Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a powerful book. Go, read it, it will be time well spent — if you have any reason to trust my recommendation at all.

However, it is really a bit too simplistic and black and white, which might be fitting the ‘young adult’ age group he wrote this one for, but is actually another case of lies-to-students. The reality is much more complex. Let me summarize the plot a little, it’s not really a spoiler since no step in it is a real surprise:

  1. Terrorist attack blows up a bridge in San Francisco.
  2. The hero, a school-teenager, gets captured by Department of Homeland Security, illegally detained, and later mysteriously released.
  3. He starts a teenage movement aimed at overloading the automated parts of the security theater, which has great success.
  4. Escalation of countermeasures results in a double-agent in the movement leaking video of DHS officials conspiring to do something — it’s not quite clear what the something is, just that it’s Evil and goes against the US Constitution, as everything else the DHS does really.
  5. The whole thing gets written up by an investigative reporter, which results in further countermeasures.
  6. State government decides enough was enough and stops the activity of DHS in the state of California.
  7. After a short public trial everything gets quietly shuffled under the carpet and the hero starts working on the election to vote the current federal administration out of office.

Does anybody else see something wrong with that picture? Here’s my list:

  1. The assumption that any organization is explicitly “Evil” is simply wrong, even if good for propaganda, whether Doctorow created this assumption intentionally or not. Organizations just don’t work that way. Whatever reason DHS really has for instituting security theater, it is a very safe bet that a large number of its members aren’t thinking they’re up to anything evil, and most of the organization even genuinely thinks what they’re doing is making people safer.
    What’s even more likely is that the individual agents aren’t thinking at all, but instead reacting reflexively, not realizing what are they doing. They are just in such a position that peer pressure, which exists pretty much independently from any single one of them, incites them to forgo any and all restraint on doing “justice” as they see it. It’s very likely even the bosses have no clue. The phenomenon is called “sensitivization” and is the normal part of a moral panic. The Stanford Prison Experiment plainly shows how this can quickly degenerate into violence and torture.
    I have no privilege of knowing Stanley Cohen personally, but I can bet he’s banging his head on his table right now, figuratively speaking, for not being more vocal about it when he had a chance… or maybe he’s writing another book. Normally, the moral panics don’t last ten years, but this one was, apparently, deliberately, turned into a state campaign.
  2. The assumption that one investigative reporter for a newspaper still has the power to turn the whole thing around is, well, too optimistic in my opinion. Can it really happen? Really, truly?
  3. The assumption that election process still works when all these things can actually occur is just a manifestation of the traditional American belief that it always does. Copious evidence exists that it doesn’t already. Most importantly, if the DHS has the power of unrestricted surveillance, the amount of people who need to be detained to skew the election whichever way they want is minimal. Yet, Doctorow still cannot imagine a proper real revolution that would reinstate the Constitution — or any truly mass dissent.

The real question, which the book doesn’t pose but which should really be thought about, is, can such truly mass dissent even happen, anywhere in the so-called ‘developed countries’… particularly ones which have TV networks, without which moral panics wouldn’t really be possible.

Then again, Cohen’s research shows that when moral panics happen, people assume a priori that the media reports are exaggerated, yet they still cave in. This poses a few very interesting questions on what trust in the media really means in this day and age.