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Digital Reality: the human experience

Sales of video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 hit a billion dollars in 16 days; social gaming company Zynga (Farmville, Mafia Wars) floats on the stock market valued at ten billion dollars; price tag for Facebook set to reach a hundred billion on the stock market. What’ll be worth a trillion? Chances are, something digital. Despite the global downturn, the digital world is exploding in scale, economic worth and immersive significance. Was anyone surprised by reports that cinema goers were suffering acute depression upon leaving the 3D cinema world of Avatar and re-entering their dreary, real life environments. The cyberworld that William Gibson envisaged in Neuromancer in 1984 has truly arrived; what does it mean for the novel?

The writer’s job remains to enable the reader to experience and understand the story world via character – the human experience. But where do people increasingly feel alive, at home or in the digital world? Arguably, the novel has already been altered by the way it is consumed. The e-book reader is yet another device itching to revise our world – to nudge us to ‘like’ or to ‘share’ a reading moment with a friend. To fracture our attention, render us susceptible to prompting and messaging. Funnily enough, thriller and crime writers have contrived to do this all along: ‘Look over there, while I distract you from what’s going on right here!’ – all in service of the surprising, inevitable ending.

I’ve recently completed my first thriller, Night Market. I was helped in my efforts by my experience of working for ten years with Seattle-based tech company, Amazon. I witnessed it transform from a small, loss-making online bookstore into an e-tailer knowing few bounds, aspiring to present to you not only the products you want but also the products you didn’t even know you wanted.  As part of my book’s research, I talked to a lot of IT security experts; a recurring theme was identity, particularly with the advent of the computer cloud or non-local storage that all of ‘large tech’ is investing in with the explosion of data usage. The data making up our digital lives and identities is moving further and further beyond our control.

In Michael Marshall’s 2011 thriller Killer Move, Bill is a young real estate agent in ritzy Sarasota, Florida. He has an active Facebook life and a five year plan, now into its sixth year. “I have dedicated a lot of time and effort to assuming control of my personal brand,” he vows. “I’m not going to stand for random misinformation muddying the waters.” But his life is being ‘modified’ – taken over and upended, by forces unseen. It’s a new question: how do we think about our security in this increasingly pervasive digital reality?

My novel features a fictional former head of Security at Microsoft, Natalie Chevalier. Security is complex and paradoxical for Natalie: a woman haunted by childhood insecurities, who has reached the summit of the security profession. As she knows, not only are we confronting those who are highly visible in their attempts to hijack our identities, hacktivists and criminals. What about the less visible who are lurking and monitoring our online worlds? Who knows who may be dropping in on our personal email exchanges these days, especially if we have dealings with the world’s new lender of last resort, China.

This feels like the new and natural direction for thrillers to go in. As our digital identities become more important, no one’s safe, not even Mark Zuckerburg, whose private photos were recently hacked via Facebook and leaked. Perhaps it is inevitable that those exhorting us all to share so much of ourselves online will find themselves being ‘shared’. In Night Market, I set out to pull back the curtain on the characters behind these technology companies, people I observed while living and working on the West Coast of the States. I created a messiah-like technologist named Jon Vogel, born of San Francisco’s Sixties counter culture; a privacy-obsessed man on a mission to lead the information revolution. Of course, the biggest challenge for a writer in this digital world is keeping abreast of developments. When I, as a thriller writer, created a social networking company that is slammed, pre-IPO, with pornographic imagery, I’d no idea that it would happen to Facebook – just as they were about to launch their IPO. Boundaries between the digital fiction and our physical reality are increasingly blurred.  And as in any great story, we’re never quite sure where it will take us next.

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