are all examples of how 'an online self and a real self might constantly be at war with each other'. Each of the stories is a reworked version of an essay previously published in the London Review of Books, two of which (the first and third) I've read before. (I've linked to them below; the full versions are no longer available online unless you're a subscriber, but the LRB site lets you read an extract of decent length before you hit the paywall.)GhostingO'Hagan's account of his time as Julian Assange's ghostwriter, the outcome of which was supposed to be Assange's memoir/manifesto but ended up as Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography , disowned by its subject. It's utterly compelling, brilliantly revealing, horrifying and weirdly funny.The Invention of Ronald PinnDetails O'Hagan's decision to create a fake persona after learning about undercover police officers repurposing the identities of the dead. He chooses Ronnie Pinn, who died in 1984 at the age of twenty, after coming across his grave in Camberwell New Cemetery, and experiments with how far he can take Ronnie's new life, from that which can be easily faked (an email address and Facebook account) to the not-so-simple (driving licence, passport). At the same time, he tries to trace Ronnie's history and find people who might remember him. An interesting concept, but left me with a lot of unanswered questions (O'Hagan mentions that he has access to an empty flat in Islington which he uses as Ronnie's address, but never explains how/why – is this standard practice for identity thieves? What if they don't have an uninhabited property conveniently to hand? Are the people who friend Ronnie on Facebook actually people who knew him in the past, or random strangers, or are they also fake?)The Satoshi AffairWho is Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious supposed inventor of bitcoin? The answer may, or may not, be Craig Wright, a talented Australian mathematician and programmer of genius-level intelligence and significant eccentricity. In 2016, O'Hagan was enlisted as part of a complex corporate project, the culmination of which would be the 'big reveal' of Wright as Nakamoto. The resulting saga is complicated (nothing like reading about the mathematical principles of cryptocurrency to make me feel deeply, deeply stupid) but engrossing, a little thriller-like, a brilliant piece of reportage. In many ways this is the inverse of the Assange story, and in the end I felt sorry for Wright, who seems like someone who desperately wanted to avoid, but in the end could not help, becoming a celebrity (at least in tech and cryptography circles). The Secret Life (end)I really enjoyed this book as a whole – it flows like a dream, it reads like a novel, and at their best the stories are riveting. That said, there are weaknesses. I'm not convinced it successfully addresses the themes laid out in the introduction, or that these three stories even feel much like they're about the internet or online selves. The Assange and Wright stories feel like they are more about personality, about how something like an individual's need to see themselves as a near-messianic figure (Assange) or ingrained need for total privacy (Wright) can harm an idea or cause that's much bigger than the individual. Sandwiched between them, the Ronnie Pinn story is very obviously a weak link, unsatisfying on two fronts: it doesn't say much about fake identities, but it doesn't go very deep into this man's real life either. Personally (not that anyone asked), I would've cut that one, expanded the others, and turned this into a book that simply revolves around two uniquely fascinating people – stranger-than-fiction tales that unfold like slow-motion car crashes.I received an advance review copy of The Secret Life from the publisher through NetGalley.TinyLetter | Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr
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  • Antonomasia
    June 26, 2017
    This may be one of those spatially unfair reviews, out of kilter with the rating: giving more words to negatives than to describing how one actually quite enjoyed the book and how much interesting material it contains. But the thing is, I’m not sure I find the narration hugely likeable – and as is the custom in contemporary literary reportage, O'Hagan is as significant a character here as his subjects, so that's part of what lingers. (In this I'm completely out of kilter with this Guardian revie This may be one of those spatially unfair reviews, out of kilter with the rating: giving more words to negatives than to describing how one actually quite enjoyed the book and how much interesting material it contains. But the thing is, I’m not sure I find the narration hugely likeable – and as is the custom in contemporary literary reportage, O'Hagan is as significant a character here as his subjects, so that's part of what lingers. (In this I'm completely out of kilter with this Guardian review characterising the author as a 'charmer'. Maybe he's different in person, or maybe it's my standards...) But the essays are undoubtedly interesting and well-written, with greater attention to style, depth and philosophy than you’d find in articles on the same topics on, say, Wired or BoingBoing. And you have to admire his stamina for these long-term projects. However, I have an unease I wouldn’t experience reading about Bitcoin, for example, on those sites. I’m continually aware of this being the London lit world’s take on the topics. Are there errors? How ludicrous does it all sound to the serious geek? (Whilst I know a few, I don't think I know any to whom I could reasonably, casually say, “BTW what do you think of these 8000 and 35000 word articles?”) Has O’Hagan become the go-to man for informal tech support among his friends, who fixes the viruses and knows the best utilities? Maybe he’s someone I’d consider a “serious geek”. Maybe I give him insufficient credit; there’s no actual reason why a writer might not be, especially if he’s reported on some pretty involved internet phenomena. By no means all good geeks have CS degrees. (And not everyone with them is a serious geek. I did part of an IT postgrad conversion course, so maybe I'm more comfortable than some with the topics in this book, but my knowledge is too outdated and too little used for me to singlehandedly overhaul the laptop on which I'm writing this post.)I’d read 'Ghostwriting’ O’Hagan’s 2014 essay on working with Julian Assange, [now paywalled] more than twice before, so didn’t re-read it again as part of this collection. (I read the book's introduction here as a Guardian article, and the other two essays on the LRB site. So if there's expanded material in the book, I've missed it.)As I mentioned a couple of years ago after reading Julian Assange - the Unauthorised Autobiography, I’ve changed my mind quite a bit about the Ghostwriting essay. Initially I thought O’Hagan dreadful for his lack of insight and some of his phrasing; a year or more later, I realised I’d been expecting him to display though processes appropriate to a trained counsellor or therapist – yet that was never his job, so why should he? – and that I hadn’t been sympathetic enough to the amount of stress he was under and how that would have affected his outlook. (I never had any doubt that Assange would have been difficult company, but thought that insufficient attention was given to the effects of stress on him, and on the idea of him as an individual who may be both damaged and damaging.) Now, as well as having realised what a useful guide to interviewing and writing it is, I figure that perhaps that was, yes, an unfair expectation of O’Hagan, and the majority of people would be even more critical in his shoes, but that doesn’t mean either that I have to really like his approach - and there are people who aren’t helping professionals who have less judgemental and more generous outlooks than his. But he is who he is, and it’s unusual to find writing of this quality and depth about the tech world , so these pieces are worth reading regardless if you have an interest in both tech and decent writing.O'Hagan has surely spent too much time around lynchpins of internet culture to have a simplistic view of the web's influence, and it's unfortunate that the book's Introduction in its guise as a Guardian article was given such a facile and misleading clickbaity title. That headline doesn't create expectations of a piece that will spend a paragraph explaining how Dickens believed that rail travel would change the meaning of selfhood. I found the piece thought-provoking about how the internet, and especially social media, may have changed the sense of interior life. In my teens in the 1990s, I think that there was a sort of inbetween pre-internet culture in which confessional columnists such as Zoe Heller became prominent to newspaper readers, not having to be as funny as their equivalents in earlier decades, recounting more quotidian aspects of life - but as with blogs pre-social media, these were not daily or hourly offerings. They had time to percolate. I think I tried to get back to that for several years this decade by eschewing the instant likes of Twitter and Facebook, but continuing to write on here. I definitely can't know the idea of private selfhood O'Hagan ascribes to Henry James and his creation Isabel Archer, not simply because of the internet, but because of those journalists and my teenage ambition to work in their world, even if I wanted to write about what I saw as "better" (more cultured or more serious) topics. The confessional journalists were sheltered from the public, however, because they were operating in the dial-up era where the internet, sorry, information superhighway, was a sideshow curiosity, and not a medium for anyone who pleased to pull apart what you just said. O'Hagan ends with a vague assertion that social media and lack of privacy will make the novel new; I prefer a more definite idea, from a very recent Goodreads review by Manny: Knausgård. It's easy to see why he's become the most talked-about novelist of our time. Knausgård, more than anyone, even more than Proust, is focused on what it means to be a writer. Once, novels about being a novelist were dry and abstract, but since the rise of the internet we've all become novelists. We're all blogging, Goodreading, Instagramming and Facebooking, turning our lives into text and trying to reassure ourselves that this is a worthwhile activity. Most of the time, it clearly isn't.Most early reviews of the book agree that 'The Lives of Ronald Pinn' is the weakest of the three essays, but without going into many reasons why. In this shorter (8000 word) piece, O'Hagan mimics the activities of identity thieves and undercover cops making personae by creating internet profiles and acquiring fake documents (with a photo that looks 10-15 years too young) for a man born around the same time as he was, but who died in the 1980s. He details information he finds about the real Ronnie Pinn, and then changes gear into novelist mode, inventing details about the man which contradict some of those about the real man whilst he was alive; plenty of these are class-marked and are a better match for O'Hagan's world than for the deceased South London bloke. As an activity, it didn't make a tremendous amount of sense, being neither one thing (fiction) nor the other (as close as possible a match to the real man for maximum real-world convincingness), but it was revealing about how novelists work and why literary fiction is such a middle-class liberal world, as the Scottish author, in contradiction of his real-world inspiration, decides that his version of Pinn studied in Edinburgh, and is gay. (The real Pinn had a girlfriend.) Though 'Pinn' is interested in far-right politics. Is that simply a way of exploring darker sides of the web, or a reflection of lazy middle-class liberal assumptions about white working class men - or both? And, I'm sorry, but how is the following not a pretentious copout that wouldn't stand up in court? (If O'Hagan had said something to that effect, and dissected the artistic philosophy behind it, and disclosed a bit of trepidation and other feelings about finding oneself in the dark of the Silk Road, that would have been a different story and a different opinion from me, BTW.) ‘It begins with a character, usually,’ William Faulkner said, ‘and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.’ And I can only say that the Ronald Pinn I made up tended towards certain enterprises of his own volition and I let him... An individual called Ronald Pinn, using his own pass-codes, paying with the bitcoins purchased in his name, bought white heroin and had it sent to his London address. It arrived in a small vacuum pack between two white cards in a jiffy bag, and cost about £30... Addressed to Ronald Pinn, it all came to the empty flat and I had it checked for authenticity. Of course, there is a history of art pranks that break or skirt close to the law, but the ends of this one never looked clear enough or even artistically playful enough for it to seem too far from the actions of script kiddies, the ones who don't even have political motivations, showing off what they can hack just because they can, and they're never endowed with the gravitas of a multi-page LRB article. (One of the instances where I'd love the opinion of more serious geeks.) The essay ends with O'Hagan meeting the mother of the real Ronald Pinn; probably, she didn't want any of what she said to appear in print, but it means that half the human story is missing, whether it's her annoyance and/or O'Hagan's reflections on the differences between the 'character' and the real man, and on the exercise as a whole.The Satoshi Affair is far the most technically involved of the pieces, as well as being the longest at 35 000 words, and is relatively complex in the computing concepts it covers and in the high-drama twists and turns of Craig Wright's vacillations and struggles to prove his identity as Satoshi Nakamoto, the enigmatic founder of Bitcoin and - probably more importantly in the long run than the hardcore geek and dark web currency, blockchain technology, which is expected to have revolutionary implications. Individuals interviewed in 'The Satoshi Affair' variously compare it to the Gutenberg printing press and the Internet itself. (Look at all these Guardian articles, for instance, praising blockchain to the heavens. No-one really seems to be writing [yet] for the lay-ish reader about potential downsides. One significant one does emerge from O'Hagan's essay: high energy usage, though that's for mining bitcoins above all else.) I am not sure whether 'The Satoshi Affair' does enough to explain blockchain, given that its audience, especially in book form, will include readers who know the author for his novels. I thought it was okay, but I'd heard of it before and don't mind looking stuff up elsewhere (which too many people seem to), and at least one of the few current GR reviews found it too complicated.Wright comes across as interpersonally nicer than Assange (which isn't saying much) but ultimately as difficult to handle, in different ways.The Satoshi essay perhaps has the most to say about identity online. Wright felt that he himself was a relatively unpopular and controversial figure, and said he needed to hide behind 'Satoshi' to implement the project. At times he wanted to reveal himself to be Satoshi, others not - also pushed and pulled in either direction by gigantic commercial and legal implications. Anyone who's sweated over quandaries about how much of themselves, and which aspects, to show online, knowing what lingers, may find some sympathy with the grand guignol motivations besetting Wright. Then there is the question, subtitled on the LRB cover in hommage to Trollope, 'Is he Satoshi?' (Never having read Trollope, I don't know whether the Popenjoy reference constitutes a spoiler.(view spoiler)[I find O'Hagan's suggestion, that Wright is probably a percentage of Satoshi, that Satoshi was really a small group, eminently sensible (hide spoiler)].) Whilst reading the piece, I found myself returning to a tangential issue: that of the British press's feeling that it has a right to know when it doesn't actually need to, its lack of boundaries, and how that might infect attitudes among the public, and interpersonally: a recent and pointlessly, astonishingly destructive example being the outing of the MalwareTech guy who helped halt the international ransomware attack. However, there are clear commercial reasons for Wright to prove himself to be Satoshi - it's not actually just about a journalist believing they have a right to know. Each essay was produced as a standalone, and, assuming the text is the same in the book as on the LRB website, there isn't much material to drawing strands together. For example, what in Australian culture in particular helped produce both Assange and Wright? I remember from material on Assange (which may include the O'Hagan book) the sense of being out on a limb, isolated, whilst the Anglosphere was, even more so before the Web, dominated by the Americans and Brits, and the indignation, the sense of wanting to prove themselves equal, that this provoked in Assange and his fellow hackers, the rejection of the "cultural cringe". I'd also surmise that something of the outlaw culture/origins had an influence somewhere or other. What does Wright think about all that? Does he have anything to add to those ideas? It's not here. Both men, however, appear to have complicated relationships with father figures. (Not exactly unusual.)There are a number of generalisations about geek culture in the Satoshi/Wright essay, some ringing truer than others. - ...when such people want to make a point, they often want to destroy those they disagree with. It’s clear how paranoia-inducing it is to be constantly assaulted by people who hate you for thinking your thoughts. Geek culture in general is fantastically vitriolic: even an issue that seems pretty marginal to the rest of us – like the question of who might play Captain America’s love interest – can easily spiral into death threats. In the world of cryptography, this has been a bar to invention and progress: developers are hung, drawn and quartered every day on the internet and they have to be unusually robust to take it. Whilst by no means all geeks are that way, and as they get older they are more likely to criticise such behaviour, this stuff is there on Twitter, and in the comment sections of comics websites for all to see, applying to entertainment, and unfortunately spreading to become a wider part of online culture.- This is utopian thinking, even by normal geek standards. Wellll, there are optimistic geeks and pessimistic geeks. I know both kinds. The people who believe tech will save us all (geoengineering, anyone?) and those who see the world as inevitably dystopian, and choose their tech based on privacy attributes. (Sometimes these are just different aspects of the same people.) - that is a general truth about computer geeks. They are content to know what they know and not to explain it. They will answer a straightforward slur with an algorithm, or fail to claim credit for something big then spend all night trying to claim credit for something small. Depends, depends.O'Hagan certainly reads like an outsider to a world where Aspergers'-like behaviour is simply normal; he judges incidental things against wider-world norms, and it seems like minor faults are under the microscope. I've generally felt most normal amongst geeks; perhaps that's why I don't feel entirely comfortable with his writing.I'm not the first to say that the three essays in The Secret Life don't really answer the points raised in the introduction. They are not about mass experience of the internet and its implications for interiority. They probably weren't written with that purpose in mind: they were individually commissioned pieces of work. The essays are arguably about the secret life of the internet, however, some of its darker and more cryptic sides, and two of its significant figures. Is there any conclusion to be drawn from all this other than that some complicated things happen online, and white Australian men who are star cryptographers and hackers might not be the easiest people to work with...? Which itself probably isn't a fair generalisation about all those who aren't Assange and Wright... But if the plainness and shallowness of most writing about tech frustrates you, or if you prefer a literary guide to some of the dark corners of the web, regardless of its relative inconclusiveness, this book may be for you.
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  • Pauline Butcher Bird
    June 25, 2017
    A fascinating account of the chaotic attempt by Julian Assange to write his autobiography. We are in the period before Julian took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy but nevertheless was forced to wear an electronic tag and sign in each day at the local police station while he fought extradition to Sweden on rape allegations.His ghost writer, Andrew O'Hagan, put together a 70,000 word draft compiled from his visits and interviews with the WikiLeaks entrepreneur against Julian's constant procrastin A fascinating account of the chaotic attempt by Julian Assange to write his autobiography. We are in the period before Julian took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy but nevertheless was forced to wear an electronic tag and sign in each day at the local police station while he fought extradition to Sweden on rape allegations.His ghost writer, Andrew O'Hagan, put together a 70,000 word draft compiled from his visits and interviews with the WikiLeaks entrepreneur against Julian's constant procrastination over many months and then, in the end, refusal to let it go, so the publishers demanded the return of the $2.5 million advance. In that absence, Canongate Books put the book out as an unauthorised biography. This version, the story of the writing of the book, gives us those torturous months that O'Hagan struggled to get it written and ends with visits to the Ecuadorian embassy - a nation not famous for its respect for freedom of speech - where Assange was holed up and isolated, most of his 'friends' and fans having abandoned him. And no wonder.The supposed champion of free speech about everyone else except himself, Assange comes across as an unreliable and narcissistic man who has no social graces, eats like a pig and repeatedly turns against those trying to help him. This is not a biography but its pages reveal the founder of WikiLeaks unfettered and paranoid. The rest of this book about two other secret lives are equally fascinating and I recommend it. Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa
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  • Laura
    June 15, 2017
    From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:Andrew O'Hagan reads from his essay 'Ghosting', about the turbulent process of writing the memoir of Wikileaks editor Julian Assange. Taken from the book of collected essays THE SECRET LIFE.Read by the authorAbridged by Rosemary GoringProducer: Eilidh McCreadie.http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tbx8s
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  • Adam Yates
    April 4, 2017
    The bitcoin chapter was a bit too complicated to keep up with but the first two stories were far better and I'm glad I'm aware of the dickness of Julian Assange.
  • T
    June 16, 2017
    Julian Assange, narcissism
  • Zarina
    April 19, 2017
    A decent non-fiction book exploring three different essays about different people in the digital space. It doesn't do what it says on the tin though and explore the meaning of self in the digital age, instead they are far more personalised essays, two from the author's own experience of working with prominent figures and one fictionalised tale to show an example. Still fascinating, but not what I was expecting.
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  • Kat Sommers
    June 25, 2017
    The essay on Assange is one of the best I've ever read - I actually found myself looking forward to going home early so I could carry on reading it, a feeling I more often have with an epic tv show. Incredible character assassination/suicide. So it was with real excitement I went to see O'Hagan at the LRB bookshop on Monday (19th June 2017). He's as accomplished a raconteur as writer, and passionate about stories that question how we create and maintain that slippery idea of "identity". The thre The essay on Assange is one of the best I've ever read - I actually found myself looking forward to going home early so I could carry on reading it, a feeling I more often have with an epic tv show. Incredible character assassination/suicide. So it was with real excitement I went to see O'Hagan at the LRB bookshop on Monday (19th June 2017). He's as accomplished a raconteur as writer, and passionate about stories that question how we create and maintain that slippery idea of "identity". The three essays in this book all do that brilliantly.
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