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Little Brother’s big journey

Cory Doctorow's new book is a wonderful account of how high technology can do an end run around the basic freedoms we enjoy.


November 1, 2008  


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This time of year, technology magazines often propose gadgets and gizmos for the geek in your life. I am going to suggest you avoid them this year (just think of the batteries you will save) and head for your nearest bricks-and-mortar or online bookstore for a copy of “Little Brother” by Canadian novelist and technology thinker Cory Doctorow.

In addition to buying a copy for your own pleasure, pick up one for every teenager you know. (You can also download the entire book for free at the author’s Web site, but how about supporting the guy for his work and buying a hard copy or two anyway?)

So what is the deal? Doctorow, at one time the European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a big believer in the positive power of computing and networking technology, but he also has real concerns about the potential for technology to be misused.

He presents the issues in a way that everyone can understand in “Little Brother,” the story of a 17-year-old named Marcus who lives in San Francisco and runs afoul of the Department of Homemade (sorry, HomeLAND) Security.

Marcus is bagged for being in the wrong place at the wrong time following a terrorist attack. He and his friends are spirited away to a hidden prison, interrogated and then released into a city that has become a police state almost overnight.

Outraged at what he sees, he decides to fight to restore the balance between freedom and security.

“Little Brother” is an entertaining read and a celebration of geek culture.

But it is more than that — it is a wonderful, accessible account of some of the ways in which our technology, corrupted in the name of security, can do an end run around the basic freedoms that we enjoy in democratic society.

Doctorow’s characters are a blend of “geek” and “cool” that many of us wished for when we were in high school, and as the story unfolds the teens tackle gait-recognition cameras, radio frequency ID tags (which the teens in the story call “arphids”, a term I think should enter the tech-space lexicon), wireless Internet tracers and other surveillance technologies.

In his acknowledgements, Doctorow cites as one of his inspirations “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson.

If you have not come across this one it too is a must-read, if only so that you appreciate just how exciting cryptography can be when treated by a master storyteller.

Cryptography is at the heart of networks, including digital wireless phone and data systems (which makes it relevant to this column), and Stephenson weaves a wonderful tale that links the cracking of the Nazi Enigma code of the Second World War to the creation of data havens in today’s world, where information can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny.

Technology is of great benefit to society, especially if it is the kind that follows you everywhere and delivers information to your pocket.

The best thinkers would never suggest that we do without the mobile Internet, arphids and the other goodies that the tech sector churns out, but it up to all of us to ensure that we understand the potential for these to encroach on our privacy and freedoms.

If you do not think about these issues every time you fill out an online form, join a network, walk through an arphid tag reader at a store or spot a security camera … it is time to start.

Doctorow says the book is “meant to be a part of the conversation about what an information society means: does it mean total control, or unheard-of liberty?”

It is definitely a conversation that all of us need to have on a regular basis, and one that younger people need to join since the technology that we’re creating is going to shape the world they inherit. Happy reading.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile, but not when he’s reading) at 416 878-7730 or trevor@wordstm.com.

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Marcus is bagged for being in the wrong place at the wrong time following a terrorist attack. He and his friends are spirited away to a hidden prison, interrogated and then released into a city that has become a police state almost overnight.