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E-Book Review: Little Brother By Cory Doctorow

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Back in the dark ages of technology (the early 1990s) a friend tried to convince me of the necessity of learning about technology. As he was (and remains to this day) the smartest person I know. I didn’t dismiss his argument that we needed to understand technology in order to know what the government could do with it to keep tabs on us as complete paranoia. Hell, if I had graduated from University it would have been in 1984, so the idea of Big Brother looking over our shoulder wasn’t something I ever took lightly.

Still, at the time, I really didn’t understand what he was so worried about, not realizing just what technology could do and its potential for surveillance work. Sixteen years later I’m wishing I took him a little more seriously as the world has gradually given itself over to technology, and more and more opportunities exist for monitoring our every move. Information chips on credit cards, GPS systems in cars that track your movements, and CCS Cameras on every corner equipped with gait and face recognition software to pick out individuals in a crowd are only the tip of the iceberg, as it’s the stuff I know about. It’s the stuff I don’t know about that worries me now.

In the past decade, science fiction writers have had a field day with technology and its applications for surveillance and control. Yet, perhaps because they are so obviously science fiction, or the stories I’ve read just a little too outlandish, it’s been easy to disassociate what they have written from the world we live in and dismiss them as fantasy. That is until I downloaded a copy of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother from the free download page at his Craphound web site.

Cory Doctorow.jpg
Cory Doctorow is a Canadian science fiction writer and, for lack of a better description, copyright and free technology activist. He’s one of the co-editors for Boing, Boing, has worked extensively with groups around the world at freeing up copyright restrictions and creating open source technology, and founded the open source company, OpenCola. It’s his belief that by making his work available as downloads it creates the potential for more, not less sales, so all his books are available as free downloads under the Creative Commons Licence. (If you’re interested in reading up on this sort of thing in detail Cory has gathered together a collection of essays he’s written about it in Content that can be downloaded from his site.)

In Little Brother we are introduced to Marcus Yallow, a seventeen-year-old high school student living in San Francisco. In Marcus’ San Francisco, the schools have introduced various means of monitoring their students, including handing out free laptops for their school work that monitors their on line behaviour, surveillance systems that use cameras and gait recognition software to monitor their whereabouts, and library books with chips that can be used as homing beacons. Marcus and his friends are able to stay two steps ahead of the system and have figured out work-arounds and hacks for anything the school board can throw at them.

Marcus is pretty much your typical, self-assured, slightly cocky – bordering on arrogant – teenager, believing that he can handle anything the grown-up world can throw at him. A terrorist attack that blows up the Bay bridge between San Francisco and Oakland changes all that and his world forever. Caught out in the open when the bomb happens, he and three friends at first try to head for shelters like everyone else. Deciding they’re better off out in the open, they head out to the street where they try and flag down a cop after discovering one friend has been injured. Unfortunately the first vehicle to stop for them is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who immediately arrest all four of them for being somewhere they’re not supposed to be.

Like any other American, Marcus assumes he has rights, and demands to see a lawyer and refuses to co-operate with any of their requests for information without one. Which is when he finds out that he doesn’t have any rights and the DHS are perfectly prepared to keep him in jail without telling anyone where he is forever if he doesn’t co-operate. One night in a jail cell, after having to piss in his pants because he is handcuffed, he is convinced that they are serious and he caves in. He and two of his friends are released after four days, but told if they ever tell what happened to them they will disappear forever and that the DHS are watching them. Their injured friend isn’t released and nobody is willing to tell them anything about him.

Marcus quickly discovers the whole world has changed and that DHS have instituted monitoring on everything. Once he recovers from his shock at being imprisoned, he makes the decision to fight back. Using his knowledge of technology he believes he’ll be able to stay under Homeland Security’s radar and organize resistance against them. Using various cracks, hacks, and loopholes in the Internet, and through the distribution of copies of an open source operating system, he establishes an alternative network for those wishing to stay anonymous and untraceable. (All the technology and tricks described in the book exist and are available for anyone to use if they are willing to learn how. In an afterward to the book Doctorow provides articles written by some of the people who developed them.)

At first he thinks he’s accomplishing something, and in some ways it’s just another computer game to him, but gradually the cat and mouse game he’s playing with DHS starts to get dangerous. Not only do his opponents have access to the same technology that he does, and people working for them just as smart if not smarter than him, they have blackmailed teenagers into working for them as undercover spies who are closer to Marcus than he knows. Yet in spite of his constant and real fear of “disappearing,” Marcus refuses to run away or cave in. Along the way he learns valuable lessons in what it means to take responsibility for your actions, and the responsibility of leadership. For whether he wants it or not, his online personality becomes a rallying figure for all the people resisting DHS, and people are putting themselves at risk because of his ideas.

Like I said earlier, there have been lots of books written about this sort of thing recently, but Little Brother works where they haven’t for a couple of reasons. The reality that Doctorow depicts is highly plausible; we only have to read unbiased news reports to verify it. Innocent people have been sent to foreign countries to be tortured, people are locked away in nameless prisons without trial and without being told why they have been arrested, and the atmosphere of fear and mistrust manufactured by governments in order to justify suspending civil liberties is a reality.

Into this very believable world he has dropped some very real people whose behaviours are completely plausible. Marcus and his friends, and the other young people we meet, could very well be any group of young people today. They are tech savvy in a way that people of my generation will never be as they have grown up taking it for granted and accepting it as a part of life, while to us it’s still something alien that has to be learned and not to be completely trusted. While they understand some of the risks involved with chat rooms and such (pervs looking to score with young kids etc.) they have a hard time separating their online world and reality. Like Marcus, they don’t understand the real consequences of what will happen to them if they’re caught as that’s beyond the scope of their experience. To them it’s just one more on line role playing game, but brought to life.

For those of you who have trouble getting your heads around the idea that a bunch of teenagers can be motivated enough to take a stand on issues like civil liberties, Doctorow has the brains to work recent history into the text to establish precedents. It was only as recently as the 1960s when young people were involved with voter registration drives in the South as part of the Civil Rights campaign, or protesting the war in Vietnam. Give people enough motivation and direction and they can be galvanized to action, and Doctorow provides his characters with both making their behaviour believable and realistic.

Little Brother is a well written and intelligent story that will keep you on the edge of your seat no matter what your age. It not only provides its readers with an overview of the technology that’s being employed to monitor your behaviour and the means to counteract it, but it does so within a moral and legal framework that can’t be argued with. Young and old, this book will help you see the world around you in a new light, and will open your eyes to the reality of our not so brave new world.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.