5/26/2008

Little Brother

I read the most wonderful book over the past two days, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. The story, set in the very near future, follows Marcus, a 17-year-old kid from San Francisco who, when he and his friends are kidnapped by the Department of Homeland Security, becomes a terror suspect after the Bay Bridge is blown up.

Marcus is a regular, normal kid who happens to be something of a geek. He used to be a LARPer (Live Action Role-Playing), but after merciless teasing from schoolmates, he and his friends moved on to ARGing (Alternate Reality Game). He knows how to write computer code and has a fascinating with hacking. Not the criminal kind of hacking you see in cheesy action movies, but fun stuff, like how to scam the RFID chips in his school's library books, and how to beat the gait recognition cameras that line the halls of his school. Simple, harmless hacks that anyone could do.

When Marcus and three of his friends, Jolu, Darryl and Van, skip school to investigate the newest clue in their favorite ARG, they're caught up in a world they never knew existed. The Bay Bridge is blown up and in the ensuing chaos Darryl is injured. Marcus tries to flag down one of the emergency vehicles that are zooming past them on the street, finally stepping in front of a Hummer to get it to stop. Unfortunately, the Hummer is full of DHS agents who immediately take Marcus and his friends into custody, i.e. kidnap them, and hold them, interrogate them, illegally, with no evidence of any wrongdoing, for days.

When Marcus is finally released, broken and humiliated, he vows vengeance on the overreaching Department of Homeland Security, the government agency that has locked down the city of San Francisco and turned everyone who lives there into a terror suspect, all in the name of security, of protecting them. Much like the government reaction after 9/11, the DHS decides to treat everyone like a criminal while claiming it's for their own protection.

Utilizing the computer skills of he and his friends, Marcus rallies the youth of the city. "Don't Trust Anyone Over 25" becomes their mantra as they wage war against those who would throw them in prison for life because of nothing more than a suspicion.

Little Brother is 1984 for a new generation, a primer for how to fight back against the tyranny and oppression of a government out of control with fear and terror. It's about our rights as citizens, rights that don't suddenly stop protecting us simply because they're deemed inconvenient. The Constitution is not, as some would have us believe, an archaic document written by men who couldn't possibly fathom the world we live in today. That document is our protection against government power run rampant, something we desperately need today as much as they needed it more than 200 years ago.

Don't get me wrong. Little Brother isn't a dry, boring lecture. There's plenty of action and intrigue, and great, realistic characters and situations. That's part of why the book kind of scares me, too. Everything Doctorow wrote about could happen. Secret detention facilities on American soil. The torture of American citizens. Ceaseless surveillance of every single man, woman and child. They tell us it's for our protection, and sure, what could be safer than putting everyone in prison. An invisible prison at that, where they watch us 24/7 with closed-circuit video cameras and track our every movement with RFID tags attached to our cars, embedded in our credit cards and IDs. Yeah, that'd make me feel real safe. Being secure doesn't mean we have to relinquish our rights to privacy, our rights to free expression.

Wouldn't it be better if the government spent their time and our money tracking actual bad guys who want to do us harm instead of wasting it by tracking everybody? It's like finding a needle in a haystack when you created the haystack.

This has turned into a bit of a rant and I didn't mean for that to happen. It's just that I love this book and everything it stands for so much. I think it's a really important book, a cautionary tale that we all need to heed before it's too late and we really do live in a police state. And, to top it off, you have no reason not to read this book. Doctorow has made the entire text available online in a bunch of different formats, free of charge, right here, under a Creative Commons license.

So, everyone should download and read the book. And while I'm old enough to bristle at "Don't Trust Anyone Over 25," I think we're never too old to be skeptical of all authority figures. That's what the Constitution is really all about. Just because someone is in a position of authority, that doesn't mean they have your best interests at heart. Question authority, don't follow it blindly.

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