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Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25

Richard Wilkinson limited edition cover CC BY-SA 2.0

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) bears relevance on our discussions in many ways. The protagonist, 17-year-old hackitivist Marcus Yallow, takes on nothing less than the Department of Homeland Security in a not-so-distant, post-terrorist-attack San Francisco.

Doctorow is a fascinating example of the intersections of literature and the internet. A major proponent of Open Access to all information, he initially published the novel with a Creative Commons Sharealike license and it remains available for free. Just as he makes no mystery of his belief in transparency and privacy, so he openly includes educational passages concerning his causes. The novel includes a number of descriptions that feel akin to documentation of a computer program (of a literary sort). He writes about the excluded parties in order to include his readers in his subversive movement.

Even the introduction to Doctorow’s published version on craphound.com includes a pedagogical instruction in the impetus of his movement. (Forgive the block quote, I’ve cut a bit, but I wanted to show the Internet history that Doctorow traces and how it aligns with the history of his activism):

“When my dad was a young university student in the 1960s, he was one of the few “counterculture” people who thought computers were a good thing. For most young people, computers represented the de­humanization of society. University students were reduced to numbers on a punchcard… Computers were seen as a means to increase the ability of the authorities to regiment people and bend them to their will.

When I was 17, the world seemed like it was just going to get more free. The Berlin Wall was about to come down. Computers ­­ which had been geeky and weird a few years before ­­ were everywhere, and the modem I’d used to connect to local bulletin board systems was now connecting me to the entire world through the Internet and commercial online services like GEnie. My lifelong fascination with activist causes went into overdrive as I saw how the main difficulty in activism ­­ organizing ­­ was getting easier by leaps and bounds …

But 17 years later, things are very different. The computers I love are being co­opted, used to spy on us, control us, snitch on us. The National Security Agency has illegally wiretapped the entire USA and gotten away with it. Car rental companies and mass transit and traffic authorities are watching where we go, sending us automated tickets, finking us out to busybodies, cops and bad guys who gain illicit access to their databases. The Transport Security Administration maintains a “no­fly” list of people who’d never been convicted of any crime, but who are nevertheless considered too dangerous to fly. The list’s contents are secret. The rule that makes it enforceable is secret. The criteria for being added to the list are secret. It has four­year­olds on it. And US senators. And decorated veterans ­­ actual war heroes.

The 17 year olds I know understand to a nicety just how dangerous a computer can be.

(Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is distributed under a CC A-NC-SA 3.0 license)

It is not surprising that Doctorow wrote the novel in the early part of 2007 and that the novel (which came out in 2008) ends with a political campaign. Yet he does write to an audience not yet eligible to vote, those who seek work-arounds and networks to feel less disenfranchised. Doctorow illustrates the transmissions of information and power that happen in internet interactions in a way that is engaging and persuasive.

Doctorow uses the narration to involve the reader in the workings of the internet. As Marcus describes setting up a new internet, his Xnet, he illuminates some of the darker workings of the system. It almost feels like a how-to manual. He gives you the sense that you, too, could do this. At the end of chapter 7, he offers a call to code. “If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do…It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.” He gives inspiration and incentive. “Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work ­; if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.”

Doctorow’s mission is manifold and the book’s critical and popular reception speaks to his agility: he sheds light on the spirit of his movement and invites readers to get involved.

My primary provocation is one about age:

How do we take the novel’s activist mantra “Trust No One Over 25”? One concern with the revolution made possible by internet technologies is that they upset the balance of structures of  education. Doctorow seems to use his novel to instruct his readers on the historical imperatives they might otherwise ignore. But what does it do to the progress of ideas and education (that tried-and-true top-down hegemony) that younger and younger generations gain computer literacy that outpaces their forebears? How do power structures shift? And how does this impact structures of government?

I recommend finishing the book if you haven’t!

Interesting notes beyond the assigned chapters —

The two afterwords continue the mission to open and educate young people in the areas of Doctorow’s activism. The essay regarding security by Bruce Schneier almost seems like a sales pitch for a fun and exciting career in security, and Andrew “bunnie” Huang‘s essay about hacking the xbox while pursuing his PhD at MIT is an endorsement of creative destruction and reassembly. In the context of a Y.A. novel, a genre perhaps more steeped in the tradition of overt instruction, these articles bolster Doctorow’s mission to increase transparency and accessibility. He does not keep his tech philosophies secret, but makes them accessible in the most appealing ways possible. He appeals to the desire to abolish oppression that is often felt most keenly in teen years.

citation: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is distributed under a CC A-NC-SA 3.0 license

7 thoughts on “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25

  1. tperson

    I want to respond to Jojo’s provocation about age. (Loved the question by the way)
    “But what does it do to the progress of ideas and education (that tried-and-true top-down hegemony) that younger and younger generations gain computer literacy that outpaces their forebears? How do power structures shift? And how does this impact structures of government?” Perhaps as educators or those of us who contemplate how to morph and shift the existing structures of society, we must now think about information sharing and co-created spaces of teaching( something I have been contemplating quite a bit lately. With so much information at the finger tips of young people, teens especially, schools may very well and should become places of active resistance to the “top-down hegemony” of teaching. The internet gives students access to information as never before. Technology gives them the means to enact that information.

    I had never heard of this text before and I too wish that I had before I left the classroom. I think of all of the PAR and PBL projects that teachers are creating with students that allow them to take teaching in some exciting directions. I think the internet is fertile ground for teenagers to learn to use it to say what they need to say in more positive ways. This would be a great alternative to some of the destructive ways that the media focuses on currently.

  2. Anna Alexis Larsson

    Sara writes:

    Were I to write this book today, I’d position Marcus in a dystopian world against a mega-conglomerate. That plot could write itself — these companies surveil us just as much as the DHS did in the book — with our voluntary participation in fact! Since the Citizen’s United court decisions, these companies have even more recourse to influence politics, and use their platforms to collect even more data about us.

    About that: I’d be curious to know how a plot about surveillance by mega-conglomerates would account for the physical vulnerability (to imprisonment, to detainment, to police violence in general, to secret police-style snitch bullying) that attends surveillance in this novel. I was struck by how frequently Doctorow has Marcus mention the historical-political origins of the software he uses to get around firewalls and surveillance online. This serves to compare Marcus’s experience of post-9/11 US national security with that of citizens in Syria and China, two bogey-nations offered as totalitarian Others in opposition to US-style democracy in public discourse. The irony of deploying code written for citizens of repressive regimes abroad in response to government measures at home is foregrounded in this comparison and in Marcus’s debate on civil liberties, in Chapter 13, in his social studies class.

    Without losing his YA appeal, Doctorow brings attention to the silent, unsaid, unseen, and misinterpreted that attend repression of dissent. Mention of people just disappearing, Marcus’s pressure to declare that his detention was “voluntary,” the contradiction of “voluntary” and “detention” hanging in the air as witness to the erosion of meaning itself in a social world in which fear and crisis are strategies of governance. It’s hard not to think of some of my friends and acquaintances from Tibet who have shared stories of escape, of inexplicable prison deaths, of rumors, and of the importance of the mobile app WeChat in enabling people to communicate with family members left behind who might otherwise be imprisoned or disappeared to punish them for having left. The public narrative of American exception that predominates would, of course, claim that “we” are not like “them,” that such a level of state violence marks that country as non-US, but I think that’s what Doctorow wants to call into question by drawing up a subjective, day-by-day experience of the gradual erosion of personal freedoms and rule of law. He was smart to flesh it out in a teenager’s life, because the materiality of these technologies-the regulation of his movement, the alliances that form, even his experience of his body (posture, gait)–are perhaps most apparent in someone of his subject position.

    It isn’t only, as Jojo suggests, that teens feel the desire to resist oppression the most. Teenagers inhabit the grey area between a rights-based citizen and a ward granted only probational personhood. Teenagers have long been considered a real or potential threat to public safety (Bateson was commissioned in 1949 to report on the threat of young people in the US), and it’s worth asking “whose public safety?” Lastly (for now), teenagers are likely to see security and surveillance escalate with the least convincing or opaque euphemisms, and with the most ambivalence in their designated advocates–parents susceptible to public pressures to (show they want to) keep them “safe” by further eroding their liberties.

    1. Lisa Brundage

      If you haven’t read the series before, I would highly recommend Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, in which the country is run by mega-conglomerates who employ their own private police force, the CorpSeCorps.

  3. Jojo Karlin Post author

    Thanks for the great comments, all.
    Teresa– I agree that the content has a lot of interest for 25+ crowd — I’ve recommended it to at least three of my friends this week (some for their interest in coding, some for their interest in security measures, another because she writes YA fiction). I guess I wonder if, from an education standpoint, there is anything to the notion that our brains are more flexible under 25 and therefore more suited to the sort of outside the system thinking that Doctorow wishes to instigate.
    Sara– I really appreciate the image of the unphotogenic abuses of a closed internet. Your comment largely makes me wonder how you can implement change or set common parameters in systems closed or open — Steve Jones (his book actually just came out last year) notes the far-flung subsidiaries of digital humanities. When working with the academy, which is ostensibly about concretizing and reinforcing what constitutes knowledge precisely by aligning students in fields of study, how do we as students and educators determine what is most important and whose leadership to follow. The question of whose opinion gets top billing comes up often in Little Brother.
    Robert — I am so curious which passages irked you. Doctorow has the advantage of genre to write didactically which has its advantages and disadvantages. I think you’re right about the combo bad guy model, corporation and institution, and I think this points to a difficulty of fighting networks within networks. The dispersal of good and the dispersal of evil make for complicated wars and complicated story-telling. It’s far easier to fight a discrete entity than to fight a diaspora. The fact that Doctorow does not resolve the question of who bombed the Bay Bridge is noteworthy. Do the disparate parts of a system only swarm in reaction to abuses by visible sources?

  4. Robert Robinson

    Gosh, I wish I knew about this novel when I was still teaching!…

    Thanks to all of you for this in-depth analysis. First, I think Doctorow is brilliant; I appreciate his weaving of adolescent voice and the spirit of youthful, countercultural activism. I was intrigued by the Yippy, low-tech hacking of the pentagon, the strategic use multi-ethnic characters situated within SF (even though some of the descriptive language rubbed me the wrong way), and this constant question of security. In my annotations, I frequently found myself paying close attention to notions of terror and terrorism and this consistent need for everyone to point the finger. And while we see Marcus as the protagonist, it seems as though Doctorow is calling everyone into question for “terrorist” activity at one level or another. This dynamic existence on a moral continuum adds to the richness of the text.

    Anyway, back to the question of 25…I thought it was SMART, especially when we consider that in 2007 and 2008, kids are really engaged in MySpace–and Facebook is slowly gaining momentum. The public voice of adolescents is beginning to have more merit in digital spaces. This conversation of youth agency is an important one, seeing as though the adults in the text continually perpetuate a system of fear. At one point, I was reminded of this pretend interview at the end of Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album. He asks Tupac about the window of time before young men “lay it all down” in the struggle against injustice, and Tupac (keep in mind this is a clip from a real Tupac interview over two decades ago) answers that the teen and early adult years are crucial because the U.S. essentially takes the “fight” from “a man” by the time he is 30. Of course, I have some disagreements, but I definitely see the point. It seems like our U.S. depiction of the teenager is one of inevitable defiance, and I think both Tupac and Doctorow are appealing to this part of the teenage psyche. I agree with Teresa: there is something to the reality that the tools of our time place greater assets into the hands of the youth, and on a serious level, this text serves as a call to action on multiple fronts. He wants teens to know their rights, protect them, and teach the adults how to respect them…but like Sara, I think the specific authorized criminals that Doctorow would hint at today might be a combo of these corporate forces AND the DHS. I also share Sara’s question: What does the revolution look like when our most common space of resistance is controlled by the very powers we need to resist?

  5. Sara Vogel

    I am going to take Teresa’s provocation about the “people’s capitalism” vs. control of the internet in the hands of the few from the other article, but apply it mostly to Little Brother, hence responding here.

    All of the texts that we read this week examine the tension between the internet as open space, and internet as closed space. While the Cold War-era military might have pumped millions of dollars into the creation of decentralized networks to ensure communication in the event of a nuclear disaster, we also have the stories of those “Netizens” who figured out what the internet was ‘really’ for and popularized it. There’s the plucky, counter-cultural spirit (which Jones said was inherited by Digital Humanists, and which we see embodied by Marcus and his friends on Xnet) in contrast to the DoD and the dystopian (but not far-fetched) DHS in Little Brother. The Jones piece mentions how capitalism relates to this dynamic– the tech libertarians on the one hand, who see the internet as a space for the free market to nurture small businesses, and the large telecom and ISP corporations consolidating power on the other hand.

    I would argue that oligopoly, an emerging trend during the time Jones was writing (1998) is far more established today. Google is at 66% marketshare on Desktop searches (https://www.netmarketshare.com/search-engine-market-share.aspx?qprid=4&qpcustomd=0). This opinion piece / news analysis (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/is-big-tech-too-powerful-ask-google.html) has a lot of gems in it too:

    “While in 2001, the top 10 websites accounted for 31 percent of all page views in America, by 2010 the top 10 accounted for 75 percent. Google and Facebook are now the first stops for many Americans seeking news — while Internet traffic to much of the nation’s newspapers, network television and other news gathering agencies has fallen well below 50 percent of all traffic. Meanwhile, Amazon is now the first stop for almost a third of all American consumers seeking to buy anything. Talk about power.”

    Corporations weren’t really mentioned as players in Little Brother, which surprises me. The ‘Big Bad’ in the novel was the DHS, a government agency portrayed as incompetent, overzealous, corrupt, and running roughshod over the Bill of Rights. Written in the post-9/11 George Bush America of anthrax scares and the Patriot Act, I understand why the good / evil split was established along these lines.

    Were I to write this book today, I’d position Marcus in a dystopian world against a mega-conglomerate. That plot could write itself — these companies surveil us just as much as the DHS did in the book — with our voluntary participation in fact! Since the Citizen’s United court decisions, these companies have even more recourse to influence politics, and use their platforms to collect even more data about us.

    But I would also argue it is far harder to find or establish a potent Xnet against such powers. There are of course pockets of like-minded individuals who use Linux and Firefox and who make their own laptops and such, but if these groups aren’t bought up and neutralized, they are too far down the “long tail” to matter, and have far fewer lobbyists. I guess an exception to that is when Wikipedia shut down for a day… but still, the abuses associated with a closed internet are also not photogenic and emotional in the same way that video evidence of DHS cops frisking a military general would be. Outside of the fictional world of the book, we use social media to mobilize for social justice, as we’ve seen with the Black Lives Matters movement and others. But when the enemy is not the government, when the fight is against the corporations that make up the very architecture of the internet, mobilizing outside of their platforms is a HARD feat indeed.

  6. Teresa Ober

    The provocation reminds of something a little irrelevant, so please forgive my digression from the topic. The other day I overhead a person lamenting the apparent inability (but more likely reluctance) of individuals in younger generations to check their voice messages. It was a comment that struck me somewhat humorous at the time because its sentiment that I can relate to, if not only in part because it seems at times inefficient and we become so used to more immediate forms of asynchronous communication, that it becomes a secondary preference, if that all. If such preferences were always true, then younger generations would have a serious problem communicating with older generations. Phone etiquette aside, it is sometimes the responsibility of younger individuals to show to their older counterparts new knowledge and skills, and in so doing, how to break from what is perceived as reason but may actually just be habit. In “Little Brother,” this generational incompatibility is revealed in a much more serious way. The protagonist, Marcus Yallow, defiantly skips school one day to play video games with friends, but finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy. Perhaps that the book ends unconventionally with two afterwords, one of which addresses reverse engineering is quite meaningful. That Marcus leaves an institution, is pursued by an institution, and finally destroys an institution, leaves one wondering whether he will one day be responsible for recreating a better one. In this story, youth is used as a metaphor for rebellion against oppressive power structures, and though it may be marketed as story for young adults, I think the story content and plot could be just as powerful for the 25+ crowd.

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