Monday, May 04, 2009

Little Brother

I've been reading Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother" as an e-book via the Stanza reader on my iPod Touch. This isn't the first Doctorow book I've read; I started with his "I, Rowboat", thinking it was a comedy (it wasn't, not quite). I actually started reading "Little Brother" because of its reference in a Wired story, "Little Brother Is Watching You", posted back on April 9th. This is the story of Ian Tomlinson, who died from a heart attack after being manhandled and then pushed to the ground by London police. What struck me was that Mr. Tomlinson appeared to be walking alone, hands in pockets, before being overwhelmed by a group of police. There's no clear sound to indicate what might have passed between Mr. Tomlinson and the police, but the video clear indicates (at least to me) that Mr. Tomlinson was in no way aggressive, while the police, with their police dogs and body language, were all about aggression and challenge. And when the police deliberately collided with Mr. Tomlinson, Mr. Tomlinson suffered the consequences.

Little Brother is a cautionary tale of what happens in the near future, in the aftermath of another terrorist attach on American soil, this time in San Francisco. In this hypethetical attack terrorists  blow up the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel running under the Bay. Marcus Yallow, the central character, is a high school student out with three friends on a lark when the attack occurs. They quickly find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, leading to their illegal seizure as enemy combatants by elements of the Department of Homeland Security. Marcus is held for six days before being released with two of his three friends. The rest of the story is an electrifying and disturbing tale of how Marcus and many others fight against this future DHS and its attempts to turn San Francisco into a police state, all in the name of Fighting Terrorism.

Each chapter of Little Brother can be considered an individual story in and of itself. In particular are the chapters devoted to how the main characters (high school student Marcus Yallow and his friends) were captured and incarcerated and how the main character and his friends were treated while incarcerated. You can approach the character's predicament either directly (how would you feel being incarcerated and questioned the way they were), or as a parent (how would you feel if you found out if it were your children who were incarcerated and questioned the way they were). When you read these chapters you tend to think Doctorow is exaggerating for the sake of selling a story. Until you remember all the real-life stories about Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. A current story concerns how the Bush administration twisted science to justify CIA interrogation "techniques". In story on Wired titled "Sleep Scientists: Research Twisted to Justify Torture", a number of the scientists quoted by Bush Administration lawyers reacted with anger and horror over how their sleep research was twisted and misinterpreted. Again, imagine such twisted techniques being applied to you or a loved one, such as your son or daughter.

Other chapters in "Little Brother" detailed Marcus' run-ins for what passes for an educational system; a horrible witches brew of pervasive surveillance, general parent apathy, and administrative stupidity that reduces high school to little more than a hell-on-earth for too many bright kids. I experienced a touch of this when I was in high school nearly 40 years ago (without the serveillance) in DeKalb County, Georgia, and I watched my own daughters (and many of their peers) experience a "less-than-ideal" high school education in Orange County, Florida. The foundations for the grim educational Gitmo Doctorow paints has been building for decades.

Unfortunately that unique intellectual poison isn't limited to just high school. In mid-April the EFF reported out of Boston Mass about a "Computer Science Student Targeted for Criminal Investigation for Allegedly Sending Email." In this unbelievable but true story, a Boston College computer science student, accused of sending email to a mailing list, had his equipment seized during a police fishing expedition because he dared, among other things, to use an operating system different form the "regular B.C. operating system". Yes, it appears that suspicions were arroused because he used a CLI-based OS to control his computer, most probably Linux. You really have to read this story to believe it, because you just can't make this stuff up, not even if you're Cory Doctorow. Remember, this is the same Boston that went ballistic over the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guerrilla marketing campaign in 2007; they thought [sic] they were dealing with improvised explosive devices.

As I get older my view of the world grows darker. My cynicism grows deeper, especially about politics. I thought we could repair the damages, both domestic and foreign, of the Bush administration. That's why I voted for Barack Obama. But as the Obama administration steadily unfolds I see disturbing trends where the Obama administration is clinging to a number of Bush administration beliefs, especially at the Department of Justice. If we don't make a clean and honest break with the past, then I fear that if there is indeed another terrorist attach that we may see life imitate "Little Brother". And it may not turn out as happily as Doctorow envisions.

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