Without giving too much away (since I recommend reading the book), Little Brother is about what happens to San Francisco after the deadliest terrorist attack in US history: the destruction of the fully laden Bay Bridge. It’s about how the measures and policies implemented by the Department of Homeland Security mix with the culture of San Francisco, and in particular, how one teenage boy reacts to the gradual erosion of his freedom.
Given that synopsis, you might be surprised to hear me describe Little Brother as a fun book, but in many ways, it is. It’s written in first person from the perspective of a very likable kid, and it does a great job of capturing and conveying the culture of one of America’s most diverse and important cities (I used to live close to where the main character went to school). It’s full of action, nerdy references, political allusions, and it even manages to tell an endearing love story.
But in addition to being fun, Little Brother is an important book for young people because it teaches relevant and vital lessons about privacy and security in an age where both are at risk. When you grow up so submerged in technology that you can’t imagine life without it, it’s critical to understand its risks and weaknesses as well as its advantages and strengths.
Little Brother is not suspicious of technology. Cory Doctorow is no technophobe. This book is not about old people warning young people about the dangers of video games and the internet. Quite the opposite, in fact. Little Brother is, in many ways, a celebration of technology, but only when it’s used to work for you rather than against you. Doctorow doesn’t suggest being distrustful of technology, but rather to embrace it to such an extent that you really understand it — that you can control it rather than letting it control you. He even encourages readers to learn to write a little code if they really want to be in control of their machines rather than letting their machines constantly control them.
What I like best about Little Brother is that it asks young readers to question things — even things presented as fact by people we’re not supposed to question like law enforcement, teachers, and parents. There’s nothing more important to the functioning of a democracy than the ability for its citizens to question what they see around them. When citizens stop thinking critically and looking objectively at issues and at messages from the media, democracies have a tendency to devolve into entities that look suspiciously like plutocracies.
This isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. Let’s take a look at some messages most of us encounter on a regular basis:
- Socialized medicine is evil. Is this because our current system is so healthy and comprehensive and works so well that it’s obviously superior to what most of the developed world does, or is it because insurance companies make so much money that they can pay the right people to deliver their messages and use terms like "death panels?"
- The American Dream is to own a home. Is it because there’s something distinctly American about having a mortgage, or is it because mortgage companies want to make sure that young people and immigrants won’t feel fulfilled unless they are burdened by a long-term loan?
- Diamonds are a girl’s best friend (and you should be spending two months salary on an engagement ring). Is this because diamonds are actually precious stones with mystical powers, or because the diamond industry has manufactured scarcity and bombarded consumers with images equating expensive jewelry with love and devotion?
- You should get a credit card and start establishing your credit early in life. Is this really sound financial advice for inexperienced young people, or a system designed to perpetuate debt? (Personally, I’d rather lend money to someone who has never even needed a credit card as opposed to someone who has shown they can keep up with one.)
- Outsourcing keeps America competitive. It probably does in the short term, but that’s not the whole story. What industries save in manufacturing and consumers save at the register, we all end up paying for in exploited labor, impact on the environment, and the loss of domestic manufacturing knowledge and capabilities (which I can almost guarantee we will have to relearn someday).
You get the idea. I could go on and on. The point is that we are all surrounded by policies and messages that aren’t good for us, aren’t the entire truth, and aren’t actually for our own protection, believe it or not. They are designed to benefit those who created them. In a free society, people have that right, but we also have the right to question them, and to vote against them both literally and with our wallets, and even to rebel against them, if necessary. That’s the real story that Little Brother tells.