I am a big fan of Doctorow’s work, giving someone a copy of his science fiction novel Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom is one of the best ways of explaining social media at a level that allows them to really get it in a way that is much more powerful than The Cluetrain Manifesto or Robert Scoble’s Naked Conversations.
Doctorow’s Little Brother does for privacy for what Down and Out did for social media. Doctorow’s interpretation of privacy is the libertarian view that people like the EFF and early netizens take. This mirrors the admirable idealism of third US president Thomas Jefferson. Widespread CCTV cameras don’t necessarily solve crimes, instead they increase the sales of Reebok baseball caps, sunglasses and mock Burberry scarves to defeat facial recognition. The increase of violent crime in the UK is a testament to that fact. Airport checks have more of a nuisance value as terrorist attacks are only a very small amount of total air travel – round about the same level of chance as winning the lottery.
The book is an expression of Doctorow’s fear that we are sleepwalking into an Orwellian society. Whilst I am sympathetic to the view that Doctorow has, I am not convinced by the polarised nature of his position. Terrorism is a low probability act for the average consumer, but it sears itself on to a society’s consciousness a la the July 7 public transport attacks in London. Intelligently thought through security precautions are a deterent to terrorism, but not all responses are intelligently thought through. Voices like Doctorow are important as a constant check and balance in the system of security versus individual freedoms even if I don’t agree with is viewpoint.
Whilst Doctorow envisaged that the book would inspire a new generation of privacy libertarians in an age when young people put their lives on display in social media, I think that it will have a second (possibly unintended consequence), as a rallying cry for young people to experiment and develop their talent in hacking (like Matthew Broderick’s character in War Games did for the teenage geeks of the mid 1980s). And maybe that will be its long-term legacy – a future generation of technologists and black-hat hackers.
Politics apart, Little Brother is a nicely placed thriller and I would recommend it for young and older readers alike.