Byon June 24, 2008 8:00 AM
Author Cory Doctorow is apparently fairly well known in the Tech arena for his fiction. Frankly, until the last month or so, I’d never heard of him, until I’d heard some people talking about his latest novel, Little Brother, a novel targeted toward young adults. Of course, what really caught my eye, was that the book was being distributed under the Creative Commons, as are all of Doctorow’s novels.
This book is a cry that many in the Technology and Security arenas have been making for years. This book is a statement against those who would have us give up liberty, with the illusion that they are making us safer.
The story takes place in the near future, whatever future doesn’t really matter, as the story begins in a world very much like ours. It focuses on a 17-year old boy, Marcus Yallow, who takes part in the Hacker Underground, his innate understanding of security making him feel superior to those around him, who simply give into the increased surveillance and suspicion leveled at them. Young people in particular.
He’s a pretty standard hacker geek. Likes taking things apart, learning how they tick, modifying them to his bidding. And he’s into ARGs, which places him out of school on one fateful day when his hometown of San Francisco is bombed, the Bay Bridge (and the BART tunnel under it) being destroyed, leaving thousands dead. He and his friends are too close, and after nearly dying in the crush of the BART station, they break onto the surface, only to be arrested and detained by the Department of Homeland Security, simply because of where they were found.
Marcus quickly finds himself in deep trouble, because he refuses to give up access to his phone to the DHS agent questioning him, resulting in five days of detainment, interrogation, and humiliation until he broke and gave them everything. His friends, for the most part, made it out easier, as they tried to hide less than he had. Eventually, they decided to let Marcus go, though not without threats that he was under suspicion. However, one of Marcus’ friends, his best friend, didn’t get out of the prison. He’d been injured, and wasn’t ready for release. By the time he’d healed, he’d been detained so long that the DHS wouldn’t dare releasing him.
The set up is a little over-the-top, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Look at the stories out of Guantanamo Bay, the in depth discussions of whether or not certain activities constitute torture.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I supported the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and I voted for him again in 2004. Given the choices, I still believe that it was the best choice. However, I’ve never supported the actions taken after 9/11 in the name of National Security. The PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretapping, increases in Data Mining, the list of activities done in the name of National Security which chip away at our liberties is long, and in the half a decade since September 11, 2001, it has only gotten longer.
Marcus Yallow’s San Francisco quickly becomes a intense caricature of our country today. People get picked up off the street simply because their BART travels don’t match the ‘normal’ patterns, camera’s show up in classrooms, teachers lose their jobs for being ‘dissidents’, everyone is under suspicion all the time. And most people, unsurprisingly, are so scared that they let it happen.
Marcus Yallow, having kept his incarceration secret, doesn’t. He starts up a network within the Internet, where people can post anonymously, and operate in a much more difficult to track manner. Through this, Marcus and the others begin making things difficult on the citizens of San Francisco by exposing the weaknesses in the DHS’ methods, and causing the DHS to greatly inconvenience thousands of innocent people. The DHS identifies him as a Terrorist, Marcus feels that they’re the Terrorists.
The book isn’t the best writing I’ve ever read. And the audience is clearly younger than I am. However, it is still a good book. The story is entertaining, well told, and most of all relevant. I would argue that it is the most relevant book written in the last few years. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the politics, but the core message, that Freedom is more important than anything, and particularly that trading Freedom for Security is dangerous, and doesn’t work.
Read this book. It’s available for free. I even have it mirrored. But after you finish, if you’re anything like me at least, you’ll be looking for a place to buy it. This book should be required reading in Middle School, as we need to teach our young people the value of Freedom. Freedom is what has made this country what it is, and for the last seven years that Freedom has been under attack in an incredibly number of ways. You may not agree with everything in it, but please, read this book. Pass it around. It’s that important.