Facebook/Fakebook

Ronald Alexander Pinn died in 1984 from a heroin overdose. He was twenty years old. After coming across his grave in Camberwell New Cemetery his contemporary, Andrew O’Hagan, decided to resurrect him:

“What was it to live a second life? What was it to use a person’s identity – and did anyone own it in the first place? Is it the spirit of the present age, that in the miasma of social media everyone’s ‘truth’ is exploitable, especially by themselves? Is the line between the real and the fictional fixed, and could I cross the line of my own inquiry and do the police in different voices? Could I take a dead young man’s name and see how far I could go in animating a fake life for him? How wrong would it be to go on such a journey and do what these men had done? I chose to get at the conundrum by pursuing Ronald Pinn into the fantastical dimensions of a future life he didn’t live. If the task ahead turned on an outrageous defilement of a person’s identity, then that, too, would be part of the story I was trying to tell”.

Equipped with a passport, bitcoins and a Facebook following, the new Ronnie Pinn spiralled down into the Dark Web of drugs and guns until his creator decided to delete him.

This contemporary Frankenstein and his unlikely monster raise a number of interesting questions about our virtual world and where it’s headed. Facebook now has about 864 million daily users and the company believes that about 67 million of these are fake. That’s a huge army of avatars, close to ten times the population of London. If one persistent person can appropriate an identity and develop a criminal doppelganger, how much more could a rogue state agency, or a corporate behemoth, do (or are already doing)?

O’Hagan’s experiment at playing God started with an ethical question. He was interested in the reluctant revelations by the Metropolitan Police of the work of their Special Demonstration Squad. Members of the SPD had taken the identities of dead children, using these creations to infiltrate radical organizations. They had often built a ‘legend” of their second lives, visiting places where their namesakes had lived and died, forming relationships, letting their bodies be the bodies of imagined others. There was no self-questioning in these reluctant revelations, no apparent ethical concerns; the Met released the information about their undercover operatives because they had to, in the spirit of a briefing about crime levels, or budgetary difficulties. For O’Hagan there was much more to it than this.

The first Ronald Pinn turned out to be ideal for this experiment. Apart from a single blurred photograph, he had left no trace on the Internet. Friends and acquaintances had only the slightest of recollections and there was little in the discoverable paper archive.

O’Hagan started by acquiring – legally – copies of Ronald’s birth and death certificates. Next came an e-mail account, and then fictional background details: a primary school that would have been right for Ronnie at the time, successful progression through school to university – Edinburgh – and a credible fake degree certificate, bought on-line.

At this point the new, fortyish, Ronnie needed a face. O’Hagan photoshopped this from his own photograph and photographs of two other men, creating his virtual offspring, at least to some extent, in his own image: “he was a composite yet he seemed quite ordinary – everyone, after all, is a composite – and nothing about him suggested he wasn’t walking in the world like us”. And the new Ronnie Pinn did indeed start walking in our world. He gained new Facebook friends, a football team (West Ham) and a job as a driver with Executive Cars. His new friends discovered that he was a disillusioned academic (History), gay and anti-Europe. He still needed some help from his maker: a stash of bitcoins, a driver’s licence, passport and an empty flat in Islington for his mail. This done, he had a life of is own, “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”.

And here, some two centuries later, is Frankenstein’s realization of the dark imagination again made tangible. Ronnie Pinn bought white heroin, marijuana, Tramadol painkillers and other drugs, all delivered to his Islington drop box:

“he started as a way of testing the net’s propensity to radicalise self-invention, but, by the end, I was controlling an entity with just enough of a basis in reality to reconfigure it. Ronnie Pinn’s only handicap lay in his failure physically to materialise, but, nowadays, that needn’t be a problem”.

Like Frankenstein before him, O’Hagan found it impossible to kill off his creation. Facebook resisted to the last, pleading in the names of his Friends. And while Ronnie’s last tweet was one word – “goodbye” – he lives on in the digital archives of his various accounts and in the fragments of his digital DNA, circulating for ever across the Internet.

Andrew O’Hagan is a gifted novelist who uses his art to tease out things that we pass over and take for granted. I recently put some of these issues to my Executive MBA class; forty-five smart, mid-career people from a wide range of professions and interests. When we started looking more closely at our cyborg tendencies, we all became a little obsessed; in some way or other the disembodied compatriots of the second Ronnie Pinn must touch all of our lives. How do we know if Facebook friends are “real”? Does it matter? Has our identity been appropriated by somebody else? What if, like those who formed emotional bonds with the fictional doubles of the Special Demonstration Squad, a Significant Other really is “other”? And, looking forward to the world of a third Ronald Alexander Pinn, what if a virtual identity could be implanted in a human clone, making the Boys from Brazil look like an entertaining sideshow? If she could only have known, Mary Shelley would have had a ball.

O’Hagan borrowed the first Ronald Pinn’s short life to explore the ethically dubious behaviour of the police, to test the limits of the virtual world and to experience the ways in which, for a writer, fictional characters develop lives of their own:

“Many of our modern crimes are crimes of the imagination. We think of the unspeakable and exchange information on it. We commit a ‘thought-crime’ – giving the illicit or the abominable an audience. Some of us pretend to have relationships we don’t actually have just for the sense of freedom it gives us, and some want porn for that reason too. Building the fake Ronnie became something more than creating a character in a novel: it became personal, like living another life, as an actor might, trying not only to imitate the experience of a possible person but to test the meaning and limits of empathy”.

O’Hagan’s immunity is in his fiction, in the web he weaves between his experiences, experiments and imagined scenarios. Did he go to the point where he could be a “person of interest” to the Met? We don’t know, and nor should we. And yet – late in the day, when the composite image of the fake Ronnie Pinn had an established presence across social media, O’Hagan discovered that the real Ronald’s mother was still alive, holding on to her memories of the son she lost twenty years ago. What will she feel when she discovers that a new life and persona has been built on the birth certificate of her dead child? What is the ethical distinction between this literary exercise, and the appropriation of identities by the Metropolitan Police?

And yet – while modern crimes are crimes of the imagination, what happens when imagined possibilities break through the membrane of thought and become all too material? When an avatar like Ronnie Pinn buys Class A drugs on the Internet and has them delivered to an Islington flat? Frankenstein’s monster, haunted by what he discovered himself to be, rushed into the icy wastes of the North Pole. His virtual successors are immune to such earthy constraints.

**

Andrew O’Hagan. “The lives of Ronald Pinn”. London Review of Books 37 (1) 8 January 2015: 3- 10.

 

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