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A Manual for Digital Revolt

The rebel hero of 'Little Brother' is a teen hacker. Naturally, you can download it for free.

By Peter Tupper 27 Aug 2008 |

Peter Tupper is a Vancouver writer. Read his other articles for The Tyee here.

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Is Cory Doctorow Orwell 2.0?
  • Little Brother
  • Cory Doctorow
  • Tor Books (2008)

Several years ago, during the build up to the Iraq war, I took part in a peace demonstration outside the U.S. consulate in Vancouver on downtown Pender Street. I remember looking up at the tinted windows of the U.S. diplomatic outpost and wondering if, on a Sunday afternoon, anybody was even in there, or if there were, did they care we were out there with our signs and leaflets and joined hands? Or had the Powers That Be decreed that street protests, no matter how large, could be safely ignored, the way a new influenza virus laughs off last year's inoculation?

If you've paid any attention over the last seven or eight years, you don't need to be conspiracy theorist of any political stripe to feel that things are out of control. The litany is familiar: the Patriot Act, no-fly lists, fingerprinting at Disneyland, no water bottles on airplanes, warrant-less wire-tapping, border inspections... Every day, it seems, something comes along to chip away at our rights to privacy and dignity, and resistance is about as fruitful as arguing with a TSA inspector.

The pervasive sense of helplessness leads to one of two extremes: you take it on faith that government agencies are doing what is necessary for security, or you conclude that government is corrupt. Neither option leaves much room for agency or hope.

It's times like this that a statement of optimism, in itself, can be a gutsy move.

Call to arms for a new generation

Toronto-born writer Cory Doctorow -- who says he is probably a distant relative of novelist E.L. Doctorow -- makes such a statement in Little Brother, a young adult novel about San Francisco hacker kids taking on the Department of Homeland Security. Little Brother is Doctorow's first young adult publication, and like most of Doctorow's fiction, the complete text is available for legal free download at

Somewhere between Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the Anarchist's Cookbook, Little Brother is a coming-of-age story, a how-to manual and a call to arms for technically smart, self-reliant Millennial kids to get radicalized and become a movement, opposed to the fear-based politics of the post-9-11 era.

Marcus Yallow, a 17-year-old living in near future San Francisco, has the technical skills and social savvy to easily circumvent the intense surveillance and authoritarianism at his high school (and is actually a bit smug about it). One day, he and his friends skip class to play an Alternate Reality Game just before a terrorist attack destroys the Bay bridge in San Francisco. Marcus and his friends are caught in a Homeland Security sweep and held without due process.

Marcus finds that Homeland Security agents are much tougher opponents than gym teachers and student snitches. Marcus is stuck in a situation where he isn't allowed to negotiate, dealing with people who basically have no rules and operate through force. After six days of threats, deprivation and "stress positions," Marcus finally cracks and signs his rights away. The real turning point of the story is when the Homeland Security agent threatens Marcus and his family with disappearance if he tells anyone what happened to him.

Released from custody, Marcus emerges into a new world of intensive surveillance across San Francisco, which he likens to an occupying army. He immediately swears vengeance on Homeland Security.

Marcus goes straight to direct action, though not by hacking government databases or throwing Molotov cocktails. Instead, he builds an encrypted computer network hidden within a video game system, spreads the tools to spoof personal ID cards, and floods San Francisco with false positives of suspicious activities. (Ghandi did a similar thing of attacking the Transvaal government's means of surveillance by burning registration cards.)

Manual for making trouble

The book contains numerous tips on counter-surveillance techniques and devices, and other DIY projects, all of which Doctorow says are real or could be soon. (One idea, a hyper-secure operating system called Paranoid Linux, is already in development.) There are also mini-essays on cryptography theory, Live Action Role Playing, the 1960s civil rights movement, building your own laptop and more.

The unofficial leader of the youth resistance, Marcus finds himself in an escalating game of move and counter-move with Homeland Security. Along the way, Marcus grows increasingly alienated from his father who supports the new security measures, and his friends who consider his mission too dangerous.

Little Brother is a fairly long book, but instead of sagging in the middle it actually shifts into a more interesting struggle. Marcus' anti-surveillance efforts cause the security presence in San Francisco to increase, and police crack down on an illegal youth concert. He switches tactics, holding a press conference inside a video game. He also gets over his fear and shame and tells his parents, and later a journalist, what really happened to him and his friends in DHS custody, and struggles to acquire evidence about a friend who disappeared while in custody.

This is where the technology of resistance ends and the politics of winning hearts and minds begins; it's a recurring theme in Doctorow's fiction that technology will only get you so far. Arguably, the lasting accomplishments of liberalization in the past century -- the civil rights movement, gay liberation, women's liberation -- were accomplished not by direct action, even of the non-violent variety, but by the slow, tedious grind of the legal and political process.

Little Brother wears its political agenda on its sleeve: if people and especially kids feel they've lost control of their lives, they can take it back, and learning technological skills is one way of doing that. This raises two questions: does it make a credible argument, and does it make a good story?

Another major terrorist attack on American soil is entirely possible, and the intensive surveillance, brutal treatment of prisoners, police actions against demonstrators and other abuses of power in Little Brother are entirely plausible. We know that kids as young as 13 have been held in Guantánamo Bay, and teen prisoners have been subjected to sleep deprivation. To paraphrase Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, which also warned of authoritarian government in America, "It can happen here."

Where's the fire this time?

As for story, Little Brother has some rough edges; Doctorow reportedly wrote it in a kind of creative frenzy. The antagonists are a bit one-dimensional, but the question of why people who aren't monsters do monstrous things is not the topic of this book.

The other flaw with Little Brother is that Marcus is sometimes a little too perfect, and can read more like Doctorow's mouthpiece for youth emancipation than a real teenager who makes mistakes and doesn't know as much as he thinks he does. He's so reasoned and cool about hot-button issues like underage drinking, drug use and sex, that he starts to sound arrogant, as if only the wilfully stupid ever have problems.

The biggest question raised by Little Brother is, given all that has happened in the U.S. and Great Britain in the past seven years, why aren't enough people sufficiently motivated to start something like this?

The closest thing the real world has to Marcus's network is Anonymous, which is at best a thorn in the side of the Church of Scientology, and at worst a loose collection of teenage pranksters and bullies hiding behind a collective nickname. Could Anonymous ever transform into something heroic? We may never know, but Doctorow's book gives us an idea of what this moment's brand of heroism would look like.

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