Andrew O’Hagan

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“It started off as a kind of utopian promise,” Andrew O’Hagan writes of the Internet in a new Guardian essay that meditates on the death of privacy and, perhaps, the novel. During Web 1.0, some worried that this new-to-the-masses technology would be co-opted, watered down and lose it’s anarchic spirit, becoming a tool of corporations and governments. Never let it be tamed, they exhorted. Well, it never has been tamed and still has become a tool of corporations and governments. The anarchy is actually useful to them (see U.S. Presidential election, 2016).

The thing is, we’re still in the prelude of what the Internet will become and of what being connected will mean. Marshall McLuhan feared the Global Village, and we’re going to experience a version of it beyond what the visionary contemplated. That’s what the Internet of Things will effect, with every last object becoming a computer. It will bring great benefits while also being a machine with no OFF switch. We’ll all permanently be inside a contraption that may be antithetical to human nature. It will contain sensors but perhaps not sense.

As far as O’Hagan’s fears about the effect of social media on fiction, I addressed a similar subject in a 2015 essay about Charlie Brooker’s outstanding television program Black Mirror:

It’s tough being Paddy Chayefsky these days. Charlie Brooker, the brilliant satirist behind Black Mirror, comes closest. If he doesn’t make it all the way there, it’s not because he’s less talented than the Network visionary; it’s just that the era he’s working in is so different. I’ve read many articles about Brooker’s impressive program and pretty much all of them miss the point I believe he’s making about our brave new world of technology. That includes Jenna Wortham’s New York Times Magazine essay, which referred to Mirror as “functioning as a twisted View-Master of many different future universes where things have strayed horribly off-course.” The Channel 4 show is barely about the future. It’s mostly about the present. And it isn’t about the present in the manner of many sci-fi works, which create outlandish scenarios which can never really be in the service of telling us about what currently is. Brooker’s scenarios aren’t the exaggerations they might seem at first blush. In almost no time, our hyperconnected world delivers something far more disturbing than his narratives.

Chayefsky and Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan could name the future and we’d wait 25 or 50 years as their predictions slowly gestated, only becoming fully manifest at long last. None of that trio of seers even lived long enough to experience the full expression of Mad As Hell of 15 Minutes of Fame or the Global Village. Brooker will survive to see all his predictions come to pass, and it won’t require an impressive lifespan.•

O’Hagan, author of The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age, believes that since we’ve surrendered an interior life (“everything became fake”), there really isn’t even a way to observe the present let alone predict the future, and that writers and readers alike are being wrecked by living in public. The novel is a dogged form and may find a way to persist regardless of each of us living in our own Reality TV show while being flattered by or fired upon by armies of bots. Perhaps it can serve as an antidote to such an existence? The writer himself believes that could be the ultimate outcome. Regardless, his excellent essay is one that can be meditated on in myriad ways.

An excerpt:

The other day I taped over the camera on my computer. Then I went upstairs and disabled the data collection capability on the TV. Because of several stories of mine, I’d suffered a few cyber-attacks recently, and, though a paragon of dullness, I decided to greet the future by making it harder to find me. One of the great fights of the 21st century will be the fight for privacy and self-ownership, which is also, to my mind, the struggle for literature as distinct from the dark babble of social media. Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low. Giving your sentences thoughtlessly away, and for nothing, seems a small death to contemplation, and does harm to the profession of writing, where you’re paid because you’re good at it. We are all entertainers now, politicians are theatrical in their every move, but even merely passable writers have something large at stake when it comes to opposing the global stupidity contest. Literature, which includes great journalism, might enhance the public sphere but it more precisely enriches the private one, and we are now at the point where privacy, the whole secret history of a people, might be the only corrective we have to the political forces embezzling our times.

In the interests of “national security”, in the service of “global harmony”, you are now obliged to become your own Winston Smith, both watched and self-watching. The TV downstairs may not be “off” at all – it may be “fake-off”, a condition defined in a joint programme of June 2014 between the CIA and MI5 called “Weeping Angel”. (Certain models of televisions are programmed to stay on, with their cameras operative, and the “data” they collect can be harvested by agencies.) The principle, as with Britain’s Prevent campaign, is to assume that everyone with a private life might have something to hide, which means that nobody, in the future, unless they have sinister motives, should expect the luxury of privacy. Some TVs and all phones operate “as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a covert CIA server”, reported WikiLeaks as it released the “Weeping Angel” documents. Being bugged at home or stopped and searched in the street and having your “information” handed to security agencies are now understood to be security measures, and questioning it will make you an enemy of the Daily Mail’s “common sense”. One doesn’t have to be much of a freedom fighter nowadays to be branded a member of the “liberalocracy”: all you have to do is believe in free speech and freedom of movement, and stand up for basic rights of sovereignty over your own thinking. Only recently have these sanctities been taken for the demands of a potential terrorist.•


I’ve always thought Karl Lagerfeld a nightmarish character from a silent German Expressionist horror film, but, unfortunately, one with sound. After reading Andrew O’Hagan’s new portrait of the designer in T Magazine, it all makes sense. An excerpt:

He hates it when people talk to him about their illnesses. (‘‘I’m not a doctor!’’) And he thinks psychoanalysis is the enemy of creativity. ‘‘Analysis?’’ he said. ‘‘What for? To get back to normality? I don’t want to be normal.’’

‘‘Maybe that’s why you like silent movies,’’ I said. ‘‘Because you don’t like the talking cure.’’

‘‘Yes, the discovery of silent movies,’’ he said, ‘‘was much more important to me than discovering the talkies. To me they are images. Like illustrations. I remember when I was at school I saw the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I could not sleep for three weeks because I thought the strange marionette played by Conrad Veidt would come onto my balcony and then kill me the same way. I have stills from the making of the movie and the only surviving German poster of the opening. I bought it for a fortune.’’•

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In “The Lives of Ronald Pinn” in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan begins with a meditation on the creepy true-life practice of undercover UK police who secretly, for four decades, assumed the identities of actual people who’d died as children or young adults, using the deceased to construct new personas for themselves in order to stealthily investigate the activities of left-wing groups. They acquired backstories and “continued” the lives. It was grave robbery as identity theft, something like fan fiction married to police work. 

During the age of the Internet, such fictionalizing has even greater consequences. In what’s an admittedly very dubious ethical act, O’Hagan then creates a fake identity from the titular Mr. Pinn, a South Londoner who presumably died of a heroin overdose in 1984, discovering how easy it still is to raise the dead and breathe something like life into it, to acquire every last ungodly thing on the Dark Internet under the alias, and how much this falsification resembles much of what the average person really does in our time of avatars, usernames, purchased followers, “friends” and cryptocurrency. An excerpt:

“Stories of people pretending to be other people, of people feeling impelled to confect, imitate or perform themselves, describe a change not just in the technological basis of our lives but in the narrative strategies now available to us. You could say that every ambitious person needs a legend to deepen their own. Last year Manti Te’o, an exceptional Hawaiian linebacker, a Mormon who played for Notre Dame, found his when he told the sad story of having to succeed for his team after his 22-year-old girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died of leukaemia. Despite his grief, the footballer stormed up the field, making 12 tackles in one game, before appearing on news programmes to talk about his heartbreak and to quote from the letters Lennay had written him during her terrible illness. Problem was: the girlfriend never existed. She was a complete invention – the photographs on social media sites were of a girl he’d never met. He’d missed Lennay’s funeral, Te’o said, because she insisted that he not miss the game. There are hundreds of stories like this, where ‘sock-puppet’ accounts on Facebook and elsewhere have allowed a ‘person’ – sometimes a whole ‘family’ – to put together a life that’s much bigger than the real one. The Dirr family from Ohio solicited sympathy and dollars for years after losing loved ones to cancer – a small village of more than seventy invented profiles shored up the lie. It was all the work of a 22-year-old medical student, Emily Dirr, who’d been inventing her world since she was 11. Her life was a reality show that she produced, cast, directed, starred in, and broadcast to the world under a pile of aliases that felt entirely real and moving to a large group of devoted followers.

By the middle of last summer, Ronnie Pinn had a Gmail account and an aol account, as well as accounts on Craigslist and Reddit. It took the best part of a week to install and run the software necessary to get the bitcoins he needed to confirm his existence. I bought them with a credit card – hundreds of pounds’ worth – on computers that couldn’t be traced back to me. In each case they had to be ‘mixed’, or laundered, before Ronnie could buy things. Around every corner on the web is a scam, and the Ronnie I invented had to negotiate with some of the dodgiest parts of the World Wide Web. He now had currency; next he got a fake address. I used an empty flat in Islington, where I would go to collect his mail, the emptiness of the hall seeming all the emptier for the pile of mail on the floor, addressed to someone who didn’t exist but was more demanding than many who did.

It wasn’t long before I saw Ronnie’s face on a driving licence. It took a few weeks to secure a passport. The seller was on the dark net website Evolution; having gathered all ‘Ronnie’s’ information, he produced scans on which the photographs were missing. Then he disappeared. This is common enough: the sellers no less often than those seeking to buy their wares are crooks. Another seller produced the documents quite quickly and with everything in place anyone could have been fooled. Not perhaps the e-passport gates at Heathrow, but a British passport is a gateway ID to many other forms of ID, as well as to a world of legitimacy. Slowly and digitally, ‘Ronnie’ began to be a man who had everything, a face, an address, a passport, discount cards. He began to have conversations with real people on Reddit, or people who might have been real, and his Twitter and Facebook life showed him to be a creature of enthusiasm and prejudice. Nowadays, everyone can be Frankenstein and his monster, both the hare-brained dreamer and his gothic offspring, and the enabling technology seems to encourage the idea. Ronnie, in the world, was a figment, but on discussion boards he was no less believable than anybody else. ‘Friend’ has become a verb, leaving the old world of ‘befriend’ to hint at warm handshakes and eyes that actually met. People ‘friend’ people on Facebook and they get ‘friended’, but many of them will never meet. Elsewhere on the net the connections may lead to a cold presence, a person who is legitimate but non-existent. Ronnie’s social interaction online could be involved and energetic and characterful, but it seemed that everyone he met had a self to hide and nothing to show for themselves beyond their quips and departures. At one point, Ronnie’s Twitter account got hacked and he was invaded by hundreds of robotic right-wing followers. His ‘information’ had opened him up to being exploited by spam-bots, by other machines, and by web detritus that clings to entities like Ronnie as a matter of digital course. None of these everyday spooks came in from the cold, and Ronnie moved, as if by osmosis, into the more criminal parts of the internet, where the clandestine earns its keep.”