Little Brother and the War on Authority

Post written at 3:02 AM IST 05/05/2008:

I just finished reading “Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow which he has just released as a Creative Commons download here. In one sitting. 500 pages( .lit version from the site) .From 11 to 2.30.

I’m scared.

Post continued at 12 PM on 06/05/2008:

…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…

I’ll start with the key words: gripping, informative, thrilling, “unputdownable”, rousing, must-read,  brilliant,  speculative, furious, action-packed, “scarily realistic”…and hyper-aggressive.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book. For one thing, its one of the very few 150+ page books that I’ve bothered to read in one sitting, holiday or not. It is all the wonderfully short descriptions I gave above. It is also a tad over the top. It deals with several of Doctorow’s pet topics: activism, free speech and censorship, civil liberties, surveillance, the internet, security, technology. In fact, it has several very informative asides and practical tips on all these things. Truly fascinating information, especially if you’re already interested in one or more of the above. Aside from these, the book has a couple of “policy statements” by Doctorow at the beginning, and two extremely interesting afterwords, by Bruce Schneier, the security expert, and Andrew Huang, the (ex) MIT doctoral student who cracked the XBox, on real-life applications/incarnations of the various technological tools that Marcus (or w1n5t0n, or m1k3y, the internet avatars of our brave young hero) uses, among other things.

The only problem is, I think I can be fairly sure that if I showed the exact same thing to the vast majority of my friends, they wouldn’t find them quite so fascinating. In fact, they would probably call it clutter. And while I would disagree with that from a literary point of view, I would find it much harder to convince them that Cory Doctorow didn’t want to wage war on the entire American/western legal system.

Book summary from his site:

Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.

When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.

A few disorganized comments:

  1. Clearly, the boy is a stylized,teenage, Peter-Parker version (in the sense of having a powerful alter ego 🙂 ) of Doctorow himself. He feels deeply about (see huge list above), he’s very much into computers, alternate reality gaming, cosplay/LARP (Live action role-playing game)and as m1k3y he “leads” a group of rebels and has an enormous fan following.
  2. I found the final, climactic scene of the novel rather ironically resemblant of the similar point in the story in Ayn rand’s iconic “Atlas Shrugged“. Marcus is shackled on a bench, being tortured, and just when it gets really bad-not that the preliminary stages of waterboarding aren’t bad enough- the cavalry arrives, except unlike in Atlas Shrugged it is not the final victory, just more reasonable captors.
  3. Doctorow indicated that he wasn’t taking a firm stand on this by making Marcus partially repent, but this raises interesting questions on  the exact nature of “civil disobedience“.  Is it still disobedience when you’re not just disobeying the laws, but making sure that other people are caught for it? Marcus and his friends start their more aggressive activities when they decide to “jam” people, by making it look as if they had been places/done things they hadn’t done, by scrambling their “arphids” (RFIDS, or radio frequency identification tags, one of the many surveillance devices used in the book that are available on store-shelves today).
  4. I acknowledge that this story is set a little into the future, but I still find it completely bewildering that there are no adult voices of dissent till the very end,  when evidence of actual torture comes to light. How is it that they simply do not care about the very obvious gradual theft of their civil liberties?

There’s more, but I’m too full, too tired and too pissed off that I can’t download the full driver for the wifi on my laptop before the connection resets to continue. I’ll leave you with Dan Gillmor’s comments:

“Little Brother” sounds an optimistic warning. It extrapolates from current events to remind us of the ever-growing threats to liberty. But it also notes that liberty ultimately resides in our individual attitudes and actions. In our increasingly authoritarian world, I especially hope that teenagers and young adults will read it — and then persuade their peers, parents and teachers to follow suit.

Go here for my review of Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  I would normally direct you to the wikipedia entry for Little Brother, but it has far less than what I’ve written here, incomplete as it is.  Go to or if you want to know more, they have a lot more info, quotes and so on. Happy reading!


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