Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
I wrote Little Brother in a white-hot fury between May 7, 2007 and July 2, 2007: exactly eight weeks from the day I thought it up to the day I finished it (Alice, to whom this book is dedicated, had to put up with me clacking out the final chapter at 5AM in our hotel in Rome, where we were celebrating our anniversary). I’d always dreamed of having a book just materialize, fully formed, and come pouring out of my fingertips, no sweat and fuss – but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d thought it would be. There were days when I wrote 10,000 words, hunching over my keyboard in airports, on subways, in taxis – anywhere I could type. The book was trying to get out of my head, no matter what, and I missed so much sleep and so many meals that friends started to ask if I was unwell.
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 de-humanization of society. University students were reduced to numbers on a punchcard, each bearing the legend “DO NOT BEND, SPINDLE, FOLD OR MUTILATE,” prompting some of the students to wear pins that said, “I AM A STUDENT: DO NOT BEND, SPINDLE, FOLD OR MUTILATE ME.” 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 (I still remember the first time I switched from mailing out a newsletter with hand-written addresses to using a database with mail-merge). In the Soviet Union, communications tools were being used to bring information – and revolution – to the farthest-flung corners of the largest authoritarian state the Earth had ever seen.
But 17 years later, things are very different. The computers I love are being co-opted, 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 “no-fly” 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 four-year-olds 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. The authoritarian nightmare of the 1960s has come home for them. The seductive little boxes on their desks and in their pockets watch their every move, corral them in, systematically depriving them of those new freedoms I had enjoyed and made such good use of in my young adulthood.