Book Review – Little Brother

LB 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, 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?

Book Review – Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom

DaOiTMK Social capital is everything. At least, that is the conclusion of Cory Doctorow’s Down And Out in The Magic Kingdom. In this future society, disease and death have been eliminated. People can get rejuvenated and live several lifetimes, go live in space or check out for a few centuries or millenia. Those resistant to such technologies have, of course, disappeared.

So, in this age of generalized affluence, money becomes meaningless. Instead, the real currency is one’s repute and social capital, as measured by one’s whuffies balance.

Most of the book takes place in Disney World where Jules, the main character and narrator, has moved in order to join the cast that runs the place and fine-tune his favorite attraction, the Haunted Mansion. There, he finds himself in competition with promoters of virtual entertainment that threaten to take over the entire park. Then, Jules is murdered (when something like that happens, a clone is "defrozen" and "revived") and that gets him really mad. And it’s downhill from there.

In his obsession and downfall, Jules loses pretty much everything, his girlfriend, best friend, and all his whuffies, only to have to leave his beloved park in disrepute and shame and move back in space to start over.

This future society is also both a surveillance and transparent society at the same time. People live networked 24/7 and have access to instant information about everyone and everything in a constant feed of information directly to their brains. Hence, when Jules finds himself offline (a dreadful and destabilizing prospect), he has to resort to old fashioned technologies: actual terminals and printouts. Being offline is not a choice, it’s a punishment, the result of an attack, a default, a failure. One is cast out of the multiple layers of social life.

In an era where information and communication and other technologies have taken over many human jobs, a general deskilling has occurred (doctors are mere technicians and care workers) and actual talent is highly rewarded, whuffie-wise because of its scarcity. Like I said, recognition and social capital is everything.

This is not a trivial point. Indeed, as Sean Safford over at OrgTheory noted a while back, social capital IS capital. And I think his dual definition of social capital as capital applies to Doctorow’s book:

Indeed, Jules loses both types of social capital as his obsession with defeating his adversaries gets him to get kicked out of his own community (the ad-hocs who run the park) and his own individual status as his great ideas to improve the Haunted Mansion without going virtual and flash-baking go down in flames.

Moreover, as mentioned above, the book also validates the idea, now pretty much established, that the Internet, along with ICTs does not isolate but connects. In the book, if anything, there is too much transparency and surveillance at the same time. Isolation is being offline and it is disabling. It makes one almost unable to function at the same pace as everyone else (online being therefore the norm for social relations and interactions). Indeed, in light of the following research finding, Doctorow’s world is not so far out, after all:

(Via Thriving Too) This indeed indicates that connectivity, networking and social capital are already major factors of social stratification since they are, like any forms of capital, unequally distributed (hence Jules’s tumble to the bottom of the social ladder as his whuffies count plummets with every defeat at the hands of more network-savvy opponents).

And while we are on the subject of stratification, Dan Hirshman offers a counterview: it might be a mark of social privilege to choose to be disconnected and let others pursue you:

Although this does not really sound like anti-social capital. It has more to do with the direction / trajectory of connections. Once celebrities show up on Facebook, then crowds of users click the "add as friend" button. The celebrity only has to accept or ignore. It is being sought that is a form of "wealth". These people do not disconnect, they just do not initiate the connections.

The issue might be more that of control over information about oneself: can one control it or does it get disclosed in spite of oneself? As David Gibson over at the Complexity and Social Networks blog states,

Complexity and Social Networks Blog: Facebook and the (possible) future of anti-social capital via kwout

It seems then that power will lie in being an end point rather than originator in connection trajectory, as well as in control over disclosure of one’s information (especially potentially damaging information). As Doctorow’s book clearly illustrates, the sanctions for failing in the network / surveillance / transparent society, that is, for failing at information control and disclosure involve further casting out (being literally down AND out ) in a very public fashion (interestingly enough).

Book Review – Elsewhere, U.S.A.

Elsewhere USA Dalton Conley‘s Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety was clearly written to be a bestseller and takes its place among the "trends" books that get published on a regular basis and claim to be capturing the Zeitgeist du jour, the paradigm shift that is radically remaking society.

The book also aims at some degree of vulgarization of sociology and social theory by showing how major social theorists crafted their conceptual apparatus to capture the societal changes they were witnessing (not just abstract and useless speculation from the heights of the Ivory Tower) and how some of these concepts still carry explanatory power today. In that respect, I think it is relatively successful. It highlights the relevance sociological research and clarifies the necessity of social theory and concepts to explain social facts. It is also a highly readable book.

Needless to say, Conley also brings to the table his own concepts. First, of course, is the Elsewhere Society, which is basically the Network Society conceptualized by Manuel Castells as well as the Liquid Modernity, as conceptualized by Zygmunt Bauman, combined with the Risk Society, conceptualized by Ulrich Beck, along with development not unlike Sennett’s culture of new capitalism and add to that some elements that could have come straight from David Brin’s Transparent Society.

In other words, there is a lot borrowed and repackaged but one will not find the social theorists mentioned above anywhere in the book. Other sociologists are mentioned, to be sure, especially the classic Durkheim, Marx and Weber along with William H. Whyte and Juliet Schor or Arlie Hochschild (not explicitly mentioned but clearly recognizable).

This, in itself, constitutes my first problem with the book. It borrows a lot and does not really acknowledge that intellectual heritage but instead provide new packaging in the form of specific concepts. First comes what, in the Elsewhere Society, replaces individualism: intravidualism define as such

"Intravidualism is an ethic of managing the myriad data streams, impulses, desires, and even consciousness that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple worlds." (7)

In other words, intravidualism is the type of identity developed in late modern society as we deal with global flows (or Appadurai’s scapes).

In the Elsewhere Society, people are continuously plugged in (even if wire-free), constantly in flows, living lives that have been thoroughly penetrated by the market (which is reminiscent of Habermas’s lifeworld colonization by the system) and where boundaries between different social spheres (work and family) have been reconfigured and made more flexible.

Elsewhere Society is also a very unequal society where there is an Elsewhere Class at the top

"The top third of earners who have children, a professional and monied stratum disproportionately employed in sectors where work can be done at all hours yet no physical product in handled (at least directly, in their immediate midst)." (9)

And indeed, to his credit, Conley discusses the issue of inequalities pretty consistently throughout the book but at the same time, the trends involved in Elsewhere Society are also often presented as if they were indeed social trends and not changes in upper strata of the social stratification system. People outside of the Elsewhere Class in the Elsewhere Society do not live like this and especially not those in the non-Elsewhere Societies, that is those who make the stuff that is no longer made in the Elsewhere Society.

Often, the book reads like the account of an exclusive club, of which the author is a part, (mis)taking the life of this exclusive membership as universal trend, for instance, describing at length how the Elsewhere Society is creating a "new type of American" or a "new texture of everyday life." This may be true for the Elsewhere Class, but this is by no means a generalizable claim.

And let me add that when it comes to claims about the latest trends, I’m with Echidne:

Indeed, there is a – I think – quite embarrassing statement in the book which almost made me quit reading right away:

"In fact, when we look at the economy as a whole, we find that volatility has greatly decreased over the last twenty-five years. Recessions are shallower and recoveries are smoother. Unemployment rates don’t vary as sharply. (Remember 17 percent interest rates in thirty-year mortgages in 1981?) Economists call this ‘the great moderation’ and argue over what has caused it." (11)


And so, the book basically describes the causes and consequences of the Elsewhere Society by reviewing the impact of these changes on major social institutions (family, work, the prison system) and on culture. But again, for anyone who has read on these matters, there is not much that is new here or has not been studied by someone else. For instance, regarding family trends in relation to labor and the workforce, both Stephanie Coontz and Arlie Hochschild (especially in Time Bind) have noted the changes that Conley describes. But then, this provides Conley with an opportunity to use some of his concepts: weisure (work and leisure combined) or instrumental leisure and convestment (consumption + investment).

But all this comes down to are the familiar accounts of deindustrialization and the end of the hierarchichal factory with its corresponding Weberian bureaucracy to be replaced by the flat and networked (and therefore flexible) organization with its casually dressed workers at Google. This comes, of course, with descriptions of the impact of the increase in the percentage of women in the workforce and the changes in family structures and dynamics. And how, as living standards improved, people buy less necessities but more positional goods, or, as Conley calls this trend, the "de-necessitation of the economy."

All this boils down to an economy where parents and children are constantly logged onto the Internet and where the separation of family time and work time is not clear at all. In the 24/7 global economy, the Elsewhere class works more and more because not working is expensive and besides, we are not even sure what counts as work anymore (does checking your email on your laptop while lying in bed count as work or relaxation?).

And as the Elsewhere Class makes more and more money, because they work more and are less likely to be unemployed and because Mr and Miss Elsewhere tend to marry each other after lengthy education, they leave the non-Elsewhere classes far behind, in the precarized economy where people are still "grounded" and where the work is still done the old fashioned way except that it takes place in the low-end of the service economy, mainly, servicing the needs of the Elsewhere Class that works too much to take care of its own needs.

And as Ann Swidler notes in her own review of the book (H/T Jenn Lena),

And that is indeed the strongest criticism one, I think, can level at the book, its relative lack of attention to the non-Elsewhere Class. The only time when they are mentioned in the book is in the chapter on crime and punishment where the incarcerated masses are described as living in the Nowhere Society :

"Crime-fighting policy aside, this "nowhere society" of felons is really to be expected in an economy that has changed its expectations of workers so rapidly. What else are we going to do with all the folks who don’t fit into the new knowledge economy? We can either give them welfare checks or lock them up; while it is perhaps more cost-effective to provide welfare payments, keep in mind that the prison-industrial complex doesn’t just take care of the surplus, low-skill labor pool made up by the convicts themselves. It also employs prison guards and many other workers to keep watch on them. Whereas once states had to battle NIMBYism when they attempted to site prisons, now communities that have been devastated by the decline in the manufacturing sector often vie for the right to host maximum-security facilities and the jobs they bring with them." (130)

Incidentally, that is something already made obvious by Michael Moore in Roger and Me.

And finally, as presented by Conley, life in the Elsewhere Society is exhilarating. It is full of novelty, increases the possibilities of social networking (even if only in a shallow fashion, but that, – the "inferiority of online sociability as opposed to face-to-face interaction – in itself, is questionable) and of widening horizons. Despite the potential anxieties that are more related to identity than survival, it is still a much more comfortable and privileged life than for the non-Elsewhere Class.

I’ll leave the last word to Ann Swidler: