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Inside Assange

By Peter Vallee - posted Monday, 14 January 2013

If the impulse to live inside Julian Assange's head should ever strike you, here is a relatively painless way of doing it. Little brother, by Cory Doctorow. And you can get out any time by just putting the book down.

Some time in the latter days of Bush W the Oakland Bay bridge in San Francisco has been bombed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, are dead, and a city's economic life disrupted. Who's responsible? It doesn't matter, because the real villain in Cory Doctorow's fiction is the US Department of Homeland Security, who pull a group of four teenage friends off the chaotic streets, for no plotted reason, and subject them to harsh detention. Homeland Security seems to have unlimited personnel, their reach into the lives of the innocent population, guided by ubiquitous surveillance and data mining, is also unlimited. Yet not one of the solid citizenry of San Francisco finds out about "Gitmo on the Bay".

The DHS is under the direct control of the President, who golfs and holidays a lot, and his Karl Rove sound-alike, Kurt Rooney. You can't expect subtlety when you're fighting the state. Their evil plan? To win the mid-terms by suppressing dissent and facilitating the next terrorist attack.


Thank God our seventeen year old hero, Marcus, aka w1n5ton and later M1K3y to his on-line friends, is tech-savvy, because, when released, he has the nous to evade the security state that now bears down on him. (And, of course, the smartphone, laptop, Playstation, Xbox, broadband…). Then he proceeds to disrupt it.

In Little brother the juvenile heroes are schooled in a world of constant surveillance even before the attack, a world so oppressive that the assaults of terrorists seem a mere diversion, until the security apparatus of their state scoops them up. His parents are aging lefties who learn to understand his struggle, but seem powerless to influence the world that creates it. The real enemy is the US state, its mindlessly compliant citizenry and its various kinds of police. (He calls the British police "Her Majesty's filth" on his blog.

Obvious what a red-blooded freedom-loving lad should do. Employ encryption! Create surreptitious networks! Outwit the State with Xboxs. Organise shouty rock concerts. "Trust no-one over 25" the moshers rave, showing the revolution has progressed since the sixties when thirty was the age of spontaneous de-humanisation. The state gases and beats them up, but they are building an island of dissent in a world in which neither institutions nor the character of the citizenry have any power to resist.

Doctorow loves the 60s and 70s, the hippies, yippies, weather underground, the beats, the heroes of a previous generation's efforts at cultural, political and explosive subversion. Marcus's teacher is sacked for praising them to her class (as if!) and replaced by a teacher who preaches America's Manifest Destiny to rule the world.

But there's a limit to what can be achieved by encrypted networks and hacked surveillance, leaving Doctorow with a denouement that must involve state power. The state of California! The leftest and brokest state of the Union. Sorry about the spoiler there, but I bet you still don't believe it.

Perhaps it is an occupational hazard of writing for the youth market that for much of the book the hero seems to be seventeen going on forty and the author/narrator forty going on seventeen.


Like Julian Assange, Marcus/W1n5ton/M1K3y demands absolute privacy for his own electronic life, combined with absolute openness and vulnerability for the lives of those outside his circle.

Doctorow is described by his publishers as a "crossover" author, appealing both to adolescent and young adult readerships. Hard to tell the difference these days, but I doubt that most younger internet users want their on-line sociability conscripted to the revolution. Flash-mobbing is one thing, but a flash political party branch meeting is something altogether unimaginable. Techno-anarchism is plausible; techno-Leninism still needs some development.

His book's objections to universal surveillance are shared by many on the right and centre of politics. Far too many of our daily transactions now leave electronic traces. In the ACT your vehicle's number-plate is recorded whenever you drive the freeways. Not a whimper. Hard to believe that we made such a fuss a few years ago about the proposed Australia Card. To the mind of the non revolutionary, over-bearing surveillance is a deformation of the liberal state. For the techno-Leninist it is the state, at least it is the Western democratic capitalist state.

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This is a review of Little brother, Cory Doctorow.(Tor, 2008).

Peter Vallee got Little brother for Christmas. His own sermon, God, guns and government on the Central Australian frontier is available through bookshops, Amazon, and Kindle.

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About the Author

Peter Vallee is a retired private sector manager who lives in Canberra. He has completed a study of Aboriginal people, pastoralists, police and missionaries in Central Australia during the 1880s, what they did with and to each other, and why. His book God, guns and government on the Central Australian frontier is available from all booksellers who'll take the trouble to ask the distributor and a few booksellers who already have.

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