Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

29 July 2011

(Novel) Little Brother by: Cory Doctorow

(Reaction) False Choices by: Antonio Conejos

Little Brother is both similar and dissimilar to one of the most iconic works on authority run amuck: 1984. Doctorow's novel acknowledges its debt to its illustrious predecessor, both in its name (Little Brother is an allusion to 1984's sinister Big Brother) as well as in its characters (Marcus's first user name is w1n5t0n). Contrasting the two novels reveals how the subversion of liberties has changed from the time of Orwell to today's CCTV infested streets and state sponsored internet firewalls.

The government in 1984 is monolithic, everywhere, in your face, like the television which it is illegal to turn off. This totality of presence (thus totalitarian) emphasizes the monopolization of thought. One must think, breath and live the party line. Thus the emphasis on double speak, the Thought Police, the control of history and the illegality of keeping a diary. Even music must be officially sanctioned, resulting in insipid pop tunes being the only songs around.

In contrast, Little Brother is concerned with the monopolization of secrecy. Ultimately the government, through the DHS, is insisting that it alone has the right to conduct inscrutable activities. Good citizens should not pry into government's activities but should instead, conversely, welcome government scrutiny of their lives. Because, the thinking goes, the less privacy private citizens (pun intended) have, the safer everyone will be. After all, honest people don't have anything to hide.

In Little Brother though the authorities take pains to ensure the illusion of privacy. Thus tracking devices are hidden (such as the resident programs on the school issued laptops) and unobtrusive (the data mining involved in tracking the transportation routes of hundreds of thousands of people) The goal of the authorities in Doctorow's novel is to strip away the right of anonymity. You are no longer an unknown face in a crowd but a series of unique biometric readings which can be watched and survielled.

Little Brother's world (which is only slightly an exagarration of our modern world) is infinitely more insidious than the world presented in 1984. In Little Brother we are allowed the illusion of freedom as the authorities, cloaked behind the scenes, watch our every movement, glance and information received. 1984's government could not construct this illusion of freedom as it had to rely on blunt instruments: loudspeakers for propaganda, Thought Police to physically search each home and every sundry personal item.

But nowadays, with technology, we hear propaganda without having to be beside the loudspeaker, we are searched even though they are no hands groping our body or our possessions. Even books we paid for can abruptly be erased from our devices without our consent. After all, the Bill of Rights was written before data mining.

Marcus loves technology, made me feel: in control. My technology was working for me, serving me, protecting me. It wasn't spying on me. Yet ironically this same technology is used by the DHS to spy on the good people of San Francisco. Modern technology then is a great tool for the security of liberties but it can also be used to severely constrict liberties as well.

That the good produced by technology is dependent on the user is hardly a radical insight. Yet as demonstrated in Little Brother, the problem with modern technology is that it is beyond the ken of most of us. We can't use technology for good because we don't understand it. Heck most computer users (whether they be PC or Mac, Android or Symbian) can't even keep their devices spyware/bot free. As modern technology gets more complicated we cede its use and its potential to the authorities, who are only too willing to use it. If in the world of 1984 it was easy to smash a loudspeaker, to hold down an official trying to conduct an illegal search; in today's world even getting your computer to load up without bloatware can be problematic.

And even assuming you understand today's technology, you may not even want to stop authorities from abusing it. (Think about everyone who uses Itunes or Apple products. Itunes is a ridiculous piece of software, slow and tediously complicated, while Apple products can track the location of their users without their consent. This is why Marcus's father's position for most of the novel is so frustrating. As an IT consultant he understands what the government is doing. Yet he approves of it, even sanctions their brutal methods.

While the degree of control of the authorities differs in Little Brother and 1984, both novels argue that the government inevitably abuses its power over its citizens. The degree of abuse would seem to be directly proportional to the amount of control citizens cede to the authority. Thus, in the climax of Little Brother, Marcus (a minor and an American citizen) is tortured via water boarding by members of the DHS. As citizens surrender their liberties, the authorities surrender restraint, civility and even basic decency.


Best line ever describing government goons: It was like a Benetton's ad crossed with a game of Counterstrike.

Not as imaginatively extrapolative as Doctorow's other works (if you're looking for something along those lines, I suggest his Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom). Still, his grasp of current technology, and its potential to serve as both leash and wings, is spot on. I particularly enjoyed his bits into the history of computing.

If you're current with hacking/computer/geek culture, you might be a little annoyed by Marcus's constant explanations of the various devices and cultural signposts of geek culture. Still, these explanations make the book more accessible and are instructive even for the hardcore geek.

The DHS, as portrayed in the novel, behave in a realistically galling manner. Prominent throughout the novel is the authorities main argument that their methods are in everyone's best interests. They present this simple choice, would you rather have privacy or terrorists? Yet as any grade school student should know this is a logical fallacy. It is a false either or choice. In reality there are a million choices between surrendering all privacy and ceasing all attempts to ferret out criminals. Ultimately this is what unifies authorities in all dystopian societies, a monolithic view that it's their way or the highway, that you're either with them or against them.

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