Friday, November 24, 2017
Books

Review: Internet activism, privacy in Cory Doctorow's novel 'Homeland'

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Last month, a 26-year-old Internet activist named Aaron Swartz killed himself. He had worked on many widely used online tools that, among other things, enable websites to syndicate their content. He had also been politically active, helping to drive the campaign that blocked the Stop Online Piracy Act.

At the time of his death, he was under threat of prosecution — and decades in jail — for downloading millions of academic journal articles via the MIT network in hopes of making them freely available. In a statement, his family said they thought that his death was "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

Although no one would have wished it, Swartz's death will shadow the release of Cory Doctorow's new young adult novel, Homeland. As Doctorow made clear in his eloquent obituary, he drew on advice from Swartz in setting out how his protagonist could use the information now available about voters to create a grass roots anti-establishment political campaign. More generally, the story embodies a particular outlook on the world — tech-savvy, suspicious of state and corporate power — that reflects what Swartz had articulated.

Homeland is a sequel to Doctorow's 2008 novel Little Brother, about a teenage hacker named Marcus Yallow who gets caught up in the aftermath of a 9/11-scale terrorist attack in San Francisco. Because of his skill and inclination for gaming the systems around him, Marcus falls under suspicion and is arrested. He's held in custody and waterboarded but then released. The novel ends with him in the arms of his new girlfriend, Ange.

Homeland picks up a few years later. Marcus and Ange are at the Burning Man festival when he's given two things: a job offer to work as webmaster for a reform-minded politician, and a USB drive containing an array of data that could embarrass government and corporate interests. What should Marcus do with the data? And how can he balance his respectable new job with the illicit — if not illegal — world he comes from?

While Little Brother is narrowly focused on terrorism and the responses to it, Homeland deals with problems less amenable to clear solutions. The question of whether Marcus should release the leaked data is a genuine moral dilemma. The book's central concern is what civil society should look like in a world where more and more information about citizens is available to the state.

When Marcus and his friends get on the subway in San Francisco, "the oppressive feeling of being watched crowded in from all sides." This sensation pervades the novel: Marcus is aware of how many of his actions — and, by extension, how many of the reader's — could be under observation. The authority figures who seem corrupt in the first book turn out to be even more so in the second.

Homeland is, unashamedly, a work of advocacy. Doctorow turns his text into a kind of instruction manual, with details about how to do everything from securely storing data on virtual machines to sharing enormous files. There's no denying the skill and fun of the ride; it's like being buttonholed by a smart, self-aware autodidact.

The poignancy of Homeland emerges only at the end: If this is a war, it's one with real casualties. One of the book's two afterwords is by Swartz. Referring to what these characters create, he emphasizes, "This stuff is real." These tools can be used by anyone motivated and talented enough: "But it only works if you take part. . . . Now it's up to you to change the system. . . . Let me know if I can help."

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