I almost quit reading Little Brother when I reached the chapter where Marcus is subjected to psychological and physical torture by dubiously constituted Homeland Security authorities. Not because I felt the scenario to be too outlandish, but because I found it painfully believable. This novel touches on very real potentials for violence to individuals and to our civil rights via overzealous government agencies operating under the claim of public safety and patriotism. The narrative reality of the young protagonist Marcus caught up in such a totalitarian nightmare makes my stomach turn. Just like the gorge of indignation I feel at airports when I am forced to undergo repeated searches of my person and my belongings by minimum wage lackeys in uniforms who get their jollies exercising power over helpless travelers. I have fought with TSA (Transportation Security Administration) in airports on both coasts, even to the point of making impassioned speeches in crowded boarding lounges about their trampling on my constitutional civil rights when they conducted “random” searches at the gate (after I and my fellow passengers had already cleared the concourse security checkpoints). And the worst part of the whole ugly affair is that their supposed security is nothing like effective and they know it. I have been an insider in the world of airports and airlines, and I know how easy it is to circumvent the security procedures that passengers must endure. These increasingly odious impositions are not about security, but about control. They accustom American citizens to the demand for “papers, please.” They enforce docility and learned helplessness. They make us all ready targets for exactly the kind of treatment young Marcus endured. Already people have died in the custody of airport authorities, people accused of nothing but failure to be a docile body.
Little Brother also makes plain that the electronic marvels that offer us so much exciting connectivity can easily be turned against us in an inescapable panopticon of surveillance. We become accustomed to the conveniences, but easily forget about the price we pay in loss of control of our own lives and our privacy—until our every movement, purchase, web search, and even conversation is thrown back at us by someone with a badge and an accusation. I am delighted to see this book champion the true hacker ethic of freedom—to empower the generation whose mother’s m1lk came digitized, that they may fight for the freedoms they are losing to the manipulative siren song of security (not to even mention the corporate interests served by ubiquitous data-mining). Stewart Brand once commented that the information wants to be free, but the information is nothing but a reflection of the people who create and use it. When the information about how to control the tools we use is appropriated, confiscated, forbidden, criminalized, we are enslaved along with it. Little Brother is a subversive story and a call to action because the tale it tells is only a little bit fiction.
I think this book should be a great starting point for classroom discussions of technology and its implications for or consequences in the lives of students and society at large. I just hope that teachers do not suffer the fate of Marcus’ instructor when she tried to open up a healthy space for debate.