Ten Years Later, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother Remains Inevitable

It’s not really the tenth anniversary of Little Brother. More like the 12th. I wrote the first proposal for Little Brother on May 7th, 2006, and finished the first draft on July 2, 2006, after eight weeks of the most intense writing of my life. I originally pitched it as “Encyclopedia Brown meets Wargames,” and the working title was “Wikipedia Brown.”

Twelve years later, technology has changed in profound ways that have upended our political, social, and economic systems. Technology is at the heart of how we fight wars, how we wage struggles for justice, how we fall in love, how we work and learn. Hardly a day goes by without some terrible or wonderful revelation about a new technology or a new use for an old one.

On its face, it’s hard to understand how a “futuristic” twelve-year-old book about technology could possibly remain relevant, except as a historical curiosity, a time-capsule from a long-passed decade. But Little Brother remains gratifyingly current; it is taught to middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, in prison literacy programs, to “reluctant readers”, and to cadets at West Point, the Air Force Academy, and other military institutions.

There’s a reason that Little Brother and its sequels (Homeland and the novella Lawful Interception) have remained so current: it’s because they are part of the first generation of science fiction novels to grapple with computers and the internet as they are, rather than as metaphors for technology more generally.

Computers are irreducibly “general purpose.” Since World War II and the codebreaking and military efforts of the Princeton Institute (especially John Von Neumann) and Bletchley Park (especially Alan Turing), we’ve been able to replace the special purpose electronic calculators—single-purpose devices designed to solve one kind of problem, like calculating ballistics tables or actuarial tables—with general purpose computers, that are capable of solving any problem we can express in symbolic logic.

Likewise, the Internet replaces and subsumes the special-purpose networks that preceded it: one kind of wires for TV, another phone phones, another for data, and so on. The Internet runs over all of these substrates (and others besides, like various forms of radio, as well as fiber) and carries any information that can be expressed as digital information.

Here’s the important part: we only know how to make one computer (the computer that runs every program) and one internet (the internet that carries any data), and we specifically don’t know how to make computers that can run all the programs except for the one that freaks you out (for example, a program that lets terrorists communicate in secret, or a program that lets printer owners use refilled ink-cartridges; or a program that lets you download infringing movies); and we don’t know how to make an internet that carries all messages except the ones you don’t like (obscene material, terrorist propaganda, hate speech).

This is a reality that policymakers, law-enforcement, and the general public has spectacularly failed to come to grips with. When the director of the FBI is told, “We can’t make a computer that is secure enough to keep out Russian spies without making it secure enough to keep the FBI out, too,” they hear: “I am an ideological free-speech absolutist crypto-anarchist who refuses to consider your excellent ideas,” while the engineers who are doing the talking (who may, in fact, be free-speech absolutist crypto-anarchists!) mean, “This is a technical fact.”

The answer is inevitably and always: “Shut up nerds, and go nerd harder!”

This doesn’t work.

Wanting it badly is not enough. I can think of a million awesome things we could do with nearly general-purpose computers and networks, but such a thing is fantasy, not science fiction.

And now we come to how to write fiction about networked computers that stays relevant for 12 years and 22 years and 50 years: just write stories in which computers can run all the programs, and almost no one understands that fact. Just write stories in which authority figures, and mass movements, and well-meaning people, and unethical businesses, all insist that because they have a really good reason to want to stop some program from running or some message from being received, it must be possible.

Write those stories, and just remember that because computers can run every program and the internet can carry any message, every device will someday be a general-purpose computer in a fancy box (office towers, cars, pacemakers, voting machines, toasters, mixer-taps on faucets) and every message will someday be carried on the public internet. Just remember that the internet makes it easier for people of like mind to find each other and organize to work together for whatever purpose stirs them to action, including terrible ones and noble ones. Just remember that cryptography works, that your pocket distraction rectangle can scramble messages so thoroughly that they can never, ever be descrambled, not in a trillion years, without your revealing the passphrase used to protect them. Just remember that swords have two edges, that the universe doesn’t care how badly you want something, and that every time we make a computer a little better for one purpose, we improve it for every purpose a computer can be put to, and that is all purposes.

Just remember that declaring war on general purpose computing is a fool’s errand, and that that never stopped anyone.

Just remember that computers create real problems: harassment, commercial surveillance, state surveillance, corporate malfeasance, malware attacks on embedded systems, and casino tricks to “maximize engagement” at the expense of pleasure and satisfaction. Just remember that we can’t solve those problems by engaging with computers as we want them to be—only by engaging with them as they truly are.

Do these things, and in a quarter century, your book about the problems and promises of networked computers will be depressingly, wonderfully relevant.

Alas.

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist, blogger, and the co-editor of Boing Boing.

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