It’s been ten years since Cory Doctorow’s dystopian tale of nerd rebellion Little Brother was published and nearly ten years since I first read it. Today, it reads like a beacon of internet optimism, a time capsule from the teenage ideals of the Information Age. The story follows Marcus Yallow, screen name M1k3y, a High School senior who wages a technological war against the Big Brother tactics of the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time Marcus and his friends are detained and tortured by their own government in the name of anti-terrorism security. Thus, Xnet, an underground communication network run through “ParanoidXbox”, is born. Through the Xnet a whole movement of pro-privacy teens are able to organize against the DHS. With M1k3y as the anonymous leader of their guerrilla force, they jam security devices, organize punk rallies, and live by the tenant “Don’t trust anyone under 25”.
As a Young Adult novel, Little Brother gets a lot of things right. Doctorow gives us a teenage hero who uses his intellect and friends to create tangible change in the world. Marcus is the opposite of a rebel without a cause. He is a social justice warrior who manages to outsmart the adults and save Democracy in one fell swoop. However, that doesn’t make Marcus an unrelatable or boring character. As a reader, even a second or third-time reader, his adolescent defiance shines through as a virtue. Even as we watch Marcus fall in love and fight with his parents like any normal teen, he is also giving lessons on concepts like cryptography and Bayesian math. Doctorow makes an apt analogy between teenage-boy rage and revolutionary energy, between the confines of High School security systems and the Nineteen Eighty-Four antics of the post-terrorist-attack US government, between Marcus the teenager and M1k3y the revolutionary leader.
When viewed through the lens of classic dystopian fiction or historical rebellion it is easy to try to poke holes in Marcus’s idealism and blind faith in technology. Yet, I might argue that Marcus’s belief that technology can make our lives more connected, safe, and interesting is the same silver lining that still lives in all of us in this era of online distrust. Little Brother provides a healthy reminder for all of us who came of age alongside computers both of the goodness of our bygone teenage idealism and that we ought to learn to rule technology instead of letting it rule us.
By Cory Doctorow
By 382 pp.
Favorite Quote: “Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor.”