Cory Doctorow has a multitude of talents. He’s a co-editor of BoingBoing, the fifth most popular blog on the Internet according to Technorati, where he purveys a mixture of technology news, links to strange and wonderful things, and left wing politics. He’s been a front line fighter in the wars over intellectual property; he used to be the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Director of European Affairs. And, most importantly for today’s discussion, he’s a well known science fiction novelist.
Cory has written four novels and multitudes of short stories. Today, we’ll be talking about his most recent book, Little Brother. The book is available in yer nearest good bookstore (really – it’s a New York Times bestseller so you shouldn’t have difficulty in finding it, although you may have to look in the young adults section). Cory also puts his money where his mouth is on intellectual property issues, so if you want to download an electronic copy, it’s available for free here under a Creative Commons license.
Little Brother is narrated by Marcus, a seventeen year old hacker living in a near-future San Francisco, where the war on terrorism is still going strong, Republicans have won a third term with the help of a Karl Rove clone, and the government has really started to take advantage of new technologies to snoop on citizens. When terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel, Marcus and his friends are taken into custody by Homeland Security, because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of them disappears into the system and doesn’t come out. Marcus starts thinking about ways to fight back against the surveillance state, using his and his friends’ expertise in technology to set up surreptitious communications networks using hacked Xboxes, figure out ways to confuse tracking systems, and organize public events. Eventually, they win a sort-of victory against the powers that be, but the novel makes it clear that this is only one battle in an ongoing struggle.
Before we start talking about the serious stuff, I want to emphasize how much fun Little Brother is. The book’s a blast. It’s ostensibly written for young adults, whatever exactly that means these days, but is a great read for adult adults too. This is the kind of book you buy a copy of for your brilliant, weird 15 year old niece, and another copy for yourself. Its writing style is clear, punchy and direct – more like the old style early Robert Heinlein juveniles than most of the stuff that’s being written today, even if its subject matter is completely up to date.
But in addition to being incredibly entertaining, it’s also a very political book. Not only does it have a clear political message (on which more below), but it’s full of cunningly disguised how-to lessons for how to baffle the surveillance minions and copyright police. Someone reading this will figure out how to use onion routing to disguise browsing patterns, remove distinctive patterns of noise from your photos, deal with the police if you’re stopped and a multitude of other useful life lessons. The book is supplemented by a bunch of instructables that help flesh out the suggestions in concrete ways. Abbie Hoffman eat your heart out.
Little Brother‘s broad political message is one that most netroots blog readers will agree with – that what Jack Balkin calls the National Surveillance State is a bad and dangerous thing. But what is less obvious are the connections that the novel draws between a host of petty public and private forms of surveillance, and the kinds of really nasty things that governments can get up to when they have too much information about their citizens. When leftwingers think about surveillance, they usually think about things like FISA, National Security Letters, illegal wiretapping and so on. But as Little Brother makes clear, many private companies and organizations are using new technologies to gather information on their customers. This dramatically enhances the power of government to snoop on citizens – it can order these companies to hand over their data (or sometimes not even order them; they often get cooperation without warrants).
This is one of the main themes (perhaps the main theme that brings together Cory’s identities as author, IP policy specialist and blogger – the idea that state surveillance and private means of control (especially those connected to intellectual property) are attacking individual liberty in a kind of pincer movement. Little Brother is a great read – but it also is a great political tract in disguise. It draws the connection between the everyday hassles and problems that teenagers encounter with companies trying to sue them for filesharing, and the much broader set of political struggles over individual freedom in a world of ubiquitous monitoring.