Substack Pop Xulture Newsletter # 16
Original Article on Fear and Security in Little Brother. 8/16/23
Greetings readers! It’s time for another Newsletter but this time in addition to the current and upcoming projects, I’m giving you an exclusive article also. Let’s go!
My publishing with magazines has slowed down recently for a few reasons. (As he went on, giving no further explanation.) But I’m happy to say Christ and Pop Culture (CAPC) did publish my “1993 Film Favorites, Part 3: Responsibility in Schindler’s List” article in late July. From the title you can tell this is part of a series I’m doing on movies that turn 30 this year.
Schindler’s List tells the story of Oskar Schindler, the immoral entrepreneur who ended up saving the lives of 1,200 Jewish people during WWII. For relevance, I tied in the current uptick in hate speech and racist violence in California, the U.S., and around the world. And finally, how we individuals can take steps to turn the tide of racism. Read the article for the specifics.
In last month’s Newsletter # 15, I teased my upcoming article on the Disney+ film Flamin’ Hot. I finished writing the piece, which will be titled “The Slow Burnin’ Faith of Flamin’ Hot,” and is scheduled to publish with CAPC on August 21st.
My wife’s friend loaned her the novel Little Brother, so naturally I checked it out. I enjoyed the book but it wasn’t until I finished that I considered writing the article below. And that’s rare, I usually come up with an article idea in the middle of consuming media.
Then it was about finding where this piece would fit. I recognized I wanted to make it a little shorter and make it exclusive for all of you. I always give you something exclusive, but it was fun to write a unique piece not based on anything I’ve previously published. I know this was the right choice…enjoy!
Fear and Security in Little Brother by Chris Fogle
In some ways 2008 feels like a lifetime ago, in others it was yesterday. The top three grossing movies were: The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The age of superheroes was upon us (which is a series of articles unto itself), but maybe more importantly, the themes of those films were indicative of culture in general. Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker was a terrorist, Tony Stark was attacked and captured by terrorists, and Indy’s first foray in nineteen years led him to be captured by a small group of Soviets hellbent on terrorizing the West.
So it’s no surprise someone asked: What would happen if terrorists attacked San Francisco post-9/11? That someone was Cory Doctorow, and his book Little Brother imagines the Department of Homeland Security creating a police-state where a group of high schoolers fight for their freedoms. As speculative fiction, it reminded me of an Andy Weir novel but written for the young adult demographic.
Just like Weir, Doctorow geeks out over the subject matter, sometimes with lengthy explanations of how real technologies function. Occasionally, the in-depth descriptions feel like organs, muscles, and bones of what the author really wants to discuss with the story as a skin stretched taut over that skeletal structure. But most of the time, the story is riveting.
I just finished William Gibson’s Neurmancer, which I loved but was a lot of work to comprehend. So I found enjoyment in getting lost in a fairly easy read, which was both thought-provoking and fun. The term “fun” is used here walking the razor’s edge. With an understanding that a story laced with pop culture and slightly reminiscent of my punk rawk adolescence is dealing with heavy subjects of terrorism and, as Nav Purewal puts it, “an argument against the creeping surveillance state.” But upon finishing the book, I wondered for something written in 2008 (with both knowledge of and distance from the 9/11 attacks, while capturing that year’s blockbuster themes), how is Little Brother still relevant in 2023?
That question morphed into an upcoming installment for my Creativity series, but the question of terror and security applies here. In an article written by the author ten years later, Doctorow illuminates a common misconception by the military and civilians alike about security. He begins by pointing out that ever since WWII, computers are general purpose. The same with the internet, which means they can’t be perfectly secure.
In other words, and this is crucial, “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).”
(That extremely long sentence can be tough to comprehend so try re-reading it skipping the parenthesis.)
This inability to partially restrict a machine, program, or network perfectly never occurred to me. But I don’t feel bad. Apparently very few people, even policymakers and heads of security departments, comprehend that fact either. Doctorow explains that just because we wish it were true doesn’t mean it can be a reality. “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.”
It may seem like there’s not much we can act on with these facts if we’re not in the security sector. I would be interested in hearing how single-purpose machines would function nowadays, but I’m not an engineer. So my thoughts turn toward how we, the general public, can handle terrorism and security.
Using Little Brother as a guide, we should be diligent in reporting suspicious behavior whether its possible terrorism or the security measures authorized in response to threats real or imagined. However, internalizing Doctorow’s statements may make us more balanced in how we respond. That may mean practicing patience in understanding that security technology is not perfect, while simultaneously considering actions we could take if threatened.
As of writing this article, we’re nearly at the anniversary of 9/11. If twenty-two years ago wakened Americans to what much of the rest of the world knew of threatened security, then fifteen years ago was a pivotal moment of coping with that fear. In some ways 2008 feels like a lifetime ago, in others it was yesterday. I think lessons from Doctorow’s Little Brother can positively shape our attitude toward terror and security for the next fifteen years.
[END EXCLUSIVE ARTICLE CONTENT]
Fear and security are not necessarily topics we enjoy thinking about. But burying our head in the sand doesn’t serve much of a purpose either. I hope you enjoyed a (probably) new perspective on security and the Newsletter as a whole. Thanks for reading!
Thanks, in Him,
-Chris (the Bearded Wonder) Fogle