Book #39: Little Brother (2008)

Little-Brotherauthor: Cory Doctorow
length: 384 pages
language: English
finished on: 12 August 2013

This was, from my impression, the flagship book of the Humble Ebook Bundle. It was written by Cory Doctorow, well known for being an activist/advocate of open source software and very much pro-privacy/civil liberties. It’s about a hacker kid in San Francisco who gets taken away and tortured by the government after he is in the wrong place at the wrong time when one of the big bridges is destroyed in a terrorist attack. Basically the book is a primer on current privacy and civil liberties issues.

I was surprised to find out it was written in 2008, to be honest, because not a lot has changed since then – except it’s now been confirmed that the NSA in America is already doing a lot of the surveillance described in the book. Not a lot else has changed, though. Some of the technology mentioned is perhaps out of date – in the story (which isn’t itself dated and seems to happen slightly in the future) the next Xbox has come out and it obviously has a different name from the real successor, but Microsoft does something I can’t believe they would do in the real world and gave the console away for free, expecting to make all the money on games. It’s more of a plot point so that every kid in the city has access to one of the consoles, to be honest; the story uses them so that the main character can develop a private unmonitored network.

The writing is very compelling. I read more than half the book in one sitting (although this was partly because I was on a long train journey and therefore had a lot of time to do so). I read the whole thing in only three days, leaving me to suffer from the existential angst of finishing a book or TV series too quickly and wondering what to do next.

The main character is fairly believable as a teenage character: petulent and obsessive, and oblivious to many of the people around him. If we take the book as his words directly, I suppose it can excuse the very dry expository passages put in about various technological plot points – although it’s clear to me that Doctorow just wants an excuse to bang on about programming and cryptography. Speaking of which, even after reading said dry expository passage about cryptography, which is meant to explain the theory of public and private keys, which I kind of get, I still don’t understand what “signing someone’s public key” means – either I missed the sentence with that explanation in it, or Doctorow just managed to explain everything else about this kind of cryptography except for what “signing” means. And I still don’t know how to use it myself. Is it a program? Is it separate from other programs or is it integrated? It wasn’t the only piece of unexplained jargon that cropped up, too: for instance, it was the first time I’ve seen the word arphid, although I guess from context it’s the little chips that you get in travel cards that can be scanned from afar, apparently made mandatory in the book’s San Francisco for both road and rail travellers so that the government can use them to track people and randomly search those whose travel patterns are unusual. I use those every day. Perhaps I should be worried that the Japanese government – or Japan Railways – is spying on me?

My other main problem with the book was that Doctorow really goes for the polemic aspects, although I guess I should expect that from what I know of him, and most of those parts kind of washed over me (I mean I basically agree with it, so it’s not like I was sitting there getting angry at the book, I just find those parts tedious). Plus a lot of the plot was predictable, even if the writing was good and individual chapters often would leave off with no clue what would happen next. I just had a general feeling about what would happen by the end which was mostly proved right.

As I mentioned, a lot of the surveillance issues discussed in said polemic style are actually known to be happening right now, which left me thinking it had been written in response to the NSA leaks, and indicates that even without the terrorist attack of the book to provoke the hyperreal levels of surveillance in the book, it’s still stuff people should read and get worried about. It’s not the best book to read, I think, but the writing style is easy and compelling and the subject matter was relatively interesting. I perhaps wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not interested in the subject matter already, although the book does take pains to include those who don’t know that much about computers.

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