ANTONY JOHNSTON: DIGITAL LIVES

Written by Antony Johnston





I live a digital life. Don’t we all?

My career exists because of the Internet; I’ve been a graphic novelist since 2001, and for the first half-dozen years of my career none of my artistic collaborators even lived in the same country as me. Most of them still don’t — the artist for one recent series I wrote works from her native Thailand, communicating via email. During filming of Atomic Blonde, the adaptation of my graphic novel The Coldest City, most of my communication with the producers was done over email and iMessage. When the first rough cut of the movie was finished, it was beamed across the Atlantic to me via secure online streaming.

I met my partner on a message board back in the late ’90s. I have friends — good friends, the kind of people I could turn to if I was in need — who I’ve literally never seen in person. Because of the Internet, I can live almost anywhere I choose (currently the wind-blasted wilds of rural north-west England, thanks for asking) because if I can get online, I can work.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that my first mainstream novel, The Exphoria Code, is a spy thriller revolving around the technology of computer code, online viruses, cyberwarfare, and military drones. Its hero, MI6 cyber-analyst and hacker Brigitte Sharp, lives a digital life, too. Her best friend, whose murder she’s driven to avenge, is a man she’s never met in person; she spends her evenings on a message board filled with hackers, none of whom know one another’s real identities; while on a field mission, she communicates with Vauxhall using secure internet voice chat; and later, Bridge and her team occupy a virtual chatroom, all working remotely from separate locations to avert a terrorist attack.

You may think that all sounds rather unusual and high-tech, but stop a moment and ask: is it really?

At one point in the book, Bridge is explaining the villain’s scheme to her MI5 colleague Andrea Thomson. The skeptical Andrea says, “It all sound a bit sci-fi, you know?”

Bridge replies, “iPhones were sci-fi, until suddenly they weren’t.”

It’s 2017. We all have friends we ‘see’ more on Facebook than in person. Twitter users regularly converse with people they’ve not only never met, but whom they literally don’t even know. Anyone under the age of twenty has a dozen friends or more they’ve never seen in person — befriending people in chatrooms, through online gaming, on Instagram, on Tumblr, on Pinterest. And millions of people now work remotely, becoming as familiar with voice and video chat systems as we’ve all become with email over the past decade or more.

Sure, I’m old enough to remember a time before Sir Tim Berners-Lee threw the switch on the World Wide Web, but that was almost three decades ago. Thatcher was still PM, for heaven’s sake. Our world has changed, and now we all live digital lives whether we like it or not.

By contrast, Bridge was still in diapers when the Web came online. It was important to me that her perspective reflect that upbringing — raised as part of a generation that’s never known a world without email, Google, Facebook, and iMacs. A world we all see every day as we work at computer screens, send text messages, and take selfies.

Perhaps that’s also why Bridge’s cultural interests are old-school; a record collection of 1980s counterculture, all UK goth and French coldwave, and a library well-stocked with William Gibson, Ursula K Le Guin, and Moebius. It’s a form of escapism, her own small rebellion against an online world that permeates her daily existence.

Brigitte Sharp lives a digital life. Don’t we all?

The Exphoria Code by Antony Johnston is out now from Lightning Books.

Read SHOTS' review here





Author photos are © Antony Johnston. Photos by Chad Michael Ward.

Antony Johnston



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