Saturday, November 20

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

Marcus’s school is, as is common in contemporary America, hell-bent of surveilling their student population for signs of disruption and rebellion. And, in common with many of his peers, Marcus’s knowledge of technology far outstrips that of the surveillance designers; it takes minimal effort to subvert the clumsy but obtrusive techniques they employ.
It’s when he’s out with friends when he should be at school – participating in a massive real-life treasure hunt – that Marcus and his friends become embroiled in an aspect of technological surveillance and control far greater than they ever suspected, and far outside Marcus’s ability to hack.
When a terrorist attack is made on San Francisco, Marcus is as shocked as the rest of his city. Unlike most of his peers, however, Marcus isn’t at school – he and a small group of friends are tracking down the latest clue in a real-life treasure hunt, and are caught by police not far from the epicentre. His previous, amateurish rebellions are recast as sinister, and his unwillingness to cooperate with the bullying tactics of his inquisitors mean that Marcus is held by the Department of Homeland Security for days.
On his release, Marcus discovers the entire fabric of San Francisco has been reformed – now a police state, every citizen is viewed, and treated, as a potential terrorist. Tracking systems have been implemented, and normal activities are eyed with suspicion. When even his own parents don’t believe him, Marcus realises the only way to stop the growing erosion of rights and freedoms is to create an uprising.
There are so many fantastic elements woven into Little Brother that the reading of it was a joy. The Alternate Reality Game that inadvertently leads to Marcus’s capture is Harajuku Fun Madness, and it sounds awesome:

Imagine the best afternoon you’ve ever spent prowling around the streets of a city, checking out the weird people, funny handbills, street maniacs, and funky shops. Now add a scavenger hunt to that, one that requires you to research crazy old films and songs and teen culture from around the world and across time and space. And it’s a competition, with the winning team of four taking a grand prize of ten days in Tokyo chilling on Harajuku bridge, geeking out in Akihabara, and taking home all of the Astro Boy merchandise you can eat…
As a libertarian I found the multitude of ordinary (or pre-terrorist) surveillance techniques chilling, from radio-frequency ID tags in library books that allow the school to track student whereabouts, to a truancy blog where suspicious shopkeepers can snap potential school skippers and uploads their photos for school administrators to check.
Doctorow beautifully articulates the importance of privacy – that one can want to keep activities, even those common to us all (like having a bowel action), private, separate from issues about shame or secrecy. He sues a class room confrontation to illustrate truths about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that are being distorted by educators and those more interested in the appearance of safety than the rights of US citizens.
I learned a number of interesting facts, which I always enjoy, including the fact that the framers of the US Constitution were merchants loyal to the British king until he started brutally enforcing policies against their interests, not the religiously persecuted founders who came earlier. I also got a little more than I already knew about the history of the Internet, and about ISP’s and DNS; that Domino’s is apparently owned by right-wing conspiratists who believe “global warming and evolution are satanic plots”; the merest introduction to Bayesian statistics, and the fabulous insight of applying false positives to terrorist detection. This last is so important -

Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten of them at the outside. 10/20,000,000 – 0.00005 percent…That’s pretty rare all right. Now, say you’ve got some software that can… catch terrorists 99 percent of the time, In a pool of twenty million people, a 99 percent accurate test will identify two hundred thousand people as being terrorists. But only ten of them are terrorists. To catch ten bad guys you have to haul in and investigate two hundred thousand innocent people. Guess what? Terrorist tests aren’t anywhere close to 99 percent accurate. More like 60 percent accurate. Even 40 percent accurate sometimes.
And yet the Department of Homeland Security acts as though their systems are better than 99 percent accurate, at least in Little Brother.
I also liked the way Doctorow articulated the attitude of displeased parental authority:
"Look, son,” he said. He’d taken to calling me “son a lot. It made me feel like he’d stopped thinking of me as a person and switched to thinking of me as a kind of half-formed larva that needed to be guided out of adolescence. I hated it.
And his account of Marcus’s first sexual experience:
It was nothing like I expected. Parts of it were better, Parts of it were a lot worse, While it was going on, it felt like an eternity. Afterward, it seemed to be over in the blink of an eye.’Afterward, I felt the same. But I also felt different. Something had changed between us… It was weird.
Little Brother is deservedly on many best YA lists - the characterisation is vivid and resonant, the set up is grimly more likely by the month, and the warning about the dangers of sacrificing liberty for safety have perhaps never been more relevant. At least as importantly it's an engrossing, extremely well-written novel that I imagine will strike a number of chords in many young adults, and older adults who remember their adolescence. - Alex

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