I'm Andrew. I write about the past and future of tech, music, media, culture, art, and activism. This is my blog.

Book Club Update #1

Posted: November 14, 2016

We’re building a book club for a better America. This is the first official update from that book club. You’re welcome to join in! We’re reading Little Brother by Cory Docotorow, which is a free download from his website, craphound.com.

I mentioned in my introductory announcment that I was working on a discussion forum, and that I hoped to have it up by today.

Good news: It’s mostly ready, and being tested now.

Bad news: It’ll be a day or two before I feel comfortable enough with the security and stability to let other people on. It’s on the way, though. (more on this below.)

There are a lot of things to cover when you’re talking about Doctorow in general, and Little Brother specifically. Today, I want to focus on the Introduction and the Copyright Thing. You did read the introduction and the Copyright Thing, right? If not, they come with my strong recommendation.

The Introduction

Here is a pull quote:

When I was 17, the world seemed like it was just going to get more free. The Berlin Wall was about to come down. Computers – which had been geeky and weird a few years before – were everywhere, and the modem I’d used to connect to local bulletin board systems was now connecting me to the entire world through the Internet and commercial online services like GEnie. My lifelong fascination with activist causes went into overdrive as I saw how the main difficulty in activism – organizing – was getting easier by leaps and bounds (I still remember the first time I switched from mailing out a newsletter with hand-written addresses to using a database with mail-merge). In the Soviet Union, communications tools were being used to bring information – and revolution – to the farthest-flung corners of the largest authoritarian state the Earth had ever seen.

But 17 years later, things are very different. The computers I love are being co-opted, used to spy on us, control us, snitch on us. The National Security Agency has illegally wiretapped the entire USA and gotten away with it. Car rental companies and mass transit and traffic authorities are watching where we go, sending us automated tickets, finking us out to busybodies, cops and bad guys who gain illicit access to their databases. The Transport Security Administration maintains a “no-fly” list of people who’d never been convicted of any crime, but who are nevertheless considered too dangerous to fly. The list’s contents are secret. The rule that makes it enforceable is secret. The criteria for being added to the list are secret. It has four-year-olds on it. And US senators. And decorated veterans – actual war heroes.

The 17 year olds I know understand to a nicety just how dangerous a computer can be. The authoritarian nightmare of the 1960s has come home for them. The seductive little boxes on their desks and in their pockets watch their every move, corral them in, systematically depriving them of those new freedoms I had enjoyed and made such good use of in my young adulthood.

What’s more, kids were clearly being used as guinea-pigs for a new kind of technological state that all of us were on our way to, a world where taking a picture was either piracy (in a movie theater or museum or even a Starbucks), or terrorism (in a public place), but where we could be photographed, tracked and logged hundreds of times a day by every tin-pot dictator, cop, bureaucrat and shop-keeper. A world where any measure, including torture, could be justified just by waving your hands and shouting “Terrorism! 9/11! Terrorism!” until all dissent fell silent.

In this intro, Doctorow paints a pretty bleak picture of modern technology, and all the ways that it can go wrong. The next thing he says is, essentially, that it doesn’t have to be this way. We have to DO something.

So I want to start our discussion and this book club, with that idea clearly in mind. Action is the central theme of our study here.

We are doing something. This isn’t just consumption. We are here to learn, and to support one another. (along the way, we’re building a community of like-minded folks to help organize within their own communities. We will learn how to make a difference.)

The introduction says, more clearly than I ever could, exactly why this book, and this book club, is important.

I ask you to invite your friends to participate (you can send them a link to this blog post.) and, if they need convincing, I think that introduction can do a great job.

What do you think? Are computers dangerous? Are they a force for good, evil, both?

The thing that drew me to Doctorow’s writing to begin with was probably his website boingboing, a news website with a snarky, subversive slant.

The thing that drew me to his fiction was “The Copyright Thing.”

I believe modern copyright law is pretty broken. I think Doctorow lays out a good case for the ways that looser copyright laws would help creatives. That matters a lot to me.

Think about what he says here, and about the implications of the Creative Commons license on the novel.

Let me know what you think about the Creative Commons licence that this book uses. Is it a good thing? A bad thing?

If you were writing a book, how would you licence it?

Do you think copyright law is important to you, as an individual?

The Discussion Forum

We’re talking about a book that is full of secure communication technology (both real and fictional) and the looming threat of censorship (or worse.)

With those themes, and against the background of the NSA’s massive global spying campaign, a regular discussion forum just would not do. I decided that we needed something special. Something that will help you, as users, learn the fundamentals of security software, while participating in building a real community.

To that end, I have taken inspiration from articles like: Tilde.Club and Human Scale Software to set up a small, cheap, and fairly secure Linux computer that is connected to the internet. I will make user accounts for anyone that wants one, and we will carry on our book club discussion (among other things) from there.

As soon as it’s ready, I’ll send out an announcement email, and I’ll be on hand to answer any questions that come up.

I’ll be back in a few days. Hopefully, by then I’ll have a working discussion forum and a tutorial on basic encryption technologies, the limits of anonymity, and Chapters 1 - 3 in the book.

Thank you for joining the discussion, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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