Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and the power of radical transparency

Read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which is a NYT bestseller even though you can download it for free from his site. It’s a Young Adult novel but it deals with some serious and interesting themes. Go out and read it. The novel is a powerful investigation of our civil rights in our "war on terror" and the role technology might play for good or bad. Along the way it provides a great history of civil disobedience and accessible explanations of surveillance and cryptology (and why you might care about such things). I’ll be interested to see how HS teachers and schools respond to this YA novel. Doctorow provides usable instructions for circumventing existing school network security. Of course all that information is already available online but it’s a little different when your teacher gives you the information, right?

So the book comes at you from two angles. First it deals with government brutality. Sadly it’s not hard to imagine that if there were another terrorist attack of a similar magnitude to 9/11 that it could result in the abridgment of civil rights. It reminds us how important privacy is to freedom and how important encryption can be for privacy in the cognisphere. The second part, especially important for its teen audience, is seeing the role institutions play here. Maybe teens are all jaded and cynical, but not the ones I meet when they show up on campus. Doctorow shows students what we all know. Educational institutions present themselves as distributors of knowledge and information when it would be more accurate to understand them as guardians of knowledge and information.  There’s a perpetual arms race between those who attempt to lock down networks in institutions and those who devise means to unlock them. Schools forbid cell phones, teachers keep computers turned off, professors tell students NOT to bring laptops to class: they don’t do these things b/c they hope students will be able to access and communicate knowledge.

Anyway, that’s all old stuff for us (though I think this novel is a great way to introduce these issues to teens, both in HS and college).

Importantly though, the other side of privacy is radical transparency. As Doctorow explains, the only kind of encryption that works is public encryption. Fortunately we don’t live in a world like Little Brother in that Doctorow doesn’t have to fear imprisonment for his novel or website. I’m presenting at Computers and Writing on open access pedagogy and will be talking about this. I don’t teach in a public space because I have "nothing to hide." We all desire privacy. I operate in the open b/c it strengthens my teaching and scholarship. I mean here I am, 11 pm, having just finished this book, trying to figure out what I’m thinking right now.

(Perhaps such thoughts should be kept private, eh? Well I doubt anyone is forcing you to read this.)

The obvious part is that I can get feedback from others, and I won’t ignore that b/c I really do value it. The second, maybe equally obvious part is the way that the demand to articulate my thoughts here pushes me. I can’t just allow myself to settle for a thought resting in my mind.  However, openness has another important effect. It develops trust within a community.

Does this sound naive to you?

Think of it this way. In a department, all the profs have academic freedom. We teach how we want. It’s unlikely that we share syllabi. Mine are available online at least during the semester in which I’m using them, but 90%+ of my colleagues are not. Our course evaluations are confidential (though rumors certainly circulate).

What does this accomplish? It often leads us sadly to imagine the worst of our colleagues. We operate in secret, insisting on our "freedom" to do so and the result is generally a broken community where our freedom manifest in our hiding in our classrooms and suspecting our colleagues of some unnamed infringement. Yep, I bet you always wondered what academic freedom was; well, now you know.

What would happen if it were all out in the open? I’m sure there would be some "discussion." But we’d all be swaying in the breeze, so to speak. In the long term, we’d have to learn to accept our differences. After all, we aren’t going to dispense with academic freedom! Instead, we’re actually going to use it to be public rather than private. The ultimate result of this transparency is a stronger privacy, a stronger, community-supported right to one’s intellectual practices.

And that’s what I think I get here. Not that everyone supports me of course. It’d be a pretty boring blog if everyone agreed with it. Hell, even I don’t agree with everything I’ve written here over the years. That’s not the point. Instead, I simply believe that by making public the things I’m thinking and doing as an academic, I strengthen the integrity of my everyday work, which by its nature often takes place in more private spaces.