Thursday, October 16, 2008

Little Brother

Recently I drove home from Northampton to Abingdon. The most logical course for the final stage of the journey would have been to come down the A34 to the south Abingdon exit, then drive towards the town centre and home. A reasonable variant on this would have been to take the north Abingdon exit off the A34 and come anticlockwise round the ringroad. A most unusual and unpredictable variant – and the one I actually used – was to come off at the north exit, drive clockwise around the ringroad to the town centre, head due north again back towards the north exit and this time come anticlockwise round the other half of the ringroad. Essentially, I did a big sideways figure 8 (or an infinity sign, of course). Why? Well, if you must know I was listening to Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" and I wanted to get to the end. It's designed to be listened to in one piece. I've done similar in the past for the William Tell Overture and other pieces of music.

And, well, why not? I’m a free responsible adult. I can take any route I like.

Now, supposing there was a number plate tracking system in place programmed to detect unusual traffic variations, and alert the cops who would subsequently turn up and ask me to prove I hadn't been doing anything suspicious?

Thoughts brought to mind by reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. A book not without its flaws but still one that everyone should read.

About five minutes into the future, a terrorist atrocity in San Francisco kills thousands and the Department of Homeland Security (henceforth the DHS, always making me think of sofas) swings into action with a programme it has obviously had long prepared, just waiting for the right opportunity. A security clampdown begins on absolutely everyone except the right people, i.e. the terrorists. Caught up in this, purely by dint of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is 17 year old Marcus, a techno-savvy geek without (frankly) many redeeming features. Justifiably angered at the illegal treatment he has received at the DHS's mini-Guantanamo in San Francisco Bay, he decides to fight back.

The point isn't to bring down the government or to encourage terrorism. The point is that the DHS has completely missed the point, mistaking looking busy and ideological enforcement for actual results. There is no evidence that terrorists are even in San Francisco at all after the attack, yet the crackdown continues. Meanwhile, with a bit of technical wizardry that anyone can pick up off the web, a kid without a political thought in his head can pull the wool over the DHS's eyes. How much more likely are the real terrorists to get clean away with it?

The situation is not really a thousand miles from what actually happened after 9/11 and continues to happen today. Posters like this one are serious. (Posters like this one, however, are not - mostly.) Have you tried taking any photographs in public lately?

First, things I didn't like.

Marcus is not a sympathetic character, though others will find him so – even some of my friends. He is a cocky techy geek who is heavily into games. Not my kinda guy. He can be bratty and immature. I assume this is characterisation rather than Doctorow's own personality showing through, as Marcus makes mistakes and gets it wrong. He is in love with his own cleverness and can never see in advance that every victory he scores over the DHS will simply make them up the game a little more, thus cracking down even harder. After all, the DHS is run by humans too and they don't like getting it wrong either. Thankfully, Marcus grows up.

There were times that the great cause Marcus et al were fighting for becomes distinctly cloudy. Sometimes it just seems they want to fight for the right to party and be selfish little brats. If Marcus is immature, the self-important rebellion-for-rebellion's sake yoof movement that grows up around him is downright pathetic. There is a fine line to draw between responsible use of freedom and anarchy just because you can. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre, and I really don't care who argues otherwise.

In Denver back in August, I witnessed an exciting confrontation between an American gent who called the Democrats socialists and an American lady who called the Republicans fascists. As the native of a continent with plenty of experience of both, I was thinking "rank amateurs, the lot of them", but Americans get like that when they talk politics (okay, okay, Doctorow is Canadian). Someone in the novel who I’m pretty sure we're meant to take seriously refers to "Gulag America" and that really annoys me. America at its worst under the current administration doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the Gulag. Name calling is just babyish.

"Don’t trust anyone under 25!" becomes a major rallying call. What, and I'm expected to put the major decisions into the hands of children with 24 years or less life experience? Feel free to let the door handle hit you on the way out and leave a nice bruise. For the record, according to Wikipedia Doctorow is 37.

But let's talk about where Little Brother, and Doctorow, and Marcus get it right. The technology – well, I take his word for it on the technology. At least I recognise the words he uses (Xbox, Microsoft, Linux) so I presume it's sound. The minimum lesson to take home from this is that the younger generation will always be ahead of the older in finding new and clever ways to utilise technology. What impresses us is already old hat to the teenagers.

Above all I can't fault the logic of Marcus’s critique of the system. He does the maths for us. Suppose, he says, you have a means of detecting terrorists that is 99% accurate? And you apply this to, say, a city like New York with a population of 20 million, to find a terrorist cell that will have only a handful of members? At 99% accuracy you are still going to accuse 200,000 people wrongly. And the DHS does not have a system anything like 99% accurate. No one does.

Thankfully, what carries the book past posturing and preaching to the converted is that the ending, mostly happy, is brought about by the actions of Marcus but ultimately is attributable to forces he has no control over. The rule of law is brought back to San Francisco's streets but this time it is open, attributable, accountable law by grown-ups (yes, even those over 25) who know what they're doing. And not even Marcus is exempt. As it should be.

I quite enjoy not being blown up by Al Quaeda and I'm very glad there are people out there whose job it is to see that I’m not. I accept that they may from time to time find it convenient to read my email without letting me know, or track my car's movements by CCTV that read my licence plate. Let 'em.

Little Brother says that the old security maxim "those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear" is a lie. Actually, it’s technically true. However, everyone has a lot to fear if all that power, all that surveillance data is put into the hands of morons and empire builders. Ian Huntley and the 21/7 bombers were found out by surveillance and studying old records. I'm not against the concept. But what is needed isn't more surveillance of absolutely everything, it's intelligent surveillance of what we have available.

Here are the basic ground rules for using our astonishing technological abilities to keep ourselves safe and safeguard our liberties. First and foremost, there has to be the simple recognition that dissent and disagreement <> terrorism or treason. Unfortunately, a lot of politicians are unable to make this connection and they're the ones meant to be in charge. In another context, I believe statistics show that teenagers from families which openly discuss sex matters are much more likely to go on to have responsible sex lives. Same thing. Just talking about something should never be a crime and school is where it should start.

Politicians and law enforcement officials must realise that the best way to radicalise people against you is to piss them off. You counter insurgency by winning hearts and minds. There has never been a revolution in a happy country. I'm referring here to the hearts and minds of the people, not the headline writers of the Daily Mail or the US equivalent. They may safely be excluded from any decision making process.

I require anyone with this kind of power over me to know and understand considerably more than I do. If someone can't understand why I would add twenty minutes to my journey just to catch the end of a Pink Floyd album then that person should not be put in charge of surveilling me.

From those to whom much is given, much is expected. The people entrusted with power that could ruin lives must get it absolutely right, or else. One of Marcus's friends is detained for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and kept there simply because it reaches the point where his release would be embarrassing. Now look me in the eye and tell me that isn't the reason a lot of people are still held at Guantanamo. Or, indeed, just cast an eye over reports on the Menezes inquest. The public interest is not the same as saving the blushes of a red-faced politico. If you get it wrong, you are out.

But, they might cry, how can we possibly recruit people into the security services with that hanging over their heads? Well, it's not that different to recruiting people into the armed forces on the understanding that someone might shoot them dead. It happens. Maximise your efforts to make sure that it doesn't happen; but once it has, live with it. They expect us to put up with all kinds of crap for the privilege of not being bombed by terrorists. They might even expect us to lay down our lives ourselves, or at least not raise a fuss if they happen to gun down the wrong person. Expecting them in return to put their career on the line doesn't seem such a hard thing to ask. It's not as if they're left in the library with a revolver and a glass of brandy any more.

I'll close as I started, with a driving-related anecdote. I once gave Cory Doctorow a lift from the centre of Oxford down Botley Road to the train station. En route, a traffic camera snapped me and I got my first ever speeding ticket ...

(For reference, see Farah Mendlesohn’s review.)

6 comments:

  1. When I was a teenager, I used to drive miles in the small hours of the night to the only 24 hour petrol station in my part of Lancashire. There were plenty of closer, more sensible, less menacing places to get petrol, but I loved the sweeping curve of the main road out there and the chance to drive with no lights on just for the thrill of it (it was usually Dark Side of the Moon / The Final Cut in the tape deck, incidentally).
    I love the fact that so many human decisions are not rational. But it does mean that no system to detect malavolent, as opposed to life-enhancing, oddness will ever work anything like 99% of the time.

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  2. Hey Ben,

    I've got a google alert setup for Cory Doctorow's Little brother so that when people make posts about it I can invite them to come discuss at the Urban Monarch book club.

    So...

    here it is:

    http://www.urbanmonarch.com/category/media/book-club/

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  3. Thanks, will check it out.

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  4. If it's not a daft question, why do we need all these new laws and giant databases to prevent Al Qa'eda when we never did to prevent the IRA?

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  5. Well, we did have internment ... for all the good it did. No, not a daft question at all. I do often wonder why we didn't get into the tizzy over the much more clear-and-present-danger IRA than we do today over the possibility of Islamic fundamentalists.

    Possible suggestions, in no particular order:

    1. The IRA had their faults but suicide bombing wasn't one of them. There was a degree of rationality which meant we knew where we stood.

    2. Whisper it softly, but could it possibly, possibly have anything to do with the fact that the Americans got in a tizzy on this one and so naturally we follow suit?

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  6. There is perhaps another factor to take into account, too. Al Qa'eda is the enemy of Israel. The US supports Israel. So much so that it's actually part of the candidates' platforms in this year's election. The IRA, of course, had nothing to do with Israel.

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