If you want an entertaining way to introduce your teenager to the issues surrounding the right to privacy and the excesses of the Patriot Act, maybe you should take a look at Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. As a matter of fact, it is not strictly necessary to be a teenager to get something of value from this book–in an environment where technology can be used to invade our privacy, Doctorow is adept at demonstrating how it can be used right back at the snoopers. The overriding message of the book is that if we are to remain in control our destinies, we will have to be technologically literate as well as politically active.
In the opening chapters of “Little Brother,” a near-future terrorist attack hits San Francisco’s Bay Bridge and a teenager named Marcus Yallow is arbitrarily and brutally detained in the federal crackdown that follows. Marcus is a likable if undeniably cocky hero – he hacks cellphones, sasses clueless authority figures and quotes the Declaration of Independence from memory. That cockiness gets scuffed a little in the disaster, and both the story and Marcus himself acquire grit and interest as a result. The fear and humiliation he experiences in interrogation are vividly detailed, and afterward Marcus takes a principled stand that leads him into an ingenious program of resistance and civil rights activism.
Doctorow, one of the co-editors of the Webblog Boing-Boing, clearly intended this novel to serve an instructive purpose–and it is fair to say that it is not one of those socially engaged works that are also works of high art, such as TV’s The Wire. But what it does achieve is worthy in its own right. After all, it is not that easy to make Bayesian inference not only intellectually accessible to laymen, but essential to moving a fast-paced plot along.
To acknowledge the informative intent though is not to say that the story and the characters are not persuasive. Doctorow is a fine writer. His teenagers seem like the real thing (as well as I can remember across the span of more years than I care to count). He is also skillful at bringing his points home without being too obvious, as well as careful to make sure that all the arguments raised by the “other side” are fully considered.
For instance, much of the discussion that takes place in Marcus’ high school social studies class or in his interaction with his parents is used to examine arguments about the constitution and privacy as well as the history of dissent, while he and his friends explore technological solutions to the over-reaching of the Department of Homeland Security. The ideas and technology that are examined, though, are all integral to the action, and that gives them an urgency that keeps interest alive.
The book includes two afterwords, one by security technologist Bruce Schneier, and a second by the “notorious hacker” Andrew Huang of Xbot fame, as well as a bibliography of books about hacking, sci-fi, counter-culture and other topics that reflect the issues raised in the book. Bruce Schneier perhaps sums up the theme of the book most succinctly:
Trading privacy for security is stupid enough; not getting any actual security in the bargain is even more stupid
Little Brother may be propaganda, but it is intelligent propaganda, doesn’t tip the scales too grossly in the author’s preferred direction, and is a really good read into the bargain.
Update: I forgot to note that you can download the text of Little Brother for free from Doctorow’s website here. He really does put his money where his mouth is–literally since this could really cut into his royalties.