Technogeeks Save America

The libertarian lessons of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

We know what happened to our civil liberties after the terrorist atrocities on September 11th. Imagine what would happen to our civil liberties if another major terrorist attack occurred. That's the premise of the new young adult novel Little Brother by Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow.

The story opens with 17-year old Marcus Yallow, a.k.a. w1n5t0n, a senior at Cesar Chavez High School in San Francisco. Stuck in a boring social studies class, Yallow is busy checking out his favorite ARG (alternative reality game) site, Harajuku Fun Madness ("best game ever"). A new clue has just been revealed, prompting the cocky technogeek Marcus to jam his school's clunky surveillance systems so that he and his crew can ditch school and go find it. Just as his buddies Darryl, Vanessa (Van), and JoLu (Jose Luis) converge on the clue site, a terrorist attack blows up both the Bay Bridge and the BART tunnels under the bay.

As the young gamesters try to escape the crush of panicked San Franciscans, Darryl is stabbed. Marcus flags down one of the armored Hummers that suddenly appear everywhere on the streets in the hopes of getting Darryl to a hospital. Wrong place, wrong time. What turn out to be Department of Homeland Security goons roughly truss him and his friends up, and toss them into a concentration camp.

Doctorow makes what happens next chillingly plausible. Marcus and his friends are treated as potential enemy combatants. Marcus refuses to unlock his cellphone and decrypt his files as a female Homeland Security agent orders. "Honest people don't have anything to hide," warns the interrogator. She ignores his demands for an attorney and to speak with his parents. For refusing to cooperate, Marcus is locked up in solitary confinement where he is physically and psychically humiliated until he finally breaks down. Eventually his DHS questioners are satisfied that he is in fact just a smart alecky high school kid who misunderstands the real limits of his civil rights. They force him to sign a document saying that he'd been well-treated and then let him and his friends Van and JoLu go. They are warned not to tell anyone—not even their parents—what happened to them or else they'll be thrown back into internment. Darryl is still missing.

Post-attack San Francisco is now an occupied city—occupied by repressive Homeland Security thugs. Citizens' movements are continually monitored by both surveillance cameras and by means of the electronic traces left by their credit cards and transit passes. (This is disturbingly reminiscent of the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program which involved deploying massive information aggregation and analysis technologies to create, as New York Times columnist William Safire described it, "computer dossiers on 300 million Americans.") If someone deviates from their usual activities, DHS agents drop by demanding to know what they are up to.

Fueled with fierce idealism and energy, Marcus is determined to resist the despotism of his government and to spring Darryl from the clutches of the DHS. Using his Xbox gaming console and ParanoidLinux, Marcus devises a way to create a secure network to get around Homeland Security. From there the resistance begins to spread. ParanoidLinux is described as "an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret."

The novel depicts a genuinely thrill-packed fight for freedom. Little Brother shows how the savvy use of technologies such as RFID cloners, Bayesian analysis, and cryptography can liberate people from oppressive government. Unless you're completely oblivious, Little Brother will fuel your anger over the freedoms that we have already lost to our growing national security state. Moreover, as Little Brother shows, resistance is not futile.

Final recommendation: Help disseminate these subversive ideas. Little Brother is a wonderful Christmas, birthday, bar or bat mitzvah gift for any young adult you know. If you don't want to buy it, you can download it for free here. And any of you guys over age 25, I bet it will inspire you, too.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  • ||

    Despite the righteous anger in the book, the novel ends on a somewhat disappointing tone, basically embracing the "rock the vote" mentality that we just need to get active and vote the SOBs out of there. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is no guarantee the new bosses will be any different from the old ones. I expected something better, but the final message left me quite unsatisfied.

  • jtuf||

    Doctorow makes what happens next chillingly plausible. Marcus and his friends are treated as potential enemy combatants. Marcus refuses to unlock his cellphone and decrypt his files as a female Homeland Security agent orders. "Honest people don't have anything to hide," warns the interrogator. She ignores his demands for an attorney and to speak with his parents. For refusing to cooperate, Marcus is locked up in solitary confinement where he is physically and psychically humiliated until he finally breaks down. Eventually his DHS questioners are satisfied that he is in fact just a smart alecky high school kid who misunderstands the real limits of his civil rights. They force him to sign a document saying that he'd been well-treated and then let him and his friends Van and JoLu go. They are warned not to tell anyone-not even their parents-what happened to them or else they'll be thrown back into internment. Darryl is still missing.



    Wow, sounds like a psych ward.

  • jtuf||

    Bayesian analysis is very liberating. It allows scientists to say, "maybe".

  • ||

    Side note: The use of the Mac OSX logo does not juxtapose well with any title that includes the term "geeks".

    Apple aficionados are "computer users" because they have typically no idea how a computer works or how to "geekify" one ... it "just works". Most PC operators also fall under the category of "users" for the same reasons, albeit with less consistency in the "just works" area. Posix (Unix, Linux, et al.) users, on the other hand, typically know quite a bit about the inner workings of their systems and are quite handy at "geekifying" the crap out of them, and so deserve and even court the "geek" label.

    Please, with all of the confusion in this world, can't we at least get this one thing in order?

  • ||

    jtuf: I thought the ending was a bit unsatisfactory too, but fairly realistic given Americans' general preference for political incrementalism. Still, I must say, I found the book's skepticism toward "security" inspiring.

  • Paul||

    w1n5t0n



    ZOMG!!!WTFLOLROTFLCOPTERS!!11!

    l337 sp34k!

  • ||

    I thought that the ending was totally unrealistic and asked Cory about it at a conference this summer.

    He told me that based on the pushback in California on the medical pot issue he felt that the state government would be much more activist on this matter.

    While I can see where he's coming from now, I don't think that it's a realistic possibility.

  • ||

    Cory hasn't heretofore struck me as a libertarian, though my exposure to him has been limited to Boing Boing. He seems more firmly in the left camp to me, though I lack adequate data to say for sure.

  • Ironic||

    I first heard about the book via a sample of the audio-book on the podcast "This Week in Technology". I was so impressed with teh writing that I bought a dead tree copy. It is one of the best YA (young adult) novels I have ever read. It is a very important book. I do recomend it.

  • LFB||

    Laissez Faire Books, as might be expected, is also stocking the book and has copies. They can be ordered by calling 1 800 326 0996.

  • Jayson||

    I absolutely love this book. I read it through in almost one sitting. I was hoping that I would be able to dissinate it to my 8th grade students (I teach History in inner-city Chicago). However, the sex parts were just a little over the top. The cool part is that I can download the ENTIRE text of the novel, for free, and change it however I like.

    While I do get annoyed at his obvious attacks at ONLY right-wingers (he never punches at the left), Doctorow REALLY believes in and lives out the entire creative commons open source thing, and I gotta hand him that.

  • Jayson||

    http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/

    There's a link to the free downloads of the book.

  • ||

    Apple aficionados are "computer users" because they have typically no idea how a computer works or how to "geekify" one ... it "just works",

    While Apple strives to make OS X user friendly, OS X has become very popular with "geeky" users over the last few years. OS X is a UNIX distribution, so beneath the pretty GUI, you have access to all of the command line tools that you would find in Linux, Solaris or BSD. I use Debian for my servers, but I like the fact that my desktop (OS X) "just works".

  • ||

    My problem with the ending wasn't the state government pushback, but the fact that the Governer (not a character or even an off-screen factor in the book) effectively kicks the DHS out of California, on the wake of a police raid on a US military facility no less. That's not even remotely plausible.

    -+d though the book did a great job at illustrating the need for liberty, it ignored the actual reasons for it, the philosophies that fuel the concepts. It occasional veers close to being just kids complaining about constraints on their behavior.

  • ||

    I found that it lacked a ~60 page monologue that explained the author's philosophy.

  • ||

    Readers of this site should know well the dangers of crying wolf. Say what you will about Republicans and wiretapping, but keep in mind that the party has its roots in a generation long struggle against a real evil, communism. There is no rational fear of totalitarianism in America, especially not from Republicans, and to say otherwise distracts from real libertarian issues like economic and social freedoms. Each day the democrats strive to make us poorer and more "equal." Milton Friedman, I believe, wrote a book about the essential connection between economic and political liberty. Let's not forget that.

  • Andy||

    As someone who doesn't remember the Cold War, the modern Republican Party can kiss my ass. If they ever actually literally defeated the Democratic Party, they would just find new things (military, drug war, war on sex, immigration barriers etc) to spend the same amount of money on.

    But at least they eliminated Russia and China as threats to our values...

  • ||

    There is no rational fear of totalitarianism in America, especially not from Republicans, and to say otherwise distracts from real libertarian issues like economic and social freedoms.


    What planet have you been living on for the past 7 years?

  • economist||

    Thank you, Winston, for pointing out why we are all screwed come November.

  • Terrance and Philip||

    (in unison): Shut your fucking face, uncle fucker! You're a boner-biting bastard, uncle-fucker!

    Terrance: Looks like we may be out of luck!
    Philip: Tomorrow nigh, we're pretty fucked!

  • ||

    As someone who doesn't remember the Cold War, the modern Republican Party can kiss my ass.

    As someone who doesn't remember the civil rights era, black people can kiss my ass.

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