Opinion

The blurring reality of online identity

Andrew O’Hagan on ghostwriting Julian Assange, meeting the man who claimed to have invented bitcoin and assuming the identities of the deceased

It’s not just the internet that is still in its infancy. Our understanding of its repercussions, of its future shape and of what we expect from our writers and artists’ responses to it all exist in an equally nascent state. Yet some writers are dealing with these questions at a considerable head start from others, in both perceptiveness and willingness to plunge into the new, ever more complex fractures of the present. And not just in the superficial sense (see: writing a novel in tweets, or publishing their late night Instagram DMs as a poetry collection) some are indulging in the night terrors and opportunities offered up by the new style weirdness of the internet of things.

Andrew O’Hagan fits this description on all counts. An award-winning novelist, essayist and critic - his career over the past twenty years having been spent mostly staring at all things freakish, marginal and strange. In genre-blurring 1995 debut The Missing, he explores the lives of Britain’s missing people and the families left behind; his varied long-form journalism in the London Review of Books includes outstanding and uneasy pieces on Jamie Bulger’s killers and the ‘Double Cunt’ saturated world of Paul Dacre; and his 2015 Man Booker-nominated novel The Illuminations is a moving treatment of the ‘flotsam’ of life, the way that the past and the present of a single person can coexist. His is a restless creative intelligence constantly gnawing at the margins of the bizarre and under-documented, observing the sea changes and distortions his chosen subject matter fall in the epicentre of.

His new nonfiction collection The Secret Life is the subject of conversation when we meet on a muggy Friday early afternoon at the Faber & Faber’s Bloomsbury office. The book is made up of three long essays of novella length, each dealing with a representative figure created by, and/or imagined from, the internet. Ghosting tells the exasperating story of collaborating with Julian Assange at the zenith of his fame on a memoir that never, or only partially, came to being. The Invention of Ronald Pinn sees the identity of a long-dead and completely forgotten Londoner ‘borrowed’ by O’Hagan to create a fictitious identity. And finally, The Satoshi Affair documents the strange, sad story of Craig Wright, the self-proclaimed inventor of the revolutionary online currency Bitcoin, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stomach the weight of his own proclamations. 

“My three case studies are individual, and in many ways typical of nothing but themselves”, O’Hagan writes in the foreword. They are all figures “in one way or another, on the run”. Though not quite outlaws, not quite anything else either. And they each might- just might- “tell us a story about the time we are living in.” Yet when I tentatively put it to him that these three figures might be emblematic of the age, I get a nuance in reply. “Really, they are men of their time in the sense that they are not typical- they’re fluid and strange and self-alienating.”

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Julian Assange, addressing TV Crews (REX Features)

We start on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange who O’Hagan describes as “the perfect character for me. At least I saw him as a character. For others, he was a mouthpiece or an editor, or a passing humour. But for me, he was a proper 21st Century character.”

Ghosting is a quietly devastating portrait of a man incapable of seeing an olive branch without immediately reaching for the nearest chainsaw. Of a man who eats baked beans with his hands while railing at the iniquities of erstwhile supporters. A man who thinks nothing of performing A-Level soliloquies on the nature of freedom while denying the most basic to his staff (an infamous gagging clause in Wikileaks contracts stipulated a £12m lawsuit to anyone who spoke out against the organisation). At one point in our conversation, O’Hagan makes the observation that “It’s often the case with people that have a fascination with the abuse of power that they have a tendency to abuse power themselves. It’s something to watch out for, especially in men I find. It’s never occurred to Julian that he is in a position of power and authority over the two women in Sweden that felt raped by him. He speaks all day about the lies and abuses of authority, but he was in a position of authority there.”

The origins of their collaboration were relatively straightforward. In January 2011, Canongate bought the rights to Assange’s memoir for £600,000 and wanted O’Hagan to act as the ghostwriter. Initially, it seemed an inspired choice. A writer with the requisite “weirdness”, talent and doggedness married to a subject of worldwide interest and fascination. At first, O’Hagan thought Assange’s personality - “amused and suspicious” - to be “a nice combination,” but it wasn’t long until cracks began to appear in their relationship. While O’Hagan understood his role to be a ghostwriter with all the freedoms of interpretation that offered, Assange was after something else, though what it was changed with the fluctuation of his mood. He wanted a mouthpiece, a captive audience and, at times, “a father”.

Assange, it rapidly became clear, was both an unreliable confidant and a narcissist of world class proportions, as well as an editor and hacker of genius. Part of the explanation lies in the nature of Assange’s self-created myth, nurtured in the shadows and laptop glare of interminable late nights holed up in a Norfolk bunker with a revolving cast of acolytes and supporters.

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Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy (REX Features)

O’Hagan memorably describes him as the one figure he’s met that “makes him feel utterly like an adult.” When it became increasingly clear that Assange couldn’t - and wouldn’t - complete the book, he reverted to the time-honoured staple of the naughty schoolboy, performing a variety of increasingly demeaning variations on “my dog ate my homework”. O’Hagan expands at how Assange was “a man who literally told me he’d worked on a draft of the book the night before but ‘couldn’t find it.’ I mean, I’ve never had an adult look me in the eye and tell me a lie about something that wasn’t that important. I stress the second bit of that sentence. It’s the unimportance. ‘Ok so you didn’t do it, let’s do it today’. No, ‘I can’t find the files’.” It got, O’Hagan says “to the undignified position of having a whole afternoon watching him go through every file and every draw trying to find ‘zip drives’ of work it seemed obvious to me that he hadn’t done. It was like a child trapped into a responsibility he couldn’t meet. And rather than be the master of that situation and say ‘look, it’s my book and this is a contract that I’ve signed and you, after all, are working as my collaborator - I’m not beholden to you’, it almost seemed that he relished being the child in a position of outwitting authority.” As O’Hagan notes in the course of the essay, careless precocity and thoughtless brilliance are qualities that become less attractive when transferred from youth to middle-age. And Assange doesn’t make an attractive Peter Pan. 

’Authority’ didn’t just mean the government of the United States. “It meant his lawyer, his publisher, his collaborators, his sureties, his former Wikileaks collabs, his former collabs in the New York Times or The Guardian. These bogeymen of authority that at some very basic psychological level, he was frightened of.” It’s a fear that seems indivisible from both the neediness and the pomposity. Here was an adult man that didn’t only feel the need to tell inconsequential lies, he was also an adult man with a deep-seated desire to be loved. Or perhaps that isn’t quite right. It’s a desire and a fervent belief that people are doomed to be in love with him, that they have no choice.

O’Hagan says he rarely saw the range of this magnificent charisma. He talks of how Assange would randomly proclaim that people were in love with him. Investigative journalists, editors, other computer programmers. Adult beings with their agency blasted apart by apparently irresistible magnetism. On occasions, it must have been true. But it was the impulse to say it loud, to verbalise it in such a nakedly childlike way, that baffled O’Hagan. “I double-took when he first said it. Like an announcement from someone who didn’t feel loved enough. In a Freudian sense it’s like shouting for your mummy.”

“I’m used to the idea of people selling themselves to me. If you’re going to meet an activist, a rock star, a fashion model, they are going to have an idea of themselves and that’s great; let’s have it. But, I’ve never met an adult who would say of another adult - on more than one occasion - ‘he’s in love with me’.” It’s not, O’Hagan rightly says, something that can be assumed or taken for granted. “It’s just not the sort of statement you want people to hear you use. Keeping accounts of how devoted people are to you is a mug’s game anyway. It opens up a whole miasma of low self-esteem versus ego.” 

For a figure so explicitly concerned with his own modernity and contemporary relevance, there is a quality embedded in the Assange that emerges in the course of Ghosting that seems redolent not of the present nor the future, but the recent past, a deep reek of the latter half of the twentieth-century. There’s something in the lexicon of his paranoia that is expressly Cold War. It’s the love of the idea of pursuit. But not of pursuit in the shadowlands of the internet. It’s the notion of physical pursuit that animates him in a very “Berlin 1960s kind of way”, O’Hagan puts it. “That people were carrying recording devices through a tunnel, or spying on you in a very old fashioned way.” At one point, O’Hagan was “driving him to this farmhouse, and he suddenly made me drive him across these rutted furrows as if we were being pursued by an army of spooks”. In Assange’s interior world, you aren’t delivering a parcel, but “making a drop off”. You don’t meet an old friend, but “meet a contact”. Less Dostoyevsky, more vintage John Le Carre. A world where smuggling a message into China meant stuffing it into the lining of briefcase, not circumventing gaps in software. It’s a 21st century hangover from the eroded certainties of the 20th, of “the way we think about the relationship between the individual and the state.” This isn’t a condition peculiar to Julian Assange. Just have a glance at the current collective anxiety nightmare of US politics.  

It’s at this point that the conversation veers towards Craig Wright. Wright wanted the world to believe he was the legendary figure Satoshi Nakamoto, the revolutionary inventor of Bitcoin, the crypto-currency with pretensions to one day supersede banks and the very abstract idea of monetary value itself. It’s tempting to draw easy parallels between Wright and Assange. Both are Australian, both have been fugitives and both grew up inhaling the fumes of 80s cyberpunk philosophy - a vague set of rules and assumptions that encompasses everything from Chomskyian anarchism to hard libertarian ideas about freedom and morality. Both take evident glee and possess a developed talent for pissing people off (“I’m an asshole”, is one of Wright’s typically blunt self-assertions.) Both were eventually overwhelmed by their commitments and their own complex senses of self. Arguably more than anything, both were overwhelmed by the times. They are also both undeniably brilliant men. Yet, Wright may also be a fraud. He may also be the real deal. It’s a question that hasn’t and may never be resolved.

It certainly wasn’t when O’Hagan was approached in late 2015 to chart and chronicle this strange and disturbing story of a man suffocated in a mask he couldn’t adequately explain putting on. A man that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide the proof to an unprovable question he himself had posited. The Satoshi Affair reads like a thriller sans the reveal. There’s the usual assortment of stock figures. The FBI, the money men with the unexplained money possibly backed by “The Big Man” in Antigua (O’Hagan refers to them in the book and in our conversation as the Men In Black), a tense evasion of law enforcement and a few minor triumphs and manifold setbacks for our antihero.

For O’Hagan, Wright is a tragic figure. And in many ways the opposite of Assange. For example, Wright was almost comically (if the stakes hadn’t been so high) deferential and eager to stress the collaborative importance of Bitcoin’s early days, while also remaining fiercely loyal to the “people he gives a shit about”. As O’Hagan puts it to me, the real meat of the tale lies in Wright’s very ordinariness. “He didn’t see himself in this messianic light, quite the opposite. People see Satoshi in this way, as a zen figure of the internet age sitting cross-legged and emitting white papers of supreme delicacy. This is a 46-year-old guy called Craig from Gordon. He had a very strong sense of how he was going to fail this image test.”

And image, particularly in the cutthroat politics of the universe Wright inhabited, is everything. He’s a character baffled by the power of the myth that Satoshi generates. “We were all used to pseudonyms”, he tells O’Hagan, “that was the cyberpunk way”. But the cyberpunk way, as Wright understood it, was a concept of the 1980s. “Now people want Satoshi to come down the mountain like a messiah. I am not that.”

So what and who is he? O’Hagan is scrupulously ambivalent. “People are addicted to the idea that there must be a con going on.” Plenty of people think that O’Hagan himself was part of the subterfuge (“part of the plan to make a billion dollars. I mean, I wish.”) There’s others that consider him a patsy. “But if you were there through the daily unwinding of the story… It was the story of a guy who set out on a ride he couldn’t complete. I kept saying to Craig, ‘you’re not letting me down if you can’t prove it’. And he really thought he was. But the story is the story. Not whether you can prove it. It’s going to unfold how it will. It was an existential disaster for him.”

The blurring reality of online identity

Andrew O’Hagan (REX Features)

Though ostensibly an essay, in reality The Invention of Ronald Pinn is a blurring of form. Neither fiction or nonfiction, it is strange, disconcerting plunge into the online abyss. By placing himself at the mercy of the internet’s total freedom, O’Hagan is allowed to resurrect the shell of Ronald Pinn, a nondescript young man who died of a heroin overdose in 1980s South London, using techniques ‘perfected’ - though now disavowed - by the Metropolitan Police when they would assume the identities of dead children in the 1980s/90s for the purpose of infiltrating activist groups.

O’Hagan choose to “pursue Ronald Pinn into the fantastical dimensions of a life he didn’t live”. Even if the task was to become “an outrageous defilement of a person’s identity, then that, too, would be part of the story I was trying to tell”. His Ronald becomes a magnified version of the real and nondescript man who once lived a real and nondescript life, allowed to partake in the wild and fantastical libertinism of the internet’s darkest corners. It’s this radical capacity for self-invention and the ease of creating these multiple fragmented selves that links the lives (real and imagined) of Assange, Wright and Ronald Pinn. They are, in differing senses, online phantoms. Ghosts trapped in infinity sized jails.

What separates them is that while Assange and Wright are at least partially responsible for their own captivities, ‘Ronnie’ is not. Though he buys drugs, guns, harvest Bitcoin, gambles online, rents a flat and has the potential of joining the electoral roll, he can no more be said to exist than any other fictional, or semi-fictional character can be said to ‘exist’ without O’Hagan acting as puppetmaster. He has no agency, but even his short ‘life’ and eventual deletion leaves a mark and the metadata that is the lifeblood of government agencies and conglomerates. It’s a tale informed and animated by the techniques of fiction. Pressed to describe this blurring O’Hagan tells me “I like to dissolve into the nature of the thing that I’m writing about.” 

O’Hagan’s characters - Julian Assange, Craig Wright and Rolan Pinn - all reflect this. “By the end of Ronald Pinn, I felt I was writing a nonfiction novella. It was a new form to me. These were extended nonfiction narratives with all the DNA of fiction writing. They had character, pace, plot and all in a very personal way. I suppose that’s what I mean by fiction. I don’t mean ‘made up’, I mean that it has the rhythm of pure subjectivity.”

As a writer who has done so much to chronicle the first stages of the internet’s unknowable development, in all of its occasionally grotesque and unpleasant forms, does he see a positive future for our use of it as a resource and a call to arms for the writers and artists of the 21st century?

“Yes. I think that despite all the dangers and the quagmire of what the internet can sometimes be, I think it is the greatest creative tool in human existence. The opportunity in front of us for the dissemination of what’s best in the human mind, of what’s most ripe for exploration, of what’s greatest in terms of connectivity. We’ve done some terrible things with it, but we’re also in its earliest days. I have real hope that it will be the gateway to somehow really wonderful in what being human really is.”

It’s tempting to think of Assange, Wright and even Ronald Pinn as the strange pioneers of these early revolutionary days. Bemused figures of varyingly sympathetic cast, trapped too early or too late in time, struggling with the consequences of their work, with the weight of their own significance and with the churn of the times. Three figures who in their different ways feel at best semi-fictional, packed with distortions and visions of the grotesque. Assange’s egomania, Wright’s paralysis, Pinn’s scrupulously crafted amorality. Each representing an aspect of the internet, it’s effects and- perhaps- it’s multiple possible futures. It takes a lot to illuminate these links and untangle the knots of these shady and frustrating characters. What it takes is a writer like Andrew O’Hagan. 

Illustration: Samad Jble