The Liars’ Club

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age BY Andrew O'Hagan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 240 pages. $26.

The cover of The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age

“Are you a one or a zero?” demands Mr. Robot in the eponymous TV series. “That’s the question you have to ask yourself.” My answer: neither, goddamnit—my hopes and dreams aren’t regulated by a motherboard, not quite yet. Or am I deluding myself, and identity is so shaped by the technologies we use that effectively they’re using us? Some version of this query lurks at the edges of Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age, a book dominated by secretive and truth-challenged men, among them WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous genius-creator of Bitcoin.

In other words, “true” should probably appear in scare quotes, though “stories” is accurate enough: O’Hagan, perhaps best known as a fiction writer, transports a novelist’s eye for narrative to his journalistic assignments. He’s also lugging an unwieldy analog sensibility into the digital age. This is not, from my standpoint, a criticism. It does mean that aside from his subjects’ binary backdrops, their secret lives reek as much of Dostoyevsky or Freud as of cyberspace. They may sit around talking about code, “blockchains,” and “the dark web,” but in O’Hagan’s hands, and somewhat contrary to the book’s desire to be timely, they’re thoroughly modern creatures: conflicted, wounded, self-thwarting—that is, old-fashioned. Personally I find this neurotic continuity reassuring.

Assange, whom O’Hagan, upon first sighting, pegsaspossibly being somewhere on the autism spectrum, emerges as a fairly repellent character. As the story opens, he’s living under house arrest at the grand English country estate of one of his supporters (“mansion arrest,” detractors scoffed), after having fled rape charges in Sweden. O’Hagan has been hired to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography, a redoubtable task, since in addition to being an alleged rapist, his subject is an interpersonally oblivious braggart and a pig with uncertain hygiene. (“That doesn’t make him like Josef Mengele, but, you know, life is life.”) He eats with his hands, then licks the plate, while believing that pretty much everyone, male and female, is secretly in love with him.

“I’d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear,” observes O’Hagan, who initially develops a certain affection for Assange nonetheless. “At his best, he represented a new way of existing in relation to authority”—except that Assange is not often at his best. Nor are his principles so principled. Having coasted to prominence on a commitment to radical transparency, he threatens to sue his employees for millions if they dare speak publicly about WikiLeaks. Despite having sold the rights to his life story for the handsome sum of $2.5 million, it turns out he’s temperamentally incapable of telling it, and he spends a lot of time whinging on about his threatened integrity instead.

Joining Assange’s retinue as his “ghost,” O’Hagan, with only minimal cooperation from his subject, hammers out a draft of the book (“as invented as anything I’d ever produced in fiction”), at which point Assange panics and tries to renege. He objects to his publishers even reading the manuscript they’ve paid for. It seems the famous leaker can’t face revealing himself. He dresses these inhibitions in high-flown rhetoric about self-prostitution, but the larger issue is that he doesn’t know who he is and is terrified of who he’ll meet on the page. (“That was the big secret with him: he wanted to cover up everything about himself except his fame.”) Eventually even O’Hagan throws up his hands: Working with this egomaniac “was like trying to write a book with Mr. Kurtz,” he complains. Exceptthis Kurtz has already spent his advance, and the publishers can contractually publish the book whether he likes it or not, which they ultimately do.

Julian Assange, 2015. Democracy Now!
Julian Assange, 2015. Democracy Now!

It’s O’Hagan’s ambition to tie the theme of self-estrangement to the internet itself, which offers secret lives to us all, then addicts us to our lies. Thus Craig Wright, an Australian computer scientist who claims to be the never-before-seenSatoshi Nakamoto, ends up seeming, in O’Hagan’s telling, oddly similar to Assange. Both are awkward, “socially undernourished” men, habitual dissemblers, knotted up about the bargains they’ve struck. They crave the limelight yet fear being exposed; having elected to sell themselves out to very high bidders, something in them won’t go through with it. In Wright’s case, a bunch of entrepreneurs have invested $15 million in a start-up that hinges on the elusive Satoshi emerging from the shadows and claiming his kingdom. This would definitely be an event: Satoshi’s intellectual property is worth billions of dollars—among other things, he’s sitting on a treasure in Bitcoin that resides uncashed at the beginning of the “blockchain,” the digital collective public ledger (invented by Satoshi) of all Bitcoin transactions to date. People have been obsessed with Satoshi’s real identity since he first “appeared” online in 2008.

Yet when it comes time for Wright to prove he’s Satoshi, following a well-orchestrated rollout, somehow he can’t. Or won’t. (This unveiling is meant to occur in a manner I decided it wasn’t necessary for me to fully comprehend: Wright’s supposed to deploy a network key from the early blockchain that only Satoshi would have had access to, and then . . . something.) O’Hagan himself isn’t sure if Wright botches the test because he’s a fraud or because a part of him dreads assuming the legendary Satoshi mantle. Or maybe he’s just so hubris-afflicted he thinks he shouldn’t have to prove it. (The internet is largely convinced that Wright simply is not Satoshi, but the internet prefers a fraud to a genius.) It’s also possible that Wright fears legal liability for the multitude of crimes involving weaponry and drugs bought on the dark web (associations between Wright and the imprisoned-for-life Silk Road website founder Ross Ulbricht are hinted at)—but it’s not as though he’spsychically coherent enough to consult a lawyer to confirm this.

O’Hagan is in the habit of getting too close to his subjects, then striking deals with them to withhold unflattering details, deals he in turn reveals to us. He turns down lucrative writing fees to maintain his independence, yet is saddled with the split loyalties of the immersion journalist. He says that Assange is freely sexist and anti-Semitic in their taped conversations, yet protects him by not reproducing the remarks. (That our leaker-in-chief is himself such an op-sec idiot is a rich twist.) O’Hagan explains that he feels loyal, if not to Assange, then to Assange’s “vulnerabilities,” which is sweet, maybe to a fault. Similarly, he suppresses his doubts about Wright’s credibility, playing in-house shrink (the man clearly needs a dozen) while getting increasingly swept up in the hoopla of the impending big reveal.

O’Hagan is obviously good at being a pal—so good that his subjects forget they have a fox in their henhouses. Assange assumes that O’Hagan is “his creature”; Wright thinks that he can declare remarks “off the record” months later. He can’t. When O’Hagan drops the pal pose, he’s a sharp instrument. On Assange: “thin-skinned, conspiratorial, untruthful, narcissistic,” and interested in free speech only to the extent that it adheres to his message. Of the shambolic Wright: more like “Satoshi’s comic opposite” than anyone imagines the mythical Satoshi to be. O’Hagan is a shrewd student of other men’s vanities, and shrewdly unrevealing when it comes to his own: “I’d sooner cut my balls off than google myself,” he says, comparing his modest attention requirements to Assange’s.

Given O’Hagan’s psychological insightfulness, it both is and isn’t surprising that the least captivating section of the book is the one most about himself. This is the interstitial chapter about the time he adopted and built up a fake online identity, first nicking the birth certificate of a random kid named Ronald Pinn who’d died of an overdose decades ago at age twenty. O’Hagan’s fake Ronnie evolves in an unplanned way, like a character in a novel: He turns out to be a gay, pro-Brexit, right-wing limo driver, who scores a passport on the dark web and regularly posts to his Twitter account. What other insignia of existence are necessary? About any deeper meaning these choices might signify, O’Hagan has little to say. Ronnie could have acquired an online love life too, but O’Hagan has too many scruples to go down that path, or at least that’s what he says. But if everyone lies on the internet, why should I believe him about his supposed scruples?

Is it true that the internet is making better liars of us? I myself was recently contacted by someone who’d been emotionally burned in a romance that took place entirely online. She was looking for a writer to tell her story, to expose the ghostish paramour to the world, which she seemed to think would rectify something. In this case, she knew the man’s identity; his deception was having created a more stellar version of himself online than he could maintain “IRL.” Listening to her pixilated tale over FaceTime, I couldn’t help thinking that people have long crafted better versions of themselves by letter. And you can read about the lovestruck being ghosted in the pages of Jane Austen. Is anything very new here?

“Technology is constantly changing the lives of people who don’t really understand it,” O’Hagan postulates, but it seems equally accurate to say that we invent technologies to articulate what’s not comprehensible to us about the constants in our natures. It wasn’t guns that made humans warlike, and it’s not encryption that makes us secretive and duplicitous.

But whichever direction you point the causality arrows, it’s not the internet that makes O’Hagan’s stories gripping reads. At one point, Assange, no psychological wiz, says to his ghost, “People think you’re helping me write my book . . . but actually I’m helping you write your novel.” Framed as an either-or, it sounds less interestingly messy than what actually occurs on these pages: a wormy compost of spooks, doubles, neurotic agendas, and artfulness.

As to whether we’re the internet’s creatures, metastasizing in ways we can’t yet track, this is undoubtedly true. The question is whether something enduringly—or at least traditionally—human persists. O’Hagan clearly wants the answer to be yes; “our computers are not yet ourselves,” he says confidently. But that’s what they’d want us to think, right?

Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper, 2017).