Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Little Brother

I encourage everyone to read this great YA book by Cory Doctorow called Little Brother.  It's a about this kid (16 or 17) in San Francisco in the not-so-distant-future.  Marcus's world has a bit more surveillance than our world - in school, all students are issued computers that track their keystrokes and look for specified keywords.  The walls are lined with "gait recognition" cameras that try to match up gaits to people and track movement.  Everyone is tracked by arphids too.  Marcus is a hacker, and knows his civil rights really well too - when the principal calls him into his office to grill him about a recent campus hack, he plays it cool, asks the principal if he has an evidence and encourages him to call the police and his parents.

When Marcus and his friends are running around town playing a game, there is a terrorist attack on San Francisco and they are gathered up as suspicious characters.  (I'm not telling you anything that's not on the back of the book).  Marcus's cool responses don't work with the Department of Homeland Security - using post-9/11 legislation, they don't have to follow the same procedures as the principal.  Marcus is tortured, certainly never gets a call to his lawyer, or is ever charged with anything.  When he finally is released, he decides he'll do what he can to take the DHS down himself.

What's interesting is that, in a manner of speaking, Marcus becomes a terrorist after being released from the DHS, even though what he's doing is ostensibly for the good.  What I found endlessly fascinating is that (almost?) all the technology Doctorow mentions in the book is either existing today or not a far stretch.  I frequently found myself asking my guy, "Is TOR a real thing?"  It is.  "You ever heard of Thomas Bayes?" Yep.  "How does DNS work?" It's complicated.

Little Brother has a great story, but the didactic side is what I loved.  This book challenges the reader to consider how they feel about privacy and how far they would be willing to go to protect it.  It encourages readers to become more savvy - and it's really empowering:
If you've never programmed a computer, you should.  There's nothing like it in the whole world.  When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It's like designing a  machine - any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas hinge for a door - using math and instructions. It's awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.
It's so fun to read a book about a city you know well - I used to live in SF, and a lot of the action takes place in my old neighborhood (affectionately known as the Tender-knob).  Marcus is a cool kid - he's a nerd, but this accessible book would appeal to both nerds and non-nerds (that term is also affectionate, by the way) - I would think this book would really inspire young people to start some interesting web searches - it definitely did for me!

Doctorow is a real revolutionary and an anti-DRM, liberal copywrite activist.  His wikipedia entry is a great place to learn more about him.  As a proponent of Creative Commons, Little Brother is available as a free download here.  Wow!  Why does he provide his books for free?  Read this.


d00dpwn1337 said...

We might all have to start using Tor soon if Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and the MPAA/RIAA have anything to do with it.

d00dpwn1337 said...

Actually these are better stories: