Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is an anti-surveillance society manifesto for the post-9/11 era (since the regime of surveillance and secrecy has not ended with the end of the Bush administration and the taking over by the Obama administration. There are more continuities than ruptures there).
The premise of the book is that Marcus Yallow’s life changes dramatically once his city, San Francisco, is the target of a terrorist attacked. Marcus is a 17-year old computer wheez, much into computer games. He and his friends were participating in one when the terrorists hit the city and they end up arrested and mistreated by the Department of Homeland Security. After much humiliation and degradation, Marcus and some of his friends are released (one is disappeared though) on the condition that they will never talk about what was done to them.
Upon their release, they realized that the DHS is turning San Francisco into a police state where intense surveillance and mass arrest become the norm, in the name of security and protecting the populace against further terrorist attacks (sounds familiar?). Still reeling from his humiliation at the hands of the DHS, Marcus decides to start fighting back with the weapons he possesses: his computer skills. He does so first by creating a separate Internet, free from surveillance, and then by messing up the massive data mining program that the DHS has put in place. Escalation follows as the DHS intensifies its operations. And then, it’s war. A war fought by teenagers against the impersonal forces of the state. A war not just fought online but also in real life and whose description by Doctorow is not unsimilar to this classic of impersonal oppression against the people:
As he fights the DHS’s omnipresent (but not omnipotent) apparatus of surveillance, Marcus changes and reluctantly becomes the leader (as any hero does) of a typical New Social Movement. What is a New Social Movement? As I have written elsewhere,
The New Social Movements Theory emerged at the end of the 1960s to account for changes in the composition, focus and strategies in some social movements in the Western world (Melucci, 1989; McAdam et al, 1988; Larana et al, 1994; Scott, 1995). New social movements themselves are a response to the massive social changes brought about by globalization. New social movements are diverse but share common foci:
Focus on social and cultural issues instead of the economic issues of traditional social movements.
Focus quality of life (environment, peace) and self-determination (contemporary women’s rights, gay rights) because of roots in high-income countries where survival is a less important issue. Accordingly, members tend to reject bureaucratic organizations and adopt a more participatory style.
Distrust for authorities, the government, the business community or the scientific community; although they do not seek to overthrow the government or radically change the social order, movements challenge the legitimacy of institutions of power and promote their own experts (Garner, 1996) or create their own independent research institutes as Social Movement Organizations.
Focus on multiple issues seen as interdependent. For instance, the ecofeminist movement associates environmental issues with patriarchy (Merchant, 1992; Mies and Shiva, 1993), that is, male dominance in society. The environmental justice movement makes connections between environmental issues and race problems through the concept of “environmental racism”, a practice that puts minority groups more at risk of environmental damage than dominant racial or ethnic groups; for instance, more hazardous waste sites or chemical plants are located in minority areas (Bullard and Wright, 1992).
Similarly, labor rights integrate human rights considerations into their activism while new social movements link terrorism and the rise of religious fundamentalism to the overwhelming power and influence of western countries (the United States in particular) over poorer countries,
Both a global and local orientation, as reflected in the slogan “think global, act local,” that might be evidenced by championing both global environmental standards and local recycling regulations in their communities.
Efficient use of new communication technologies to establish global connections and networks; such global networks coordinated the massive demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, against the G8 Meeting in Genoa (Italy) in 2002 and the worldwide protests against the War in Iraq in 2003.
In the book, Marcus may be concerned with getting the DHS out of SanFran but his struggle is often couched in broader terms from the Bill of Rights to the debate regarding trading off freedom for security. In this regard, Doctorow could not help but put some archetypal characters to set up the debates for Marcus’s reflections: the "good" teacher who allows discussions in her classes about issues of constitutional freedoms and the power of the state in emergency situations versus the "bad" professor who shoves her neo-con ideas down everyone’s throat (with a visit to the evil Principal’s office if that does not work). There is no doubt where Doctorow stands on these issues.
Similarly, one can find a very Fanonian attitude in Marcus Yallow’s notion that freedom is not granted, it is taken. This is indeed one of Franz Fanon’s positions on decolonization: that the colonized had to take their freedom and not wait for it to be granted by the colonizers. But at the same time, Marcus is an American teenager, individualist to a "t" and reluctantly involved in the social movement he inadvertently created. Not to mention the fact that he is a Caucasian young man from a relatively privileged background whose parents have the right connections (to the right journalist, ultimately).
In other words, Marcus occupies a position of relative social privilege where fighting back is indeed an option (not necessarily available to his Latino friend, as he is reminded). Marcus’s movement is not that of the Wretched of the Earth but that of relatively privileged kids who can afford all sorts of electronic gadgets, all at ease in the Network Society.
And then, of course, the central theme of the book is fighting back against the Surveillance Society. I have written about it before, but just as a reminder:
The network society allows for the fast transmission of information. But what kind of information gets transmitted through information networks? A great deal of information flows relate to people in their statuses as citizens, workers and consumers. In post-industrial network societies, a great deal of activities from the state, employers and companies is devoted to collecting information about individuals to shape and influence behavior. This process of data-collection is now so thorough and widespread – thanks to information technology – that it is possible to talk about the network society as surveillance society. David Lyon defines surveillance as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” (2001:2). The expression “surveillance society” was coined by sociologist Gary Marx (1985) as “all-encompassing use of computer surveillance technology in modern society for total social control”.
Surveillance has always had two faces: care and control. Surveillance technology is often introduced in the name of security, to prevent all sorts of criminal and unacceptable behaviors in public and private places. Surveillance cameras are installed in malls, highways, in most large cities, in workplaces and schools in order to make people feel safer and prevent undesirable behaviors (the definition of which can vary). Behind the invocation of greater protection – care – however, the other side of surveillance is always present: behavior control.
In-store video-surveillance, closed-circuit television (CCTV), metal detectors, fingerprinting, drug and DNA testing, pre-employment personality and health screening, highway toll passes, credit cards, cookies, spyware, clickstream and more generally searchable databases are all technologies that make anonymity almost completely impossible. In this context, the rise of the surveillance society has generated concerns about privacy, but, as David Lyon correctly notes, privacy is an individual matter, rather, the omnipresence of surveillance is a social matter that has deeper implications than privacy.
A main social aspect of surveillance is its exponential growth thanks to information technologies. The state used to have almost a monopoly over surveillance. Most surveillance technology was used for state bureaucratic (social security numbers or national identification cards) and law enforcement purposes. In the current global context, surveillance has spread to practically all sectors of society as data flows move more freely from one area to another: for instance, employers can require criminal background checks on prospective employees from state databases. Conversely, in the United States, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, phone and cable companies may be required to turn over customer information to the government. As David Lyon (2001:33) puts it, “The notion of surveillance society indicates that surveillance activities have long since spilled over the edges of government bureaucracies to flood every conceivable social conduit”. As a result, many other social actors, such as businesses, have become involved in the creation or use of surveillance.
Surveillance has not only spread to the private sector but also gone global not because technology is available. Social factors are the driving force behind the expansion of surveillance. The first such factor is what David Lyon call “disappearing bodies.” Disappearing bodies refers to the fact that a significant part of our activities and interactions take place at the distance, without people actually being in each other’s presence. Electronic interactions and transactions make bodies disappear. Online shopping, instant messaging and live video streaming are all activities without physical space and bodies.
Such disembodiment of interaction raises issues of trust: how does an employer know that employees working from home are actually working? How does the online store know that the customer has enough credit for a purchase? Surveillance technology, such as performance tracking – technology allowing an employer to monitor keyboard and online activity – as well as instant credit verification keep track of individuals even in disembodied situations. Similarly, with more and more people on the move worldwide (business travelers, tourists, economic and political refugees and migrants), transit areas such as airport terminals have intensified their surveillance apparatus in order to keep track of increasingly mobile bodies. The trust issue has become especially crucial in the context of fear of terrorist attacks.
At the same time, our bodies have become increased objects of surveillance and information as well, mainly through biometrics – the range of technology used to measure human physical characteristics for identification purposes. Whether we want to or not, our bodies are major providers of surveillance data. The most traditional form of biometrics is fingerprinting as well as urine and blood tests.
However improvement in medical and surveillance technology have opened an entire new field of data that can be extracted from the body without our knowledge and not just for law enforcement purposes but as part of everyday surveillance. The body can be used as a form of identification: some international airports use retinal scan on foreign visitors. Corporations use voice recognition software. The body itself becomes a password. Mall and public places use facial recognition software for comparison with video surveillance images. Employers have access to medical record to determine the potential health risks posed by prospective employees. They may also impose constraints on their employees’ bodies by requiring that employees lose weight or not smoke. Of course, all these different technologies are produced by private companies in such a booming market that it is possible to speak of the rise of a security-industrial complex.
The emergence of the risk society is another major social factor that promoted the growth of surveillance. The global financial market is, by definition, unstable so investors rely on networked databases that can give them real time information on the different world stock exchanges as well as on wide ranges of economic indicators.
Politically, major areas of the world are in chaos and fears of global terrorism are high. To monitor and control such risks, core countries have established means of monitoring communications on a global scale – a process called “dataveillance”. Dataveillance refers to the “systematic monitoring of people’s actions or communications through the application of information technology” (Clarke, 1988). Giant databases have been created to intercept and process telephone conversations, faxes and emails that contain certain words or originate in parts of the world related to terrorism. Global agencies, such as INTERPOL, are in charge of such global surveillance.
Finally, many research institutes around the world monitor various ecological phenomena such as global warming or the hole in the ozone layer to predict future environmental conditions and their social impact. Most surveillance, public or private, has to do with managing risk in the sense that the more information is gathered by the right agencies, the more we can reduce uncertainties related to global conditions.
According to David Lyon (2001), the major social function of surveillance is as a sorting mechanism. Surveillance as social sorting refers to the use of data to identify, to classify, to order and to control entire populations: using searchable databases, such as zip codes and internet activities, “marketers sift and sort populations according to their spending patterns, then treat different clusters accordingly. Groups likely to be valuable to marketers get special attention, special deals, and efficient after-sales service, while others, not among the creamed-off categories, must make do with less information and inferior service” (Lyon, 2003:14).
This form of discrimination – also called digital redlining or weblining – reflects the use of surveillance to include or exclude entire populations from certain advantages. Based on information abstracted from databases, credit card companies can provide or deny access to credit. Insurance companies can also provide or refuse coverage is information reveals that certain categories of the population represent too high a risk. For instance, genetic testing that can potentially reveal a predisposition to certain incurable diseases, such as Huntington, can be used by health care providers to refuse coverage to individuals with the “wrong” genes.
At the same time, the use of searchable databases is used commercially to provide individualized service. For instance, many online stores, such as Amazon.com, automatically use purchase records to provide individualized recommendations and offers to their customers in hope of increasing the number of volumes purchased. In a sense, every online purchase made by an individual creates a sum of information regarding lifestyle, spending habits, hobbies and preferences. Such information, if used judiciously by marketers, creates a greater certainty of what this individual will buy in the future, thereby reducing the basic risk involved in any business: will people buy what a company offers? While mass advertising is still used, more and more businesses now use the wealth of information available in databases to provide individualized marketing.
As David Lyon (2003) puts it, the same surveillance technology creates categorical suspicion in one type of social situations – in law enforcement and security business – and categorical seduction in others – marketing. Categorical suspicion refers to the control function of surveillance whereby entire categories of people are subject to intensified surveillance due to their characteristics, such as Muslims and Arab travelers after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Categorical seduction refers to a similar process used in commerce to entice certain categories of shoppers (those with the “appropriate” credit level, lifestyle and buying habits) into particular forms of consumption. Both processes result in the blurring of the boundaries between public and private behavior creating what David Brin (1998) calls a transparent society. The concept of transparent society extends Goffman’s notion of total institution to the entire society. In such a society, there is no place to hide: the privacy of one’s home is an illusion as our most private environments are wired into global networks and even our bodies become providers of information fed into the global society.
The novel is indeed much focused on the mechanisms of the surveillance society but it is made clear in the book that the surveillance society had penetrated society long before the terrorist attacks. Indeed, the high school that Marcus goes to uses extensive surveillance technology to keep track of the students and their every movement (or their every keyboard stroke on their government-provided computers). Long before the terrorist attacks, Marcus was already fighting the surveillance system, which had put him in the principal’s cross-hair.
In Little Brother, surveillance takes the form of Foucault’s micro-power and biopower in the creation of a carceral society where large segments of the population (including Marcus’s father, up to a point) consent to their surveillance. With the means of 21st century technology, the carceral society no longer really requires the prison (except for the part of disciplining that has become hidden, the actual torturing… which used to be public). Moreover, with the multiplicity of technologies, loci of power have become multiplied and more micro, that is, applied to certain limited segments of behavior (such as gait, in the book). Surveillance and disciplining power then become distributed throughout the social structure in the form of micro-power (multiple and limited loci of power) and bio-power (power involved in the management of the population and individual bodies). For more on this, check out the chapter on Foucault in Perspectives in Sociology (Cuff, Sharrock and Francis, 5th edition, 2006).
What is missing in the book, when it comes to the Surveillance Society, is the private sector part. In the book, the DHS / Federal government is the boogey man using surveillance mechanisms to oppress teenagers. However, private businesses use as much, if not more, surveillance mechanisms as the government. The private sector relies as much on biopower as the state, and it can be as much a source of oppression. So, while the government makes for an easy target, it is only part of the freedom battle (something that the Electronic Frontier Foundation understands and that is well described in Max Barry’s books as well). And indeed, individualized ICT gadgets constitute as much data for private corporations as they can be to the government. That part is missing from the book.
That being said, the book is highly entertaining and one will easily recognize real people behind some of the fictional characters and in many ways it reads as a version of what Doctorow thinks what should have had happened as one more piece of surveillance legislation was passed in the name of protection the masses from another 9/11. It did not happen, of course, as most of the population consented to the Patriot Act or extensive surveillance, or as it happened more progressively in England as more and more surveillance were installed across the country. Does Doctorow think salvation will come through computer-savvy teenagers?