Cory Doctorow: Technology Can Be a Force for Liberation

Introduction to the Persian edition of the science fiction novel Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, London, June 2008

Available for free download via, under the “Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0” Creative Commons license.

Cory Doctorow:

I wrote this book because I believe that technology can be a force for liberation. Not always, and not easily, but nevertheless. I grew up in Canada, but my family were Soviet refugees; my father was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Azerbaijan. When WWII ended, my grandparents didn’t go home to Russia (where my grandmother was from) or Poland (where my grandfather’s family was). Instead, they left the USSR behind, crossing all the way through it to come to Canada and start new lives in Toronto.

They left because the Stalinist program was a nightmarish marriage of totalitarianism and technology. There have always been repressive governments that declared that they had absolute dominion over their citizens’ lives. But without technology, the state’s power was always constrained to what could practically be accomplished: a state can only employ so many secret policemen before everyone is spying on everyone else, and no one is keeping the trains running, no one is harvesting the fields, no one is making sure the lights stay on.

But technology multiplies the secret policeman’s power. With wiretaps, hidden cameras, powerful databases and data-mining, the state is able to turn every snitch into a superman, whose ears can hear sounds from across the nation, whose eyes can be everywhere.

That was the disastrous nature of Stalinism: the authoritarian urge, coupled with technology to realize it.

But technology isn’t inherently a tool of control. Rather, it is a tool of disruption: whatever the status quo, technology makes it possible to upend it. Technology gives the advantage to attackers over defenders. This is a lesson as old as medieval sieges: the same earth-moving technology that made it possible to protect a city with high walls and ramparts also made it possible to tear them down. The difference was that the wall-builders needed to erect a perfect and flawless wall, while the attackers merely needed to find a single flaw to bring it down and pour into the city.

So the Soviet Union built a tower of surveillance with technology.

In East Germany, the secret police maintained files on practically every person in the country. In Finland, during the Soviet occupation, the KGB (Russian secret police), took over the 12-storey Hotel Torni (the tallest building in Helsinki) as headquarters. When they left, the Finns discovered a network of 20 kilometers of wire-tapping wire in the walls, as each spy used technology to surveil the other spies.

And then the citizens of the Soviet Union dismantled their society with technology. Old technology was inadequate: typewriters could be uniquely identified based on the idiosyncrasies of their keys; printing presses were huge and hard to disguise; tuberadios were bulky and easily detected. But new technologies – computers, electric typewriters, fax machines, miniature radios – made it possible to fly under the surveillance state’s radar.

And just as technology toppled the Stalinist regime, it liberated people all around the world. In the summer of 1979, I was eight years old, and we’d just gotten an Apple ][+ personal computer.

It had a modem, and through that modem, I was able to go practically anywhere on the planet. Through the nascent network of BBSes and information services, I had access to tools, ideas and communities that would have been beyond the reach of all but the richest and most powerful adults until then.

All through my adolescence, technology was a source of personal and generational liberation. We were free to go places, conduct dialog, and expand our horizons and autonomy through networks, computers and phones. Organizing group activities, from grand demonstrations to trivial dinner parties, grew easier day by day.

But technology disrupts. Even as technology was liberating a generation, another generation was finding in it an oppressor.

By the time I was leaving university, high school students were discovering that their schools were using technology to spy on every click, every IM, every email. Little kids discovered that their parents could install software on their phones that used the in-built GPS to track their every step, like a paroled felon wearing an ankle-cuff.

Hence Little Brother: a novel about the next turning point.

A novel about the moment when technology shifts again, giving power back to the individual and groups of individuals to rebalance the oppressive might of the state.

The technologies outlined in this book are real: cryptographic tools, proxies, and other systems can be used to effectively evade surveillance and control. But they aren’t perfect, and they aren’t easy. As the attacker, trying to disrupt the system, technology gives you the advantage. As the defender, trying to keep the system from eavesdropping on your conversations, technology gives the advantage to your enemies.

It is not enough to find a tool that claims to be ”secure.” To be secure, you need to understand what the technology is making you secure against, and you need to evaluate whether there are avenues of attack left open. Email encryption can keep your communications secret, but what if the recipient stores unencypted backups on a server that can be seized by the state? Encrypting your hard drive can keep its contents secret from the police, but what if the police simply jail you for refusing to give them the password?

Encryption, proxies and social networking tools are powerful ways to increase the power of individual and to form groups to take action. But they are not perfect, and can even open up new vulnerabilities: a compromised social network can be used to implicate all your friends, comrades and family members, a keylogger on your computer puts every keystroke in the hands of spies and bullies.

Being informed, being critical, and being alert are all mandatory. The existence of a security technology isn’t an opportunity to relax your guard: it’s a warning to increase it. Every time you find yourself marvelling at the power of a new tool, imagine not just how you’d use it, but how it might be used against you. Be careful. Be safe. Be free.”

1 Comment Cory Doctorow: Technology Can Be a Force for Liberation

  1. Dale Carrico

    “Technology” Is Not a Force for Either Liberation or Oppression

    It is people, and only people, acting together, peer to peer, taking up tools and techniques and directing them to liberatory or oppressive ends that are the only force for liberation or oppression that matters in the world.

    To speak of “technology” as a force is always a mystification. It is a mystification in the same way that those who declare in the face of some political dilemma that we should “let the market decide” the outcome are always actively forgetting in so saying that what passes as “the market” in any epoch is made up of laws, treaties, customs, expectations embedded in maintained infrastructures all of which are the consequence of human decisions, and so imputing to the result of decisions a capacity for decision that functionally displaces present public responsibility for making a decision onto human decision-makers past or hidden.

    Such mystifications disproportionately constrain liberatory possibilities, since it is always to incumbent and secretive elites that agency defaults when present and public agency is disavowed.

    This is a point that cannot be made often enough, especially given how regularly techno-utopians and futurologists peddle their mystifications in the stirring cadences of calls to and celebrations of emancipation (in this, as in other things, their close kinship with advertising and self-promotional discourses more generally, is unmistakable).

    What we tend to call “technology” in any epoch is always in fact a fraction of what is actually technical or artifactual in the world. As we grow accustomed to our techniques and artifacts we tend to “naturalize” them. We lose track of the artifactuality of our cultivated terrain, the technical expressiveness of our body’s gestures and bearing.

    To lose track of the made in this way is to lose a thread that might help us make our way through history’s labyrinth: to forget what has been made otherwise is fatally to misconstrue what could be made otherwise still.

    We tend to assign the moniker “technology” only to that portion of artifice that remains as yet unfamiliar, that seems in its unfamiliarity to be disruptive to our expectations, and in turn in that disruptiveness seems to promise or threaten potency. Nothing is more commonplace than to confine the assignment to the sphere of the “technological” only those events and entities which, in their confused unfamiliarity, might be invested with the most hyperbolic dreams of omnipotence and nightmares of impotence.

    My point is not to propose the contrary mystification that technology is somehow “neutral” or “autonomous” but to recognize that the interestedness and embeddedness with which the “technological” inevitably reverberates begins in the assignment always only to some and not all that is susceptible to that designation the “technological.” The politics of the “technological” in its most general register is the elaboration of collective agency through the policing of the bounds of what will be taken to be the familiar and the unfamiliar, and so the open and the closed, the possible and the important.

    Needless to say, the faux-progressivism of that most paradoxically reactionary of contemporary public discourses, the futurological, (whether in the mainstream futurology of neoliberal developmentalism or in the surreal Robot Cultic extremities of superlative futurology) consists in little more than the exacerbation and exploitation of ignorance and confusion about the state of the art the better to substitute for deliberation about the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes to their actual stakeholders in the world a faithful conjuration of superlative futures toward which these changes are presumably nothing in themselves but stepping-stones along a path toward the ultimate techno-magickal transcendence of disease and mortality (super-longevity), error and humiliation (super-intelligence), frustration and compromise (super-abundance), a return to infantile plenitude purchased at the usual cost of the refusal of adult engagement in the open futurity inhering in the present, peer-to-peer.

    To invest with the force of the agency which is rightfully ours what has already been arbitrarily assigned the status of the “technological” is always to constrain possibility in the service of incumbency, to peddle the promise of amplified gratifications the better to distract us from the permanent promise of liberation through education, agitation, and organization, in our open and opening present, peer to peer.

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