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The Relevance of Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” Today

A little over a year ago now, I was introduced to a novel, Little Brother (available free on his site as well – in multiple formats), by Cory Doctorow co-editor of Boing Boing (his own website is craphound.com). I had started the book late at night, only intending to read a couple of chapters. As I started reading I was completely engrossed in Doctorow’s story. Not only was the book well researched, intelligent and immensely entertaining – it was also extraordinarily relevant when related to the world’s (and in particular America’s) current events. I finished the book a few hours later – far later than I’d intended to stay up that night and went into work the next day very overtired.

After reading the novel, I knew I wanted to write a blog post about it on my previous blog, drawing comparisons to the world and the novel, however, I never did get around to it. I also knew I wanted to read it over again at some point. Well, that re-read finally came the other day when I picked the book up, once again intending to read only a couple of chapters. Of course, I was immediately engrossed, this book is truly incredible and absorbing. What struck me is that over the past year, Little Brother has become even more relevant. Let me provide a brief synopsis.

The novel’s central character is a teenage high school student from San Francisco, Marcus Yallow. He’s a pretty average teenager, into computers and in particular hacking. He is extraordinarily efficient at getting around the school’s security measures in order to spend class time messaging his friends and cutting class to participate in the novel’s fictional alternate reality game (ARG). Marcus and his best friend, Darryl, bust out of school and meet up with their other friends, Van and Jolu, searching for the latest clue in the game. Unfortunately, there’s a terrorist attack that destroys the Bay Bridge. In the chaos that follows, Darryl gets injured and they flag down what they thought was an emergency vehicle. It turned out to belong to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Marcus and his friends were taken into custody and brought to a secret prison where they were interrogated about the bombing – Marcus was treated particularly rough for not co-operating with them from the start. Humiliated and angry, he eventually was freed, under the condition that he didn’t tell anyone about what happened to him while in custody. He made a vow to himself that he would do whatever he could to take down the DHS.

The remainder of the book is largely about the Marcus’ rebellion, using technology to get around the various security measures put in place by the DHS. As Marcus and his followers continuously cause the DHS to look foolish, they only throw more money and resources at the problem, further tightening their grip on San Francisco’s population (and allowing more and more to slip between their fingers). This is more or less the exact response we’ve seen in the real world and in particular in the USA with regards to the government’s response to terrorism. As the government attempts tighten control in the book, people lose more and more of their freedoms, much like in real life.

For example, we live in a world where warrantless surveillance is quickly becoming a reality. Canada and the UK have both introduced bills to parliament in an attempt to make warrantless surveillance legal. It’s already a reality in the USA. Little Brother’s San Francisco has an elaborate surveillance system which tracks all the city’s citizens and flags anyone who breaks from their normal pattern. When Marcus and his friends cause the majority of San Francisco’s population to have abnormal traffic patterns, the city grinds to a halt.

Many of the citizens in the novel support the government (something which is true of the real world as well), including Marcus’ father, despite the fact that none of the measures have helped to catch any terrorists. His father points out that it has helped to catch drug dealers and other criminals, people with outstanding arrest warrants, etc. and even if a single terrorist is never caught, it’s worth it because the city’s streets will be safer and cleaner. Besides, it’s only a matter of time before a terrorist is caught by the security measures, so they are making the city safer.

The problem is, most security systems put in place by the government don’t prevent what they are supposed to prevent. Consider the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) airport security measures. People are randomly selected for further screening, either through full body scanners or, if they prefer, an enhanced pat down (which have been described as legalized sexual assault). The scanners have been proven ineffective and their safety has been questioned. There are stories and footage all over the Internet of the TSA terrorizing young children. To date, these scanners haven’t prevented a single terrorist attack, they have, however, created a great deal of fear and frustration among the general population. The full body scanners have even damaged legitimate medical equipment essential for a teenage girls survival.

Airport security is a really good example of exactly what we’re doing wrong to prevent terrorism in the Western world. It has increased the length of time it takes to board a plane well beyond reason and it hasn’t made society any safer. One of the safest airports in the world is in Israel, Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. There, it’s a big deal if it takes more than 30 minutes to board your plane, let alone hours. How do they do it? They are proactive, using five different check points the airport analyzes the boarding passengers, rather than the items they are carrying. Additionally, Israel’s security agencies provide a series of evolving threat and vulnerability analyses. Their goal, aside from safety, is to ensure passengers are on their planes within 25 minutes of entering the airport.

Ultimately, there is a lot of room for improvement in our society. Is our society as extreme as Cory Doctorow’s version of San Francisco in the book? Not yet. We are, however, well on our way to getting there. Luckily, we live in a democratic society, so as citizens we do have options to prevent things from getting worse. Of course, most Western democracies are experiencing all-time lows for voter turn out. Hopefully people start waking up and realizing exactly what’s going on. The Internet and social networking has been a big help in getting people involved, as the Occupy movement, in particular, has shown.

These are only a couple examples of similarities between our world and Little Brother’s San Francisco. If I went through them all, this post would be far too long. I strongly suggest you read the book and then take a look at your local news paper so you can draw your own comparisons. Most importantly, I urge you to get involved in your municipal, provincial and federal politics (or whatever the format of government is in your own part of the world). Write letters, call your elected representative, let them know how you feel about the issues that you find important. Help shape the future of your own world.

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