Debugging the System: Little Brother

When Reality and Fantasy are Blurred:
Can Little Brother become Big Brother?

Cory Doctorow. Little Brother. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2008.

Taking a world where an Orwellian government is watching citizens every move, Little Brother follows Marcus Yallow (aka w1n5t0n or Winston) as he tries to take down a corrupt Department of Homeland Security. Set in modern-day San Francisco, Little Brother provides a harrowing look into the not-so-distant future.

After a terrorist attack destroys the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, killing thousands, Marcus and his friends are arrested by the DHS for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wrongly accused of committing an act of terrorism, Marcus is subject to intense torture and interrogation at the hands of his own government.

After days of interrogation, he is released into a city that is overrun with security checkpoints, video surveillance, and police ready to arrest any citizen who is acting out of the norm. Freedoms he knew before the attack have been replaced to ensure that another attack will not happen. Credit and debit card transactions are monitored. FasTrack scanners watch where people travel. Gait-recognition cameras track citizens every move. For fear of returning to prison - and perhaps even death - Marcus cannot tell anyone what happened to him after the attack.

Marcus is continually faced with difficult ethical decisions as he tries to fight back and take the DHS down himself. He must decide what is right - not only for himself, but also for the thousands who follow his every word across the XNet. What is the price of freedom? Is Marcus willing to risk everything in his life to fight for what he believes in? And can one kid take down a corrupt DHS? As the world he knows is falling apart around him, Marcus knows he has to try.

Doctorow's novel propels its readers into a dystopia along the lines of 1984 or Brave New World. Indeed, in the real world since 9/11, wiretapped terrorists, increased airport security, and tightened immigration policies have caused concerns about the United States slipping into a Big Brother state while its citizens sleep. However, Doctorow's leftist ideology permeates his tale to such an extent that teachers and their students might benefit from a careful review of the story's ideological stereotypes. In the “Recommendations for Teachers” section of this wiki, we will address methods that teachers can employ to help their students decode Doctorow’s biases in the interest of increasing students’ critical thinking skills, giving them practice at discerning politically charged text, and nurturing an awareness about the democratic society they live in, in which, as Marcus puts it, "dissent is welcome" (211).

Another way that Doctorow expresses a liberal stance in his novel is by favoring the freedom of the individual over the flawed decisions of the government. One tenet of liberalism is that the focal point of human struggle is the government and its institutions, not the responsibilities of the individual. In Little Brother, the protagonists, innocent individuals, are free-thinking people, victims of fascist organizations, who are willing to take a stand against the "system." Any personal faults such as lying, cheating, and stealing are trivialized, rationalized or excused, and even the acts of individual terrorists are hardly discussed. In fact, the attack that set off the government's overreaction near the beginning of the story is given only a few pages of mention. The only exception to Doctorow’s corrupt portrait of government occurs at the story's conclusion, where the new, good government has wrested the reigns from the bad government.

The reader must dig deep to find any character of conservative values who is cast in a positive light in the novel. Marcus's father comes closest with his initial sympathy for the DHS, hoping that the group would apprehend the terrorists who killed 4,000 Californians in the Bay Bridge bombing, whom he believed were also responsible for his son's death. However, Marcus’s father is the exception rather than the rule, and is eventually shown to have been wrong in his opinion of the government. There is, however, a flaw in Doctorow’s anti-conservatism plot. A huge totalitarian government could only take place with an equally huge budget, and contemporary conservatism, at least in theory, is opposed to the idea of big government. In spite of this, the radical ideals of Doctorow’s novel may be enticing to young readers, painting a dramatic picture of authority’s oppression of the individual. Therefore it is important for teachers, as the authority figure of the classroom, to handle this book carefully. Teachers should not only strive to leave personal biases at the classroom door, but also to help students develop their own abilities in order to expose hidden biases within the text.

Recommendations for Teachers
Little Brother would lend itself well to analysis through the socio-cultural lens of an opposing viewpoint: conservatism. Throughout this analysis, a number of pedagogical applications can be used to help develop a student's critical eye, as well as his or her ability to discern fairness in an argument.One such application might be an open discussion about the comfortable ambiguity between fantasy and reality, generally a liberal notion. After the excitement of the action-packed thriller novel simmers down, some disquieting questions emerge for the reader. Consider the statements that occur after the novel has finished, in the here-and-now Afterward section: "Hackers are explorers, digital pioneers," Doctorow writes. "The world is full of security systems. Hack one of them."

Teachers can facilitate social questioning of these statements with prompts such as:
*Does the novel make a distinction between fighting against a fictional, runaway government and engaging in illegal activities that directly, negatively impact other people?
*How would you feel if someone hacked into your bank account, stole your identity, or smuggled a gun onto your airplane, for the sake of fighting the system?
*Creative freedoms are mandated under the Bill of Rights. Does the author’s view of
what a person should and should not have access to go too far? How do the author’s views affect your opinion of the story?

In another application, teachers could draw comparisons between the circumstances in the novel and current events in the United States, such as the legislation proposed by the 112th Congress regarding censorship of the internet. Discussing legislation such as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act of 2011), perhaps in the form of a class debate, would be a fruitful way to get students thinking critically about both Doctorow's world, as well as the world they live in.One aspect to keep in mind when teaching Little Brother is that students who are currently in middle and high school have been raised primarily in a post-9/11 America. The increases in airports security, the looming threat of terrorism, and the new methods of censorship may not seem strange to your students, whereas the measures taken in Doctorow's America and in present day America may seem quite shocking to you (the teacher), having known what America was like before the 9/11 tragedy. Having your students engage in a conversation about how far the government can and should go in order to protect its citizens will provide your students with real-world examples to help them contextualize the novel. Discussions about Internet censorship can also help your students to become more familiar with the current events that will undoubtedly have an impact on their everyday lives. Since adolescents are accustomed to having easy access to information, as well as sharing information with others around the world faster than you can blink an eye, the prospect of online censorship can become a hot topic in the classroom. Discussing Little Brother is a great way for you to draw those important parallels between what students are reading and what they are experiencing in the world they live in.

Finally, when making lesson plans, remember your audience. Many middle to high school students may have limited knowledge of politics and current events. Each classroom will have a varied collection of ZPDs. It is the teacher’s job to cater to every student’s learning needs as best as possible. Take care how you handle controversial issues, and be a vigilant facilitator of classroom discussions, ensuring that they remain mature and non-aggressive.

About Cory Doctorow
cory_doctorow.jpgCory Doctorow was born in 1971 in Toronto, Canada. Currently, Doctorow resides in London. A blogger, journalist, and science-fiction author, Doctorow's works focus on the digital age and promoting free use for everyone. He believes that copyright laws should allow all digital media to be shared free of charge. He also believes that copyright laws should only charge people when they attempt to sell someone else's copyrighted product for a profit. His channels his stance on this issue into his writings.

Doctorow has written seven science fiction novels, all available for free online under a Creative Commons license. He has also written many short stories and pieces of non-fiction, including the book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction. Doctorow has won multiple awards for his writing, including the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2000.

Doctorow is the co-editor of the blog Boing Boing, a contributor to Wired magazine, the Boston Globe, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and the Globe and Mail. His next science fiction novel, Pirate Cinema will be released in May 2012. Like his previous novels, it will be available for free under a Creative Commons license.

An Interview by Doctorow
In this video clip, Doctorow discusses the plot of Little Brother, and briefly discusses his reasons for writing the book. He interviews two adolescents about their experiences with internet censorship in school and why they chose to defy it. Doctorow also talks about the importance of free, accessible information in culture.

Additional Resources:
  • Cory Doctorow Home Page Doctorow's home page where you can contact him, learn more about the issues brought up in his books, and even read his works free of charge!
  • Little Brother on Stage A review of Little Brother as a stage play. The play opened just weeks ago at the Custom Made Theatre.
  • SOPA Wikipedia Page Information about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that is currently being debated in Congress. At the moment, the bill has been postponed.
  • PIPA Wikipedia Page Information about the Protect IP Act (PIPA). This bill, along with SOPA, wishes to curb access to certain web sites that the government claims are infringing on copyrights and providing counterfeit goods.
  • Detaining Citizens This article is about the bill that President Obama recently signed which allows American citizens to be detained indefinitely without charge if they are terror suspects.
  • Boing Boing Boing Boing is a blog that Doctorow co-edits. It covers digital media stories.
  • Copyright vs Universal Access Doctorow gave a lecture at the Quantum to Cosmos Festival discussing copyrighted material and why there should be universal access.
  • Science Fiction Database Cory Doctorow's bibliography page at the Science Fiction database. This page also includes contact information for Doctorow, as well as links to other sites related to the author.
  • A Review of Little Brother A review of Little Brother by Wired. The review argues that the book is a manual for saving our future, should a government like the one Doctorow describes ever come to power.
  • Against the iPad A short article about Doctorow's manifesto against the iPad. Doctorow argues that the iPad is against universal access.
  • Your Search History: Is it Private? Doctorow speaks in this video about just who can look at your search history and how this information can be used.
  • Bill Text: Stop Online Piracy Act The official bill outlining the Stop Online Piracy Act as it was introduced to the House of Representatives by the 112th Congress of the United States.
  • Bill Text: Protect IP Act of 2011 The official bill outlining the Protect IP Act of 2011 with both versions of the bill.
  • Anonymous and the War Over the Internet A news article about the hackers Anonymous and how they are challenging potential internet censorship laws.
--Drew Tocco, William Treat, Marissa Bell, Emily Gunsch.