Monday, 14 November 2011

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Lowdown: The fight for civil liberties in the USA is led by an otherwise normal 17 year old.
Marcus is a regular high schooler living in contemporary San Francisco. In his regular life he is tracked wherever he goes by surveillance cameras and various smart cards he carries on him. Even at school they have these special cameras identifying him by his gait and tracking his position. Marcus is smart enough, though, to know how to outsmart all these surveillance measures: starting from placing some sand in his shoes to deal with gait recognition and progressing through mild hacking, Marcus finds it all to easy to skip a class or two in order to go and play online reality games with his friends from the Bay.
One such "short" school day Marcus finds the entire paradigm changed. Without causing too much of a blooper, he suddenly finds himself labelled as an enemy of own country. He finds he’s being watched at his own bedroom. He has to be a good citizen and live his life quietly, not saying a thing even to his parents, or else the authorities would “take care” of him. But Marcus won’t take it lying down; his freedom, his real freedom - as per the Declaration of Independence – is too important. He starts off moderately by distributing Linux CDs to his friends so they can communicate unmonitored, but quickly finds himself the face of rebellion against authority.
Little Brother is the second young adult book from Cory Doctorow I get to read after For the Win. Just as For the Win, Little Brother is a winner: a very exciting book to read. Little Brother deals with very important and relevant material for this post September 11 world of ours. As with For the Win lessons in economics, Little Brother presents its agenda in a manner that is very easy to relate to. More than anything else, Little Brother is an explanation for how and why hacking, copying and sharing are fundamental to a healthy democratic society – just the opposite of what we are normally “taught” by the powers that be and the authorities. Indeed, Doctorow is ever so convincing when it comes to demonstrating why we needn’t take the crap shoved at us by authorities lying down. Things like smart cards that track and maintain our train rides and tollways’ histories as well as porn scanners at the airport: any security benefits these may give us are but an illusion when every Marcus like kid can outmanoeuvre them.
Little Brother’s story is told in first person from Marcus’ mouth. Perhaps it’s because we’re hearing things from the mouth of a 17 year old, Little Brothers’ language feels a bit too rough around the edges. Still, telling us of his online mischief that has the authorities running around in circles has Doctorow, in effect, telling us of the quickly falling boundaries between the virtual and the real world (just as he did in For the Win). In today’s technologically oriented information society, control over the online world means control over the people; the inevitable conclusion is that the fight for the freedom of the Internet is one of the most important fights today’s society has on its agendas.
The well versed Doctorow spices his book with authentic real life information on hacking, discussing things such as the use of TOR and encryption keys. While some of the descriptions and the technologies feel a tad out of date (smartphones, for example, don’t play a role in Little Brother), everything is quite high on real life authenticity: most of the technologies and hacks Doctorow mentions are out there to be used if you know how (and if you don't, the book's explanations will usually make sure you know). Authenticity doesn’t come only through the descriptions of real life technologies but from other real life stuff: key events from the past few decades of the American antiwar protest movement are widely referred to, as well as real life books and the fact that Domino’s Pizza tastes like crap when the fact the company contributes money too all sorts of fundamentalist organizations is taken into account.
It is this atmosphere of authenticity that is key to Little Brother being the good “call of arms” book it is when it comes to matters of civil liberties, because none of the measure taken by the authorities in the book against the citizens of the USA has not been used in real life. Turning suspects over to countries where torture is allowed, holding suspects without trial, not informing relatives of held suspects, preventing suspects from talking of their ordeals, this has all happened before – just ask David Hicks or Mamdouh Habib. If you think these things can only happen in the USA because, you know, the USA is such a backwards country, please have a chat with Dr Muhamed Haneef or count the number of cameras recording your every move in the UK. You don’t have to, though: you can ponder about the way you’re treated whenever you board an international flight.
Little Brother is book of extreme importance to the greater public. Not only does it highlight the dangers of a society surrendering the achievements gained over hundreds of years in order to make our society better, the war of worlds it describes is still being waged as we speak. Last week alone the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) lost the legal battle for the privacy of users’ Twitter information, which implies American authorities can browse everything on American servers at will without needing anyone’s permission and without telling anyone. If you use Google, Facebook or Apple to look after your info (do you use iCloud services on your iPhone?), you’re in the pocket of the American government. Then there is the matter of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) legislation that seems to be rushed through before the Christmas break and is probably the most dangerous piece of legislation to civil liberties ever! It’s all going on as you’re reading this, but it won’t be Marcus that would stop it from happening; Marcus is a fictional character. You're not.
Overall: Little Brother is not only an exciting, thrilling and authentic book to read. It is also a book that’s important to read, a book every thinking person should read. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
P.S. You cannot blame Cory Doctorow for not standing up to his own standards. You can download Little Brother for free at Doctorow's own website here.


Uri said...

which format did you download?

when I read Eastern Standard Tribe, the formatting (I think I picked the kindle one) was terrible, which hurt my enjoyment of the book.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I don't remember; had it on my Kindle for months. I did email it to Amazon, so Amazon might have done their formatting for me, because I did not suffer any problems with Little Brother.
I did notice that books converted from PDF are a pain, though. I had a pain reading Blackout as well as others, and I agree it could damage the fun to be had from the books.