Thursday, September 04, 2008

Big Brother Is Watching You...What Are You Going to Do About It?

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
4Q 4P? Audience: J/S/Adult

This book won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for readers who are politically-minded and/or love technology and intrigue, it's ::ahem:: the bomb. It is certainly a book cause he won't give up his email passwords. Because he can't believe that the Constitution of the United States no longer protects him.

When Marcus is let out of prison a few days later, he leaves behind one good friend and most of his illusions. He barely recognizes the world he steps into. His laptop has been bugged. The government is tracking people through their debit cards and arphids encoded into transit system passes, so it knows exactly what people are buying and when and where they traveled. Closed circuit cameras are installed in classrooms, businesses, and on public streets. If more than three or four people gather together, the police force them to disperse. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has turned San Francisco into a police state.

Marcus isn't about to lose his civil liberties without a fight. What can one kid do? When you're as smart as Marcus, as technically proficient as Marcus, as scared as Marcus, and as determined as Marcus, you can do plenty. He creates Xnet, an underground computer society that the government can't monitor. Through Xnet, dozens of small acts of rebellion are launched, ranging from simple debates over government policies to disseminating instructions on how to disable arphids so the activities of innocent people can't be tracked. They plan peaceful protest gatherings. And they simply chat, game, and develop friendships and solidarity. When crisis time comes, Marcus is awed by just how powerful his movement has become. The government isn't awed. It's angry. In this battle, who has the stronger army, Marcus or Homeland Security?


As I read and after I finished the book, I wondered just how much of the technology that Doctorow describes really exists. That's surely a sign of hooking the reader's imagination and interest. My web surfing proved that I was not the only one to be intrigued, but these guys aren't just wondering. They actually hope to create the Paranoid Linux operating system. Talk about a book making an impact on a reader!(In the book, Paranoid Linux is described thusly:)

*Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of "chaff" communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you're doing anything covert. So while you're receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.
~Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, 2008)

Doctorow's writing is somewhat uneven. There are some gripping scenes. For instance, Marcus's terror is visceral when he begins to comprehend just how different a government interrogation is from being called to the principal's office. He can't bluff his way out of this, and brashness only makes things worse. Reading this section made me realize just how easily one can be reduced to feeling powerless and too afraid to fight back. However, he occasionally gets too technical, slowing down the narrative. He also repeats himself fairly frequently. I was caught up in the story enough that neither problem stopped me from wanting to read more, but less patient readers may not be able to overlook them as easily. Doctorow also stacks the deck by making almost every character on the side of Homeland Security one-dimensional cardboard villains. I can't help wondering if that's the mark of an overly confident author or one who isn't confident enough.

With questions to debate such as
  • Do we sometimes need to give up some freedoms for the sake of a larger goal?
  • At what point does civil disobedience become terrorism?
  • Is Doctorow too extreme?
  • Whether Andrew Huang's afterword on the virtues of computer hacking has merit
this book is an excellent choice for classrooms and book discussion groups.

If you like this book, you might also enjoy Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman. The setup: Can three accomplished hackers get a totally unqualified student accepted to Harvard? The stakes are high (higher than some of them know), but if they can pull this off, it'll be one of the greatest hacks in history. I recommend it to readers in high school and beyond.

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