Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

cover art of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother with three teens

I'd read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom before Little Brother. So, I knew that Cory Doctorow does more than tell stories. He extrapolates on the intersection of society and technology to consider what the future will be like. In Down and Out, the future is kind of odd. The only currency that matters is social currency. In other words, reading the (chat)room is all important. Down and Out is a utopia, a eu (good) and u (nowhere) kind of topos (place). As long as people like you, Doctorow's future Magic Kingdom offers a kind of immortality.  Death is forever averted by loading one's backups into fresh bodies. The desire to cheat death through technology has a history with Disney. Walt had his body cryogenically frozen in hopes that doctors and scientists in the future could revive him and extend his life. But in Doctorow's world of extended life, life only matters if others value you.

Department of Homeland Security

Little Brother takes a different route from Down and Out. DHS agents take over San Francisco and subject citizens there to unchecked power. An American city becomes an extension of Guantanamo Bay. The action of the novel centers on a bunch of kids that don't want to be surveilled. The kids resist the authority of their high school before the bigger, badder DHS rolls into town, and since they didn't like the discipline they were subjected to at school, they really chafed under the authoritarianism of the DHS and resist. The kids that lead a technological attack on the local DHS aren't terrorists, but they are treated as if they are because of their unwillingness to conform and obey, to continually give the nod as freedoms are stripped away piecemeal.

No more satirical, almost-good futures, the world of Little Brother takes a sobering look at the dystopian trajectory of our new and improved surveillance state version of America where telephone conversations are recorded as are texts and email. Positions are tracked through cell phone data. And anyone suspected of terrorism, conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, or of fraternizing with terrorists (or those conspiring to acts of terrorism, or--bear with me--even conspiring with those likely to conspire with terrorists) can have their rights summarily stripped. So, yes, if you're feeling paranoid yet or maybe just confused, that's the point. DHS is a machiavellian, shock and awe, reign of terror arm of government. Especially given the knowledge that covert government agents have been known to set up fringe groups, financing them to purchase weapons and encouraging them to commit acts of domestic terrorism, only to immediately arrest them for conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.

Homeland Security has a budget of better than 92 billion dollars and essentially unlimited power, including unlimited detainment of any American citizen during which that citizen has no rights, not even to contact an attorney. Given the degree of power and lack of transparency of DHS, a little--or even a lot--of skepticism is warranted.

I identified with Doctorow's skepticism about the ethics of DHS, about whether they need the power they have and whether they are using that power for good or for something else. 

The existence of the DHS trounces on the notion that America is the "land of the free." Not very much is free in America. Freedom is certainly not free. Drive around your town or city for a couple hours and take a look at the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Wealth buys freedom. Race goes a long way too. The people that are most free in America have the most money, and wealth and whiteness have a strong correlation in America. Certainly, if you are wealthy and white, the chance that Homeland Security will ever use extraterritorial power on you is extremely low. 

In Little Brother, a terrorist attack on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is the catalyst for DHS mobilizing forces in the city. Here's a cynical consideration. The DHS weren't able to stop the act of terrorism. They are only able to frustrate the freedom of citizens through surveillance and disciplinary protocols afterward. That's because, as Doctorow says, security isn't a product, it's a process. 

Homeland Security isn't a perfect ward against terrorism. No matter where you place safeguards to protect against bombing or gassing or whatever,  a new point of weakness is created. After airport security was beefed up in the wake of 9/11, Bruce Schneier observed that the waiting lines in airports would become the new attack point for terrorists. Maybe getting a bomb or a gun into an airplane was no longer easy after 9/11, but there were almost no protections against putting a bomb in the middle of a line of hundreds of passengers getting ready to pass through the security check.

Is it worth giving up freedoms of person and society for security that is, by definition, imperfect, incomplete? Doctorow's little brothers didn't think so.

-End Transmission-