Little Brother

I just finished Cory Doctorow’s ‘Little Brother’, his surveillance-state novel for young adults. I read it for free, because he wants me too – it’s published under a Creative Commons license that lets me download and print the PDF1. I read the last page this evening, and wanted to jot down my initial thoughts. Basic overview: I liked it a lot, except for the parts I really didn’t. The following contains minor spoilers.

The setting is a not-too-distant San Francisco, where the surveillance is constant, even in schools. After a terrorist attack it gets far worse, and a group of students use all the technology at their disposal to fight back.

In many ways I think it’s everything a modern young-adult novel should be. For starters, it assumes readers can understand anything explained clearly enough – it goes into some fairly odd cryptographic concepts, for example. Which you’d think risky – public and private keys aren’t very intuitive – but there’s no hesitation or couching in ‘don’t worry if you don’t understand this’. Mr Doctorow just dives right in, using his considerable writing skills to render the topic comprehensible, and none of it seemed patronising. He was also telling it straight – I know a little about cryptography, and I didn’t notice any glaring oversimplifications. The plot relies heavily on technology and modern networks, and to my eyes it was easy to follow (and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be).

The novel also doesn’t shy away from sex, violence or bad language – it doesn’t dwell on any of these, but the plot revolves around a 17-year old fighting a fascist state: such topics are going to come up. And, again, they’re handled truthfully. People get crushed in stampedes, and the government tortures people. People on the Internet swear, because they do. Sex is new and odd, and unleashes a torrent of emotions that confuse the hell out of the young characters. It’s the way things are, and I don’t think young-adult books should pretend otherwise.

I also found it compelling. It’s not long, but I nevertheless raced through it, despite having 155 loose pages. The plot moves fast, and is full of interesting asides. From freegans, to ARGing, to the flaws of planned cities as opposed to those which grow organically (with nods to real books on the subject), there’s a lot to learn, and I suspect I’ve forgotten much already.

Each chapter is headed with dedications to a particular bookstore, with brief descriptions. Mr Doctorow’s love of books shines through, and you find yourself wanting to visit every one, just to hang out. There’s an extensive bibliography, showing that most of the technologies mentioned already exist, and which are the best books on the subjects. My wishlist expanded substantially. There are also two addenda, written by Xbox hacker Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang and security expert Bruce Schneier. Which brings us to the politics, which is where I start to get twitchy.

I didn’t go in blind – I’ve been on Cory’s mailing list for years, and followed Boing Boing for longer. I know his current positions on surveillance and security etc., and I often agree. But it’s a book designed to introduce such concepts to young adults, and right out of the gate it pissed me off with its use of ‘snitching’.

I hate that word. It’s a bully-word, and a bully-concept. I have never, in real life, heard it used by anybody with a moral case. But the novel’s definition broadens it – any technology that spies on you ‘snitches’ you to the police if you do anything wrong. It’s loosely linked to the database-state, but the implication is that giving the police any kind of information, even if it’s actually about a crime, is ‘snitching’. And there’s therefore something wrong with it2. Which is just bullshit.

I’m happy to listen to the arguments about surveillance. I’m happy to agree that imploring people to report ‘suspicious activity’ is stupid, when ‘suspicious activity’ means ‘using an SLR’. But that’s not the same thing as reporting crimes to the police. It’s almost always a moral duty to ‘snitch’ if you have knowledge of a crime. Because the justice system isn’t, actually, totally corrupt, and the police aren’t out to get you.

Which is another problem: in this novel, the police are evil. No question. And this was where I started to get annoyed. It starts off with the main character railing against surveillance and anti-terror tactics in his school and city, with many well-argued points. But this is then conflated with fascism. The police beat people up willy-nilly; they gas kids at a rock concert; there is not a shred of decency about a single officer. The government is the same – towards the end they find video footage of a Karl Rove-like3 figure calling the people of San Francisco ‘fags and atheists’ and revealing the government knows of a terrorist plot, but is going to let it happen before the mid-term elections. There’s even a brief nod to 9/11 conspiracies. I know Cory isn’t into that crap, but it’s there nonetheless. And I found this cartoony and disappointing.

The reader is clearly meant to draw parallels with the modern USA in terms of surveillance, but the subsequent unambiguous evil of authority isn’t realistic, despite the obsessions of the 1984 crowd, and conflating the two is dishonest. Perhaps the point is that 100% surveillance will lead to this kind of thing – absolute power corrupts and all that. Perhaps the point is that anything with the potential to create such a world needs to be stopped. But the book doesn’t suggest why either of these should be the case.

Like I said, I am happy to listen to arguments against the surveillance state. They’ll probably convince me. But, as far as I can tell, data-collection atm has the potential to be used for evil. It’s not actually ruining our lives, right now, today. For all the complaining about store-cards, airport security measures and 42-day-detentions, the real world with all its problems is incredibly benign compared to the situation in the book. Of course an evil government and violent police force are bad things, but they don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with surveillance. You need to make your case without invoking them. I have the same problem with anti-DRM campaigners talking about how DRM doesn’t work – if it did work it’d still be stupid, and going on about how it doesn’t makes you look like anti-phone mast campaigners who claim their local mast won’t be a good business strategy. They look like they’re hiding something. Show me why a totally benign surveillance state is evil – and I’m not saying you can’t – and I’ll be more impressed. The book does this a little with discussions of the need for privacy, but it’s fairly subdued compared to the anti-authority stuff.

So I didn’t like that aspect. But the book, while obviously a polemic, isn’t totally one-sided. The main character’s social studies class is a good forum for debate, and the political aspects are no less clear or watered-down than the technical explanations. There are a few right-wing nutcases thrown in as foils, but also numerous less-extreme viewpoints from characters trying, albeit briefly, to figure out the best approach. The main character is also not a superhero – he regularly doubts that he’s doing the right thing, and things don’t always turn out ok.

I learnt a lot. It was particularly penetrating, for me, on privacy issues. I tend to be on the oh-do-shut-up side when it comes to privacy debates, because I generally don’t give a damn what people know about me, but various points made me pause. I suspect they’ll play over in my head for quite a while. The arguments surrounding the right to dismantle things, and freedom of information, and the trade-offs of security, safety and freedom are all relevant and compelling. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting a decent introduction to these issues, or even people – like me – who think they know it already. I’d even recommend it to young adults (not that I really know any). But the unambiguous authority = evil, as opposed to just something that needs to be closely watched, is a shame. I wish there’d been one policeman character who disagreed with the way things were going, but still emphasised the need for a fair police force. There was just a little too much paranoia.

And all this for free. I feel bad. I’ll certainly buy a copy, or at least contribute appropriately to his library-donation program.

  1. I’m looking forward to the inevitable e-paper Kindle clones that’ll be better for the environment []
  2. I can’t believe Cory actually thinks this, but this was still the impression I got – maybe the word has a different connotation over the Atlantic. []
  3. Kurt Rooney, his name is []