Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

So what attracted me to this book was hearing the author discuss the banning of his book from a school reading program in Florida on CSPAN's Book Talk.  I think the fact that he sent the students copies sealed the deal for me... I really needed to read this book, because anyone that would aggressively defend their writing like that deserved the book revenue... and for anyone to see the book as a legitimate challenge to authority, well, it had to be... good. And it is.

Doctorow's novel does something books like MT Anderson's Feed and Ernest Cline's Ready Player One does not: in short, it offers meaningful commentary on the war on terror as well as questioning how technology can both bind and liberate us.

The narrative forces the reader into the passenger seat and has a way of saying, "Relax, I got this." For me, this feeling came after being PWND by technical jargon, and since I am constantly negotiating with the books I read like any pretentious, MFA toting, fiction-writing know-it-all, being PWND by Doctorow's narrative is seriously refreshing. And fun.

Lame ass teachers' pets are bound to protest any of the following: the criticism of standardized testing, the criticism of the department of homeland security, the ugly and critical depiction of water-boarding, the intimate relationship between the teenage protagonists, and the directive to hack whatever moves.

I'd like to address each of these in order. Standardized testing is first...

So it's revealed that the protagonist's girlfriend once swiped and published a standardized text costing the department of education a considerable sum of money to write and distribute new tests. While this is a bold move on Ange's part, and not something I would necessarily be proud of my own kids doing, it creates an interesting discussion: to what extent should tests rule what we do in education? In this teacher's opinion, not much. Too much emphasis on standardized testing undermines the classroom teacher's expertise, authority and ability to impact lives in meaningful ways. Standardized tests, especially the multiple choice ones, often raise recall and skill/conceptual knowledge (the two most basic expressions of learning according to Webb's Depth of Knowledge and Bloom's Taxonomy, see below figure) to the Glow of Divine Authority that limns (see Words Both Curious and Valuable) standardized tests in this country to the extent that they decide collegiate placement, scholarships, teacher evaluation, and teacher pay (some would argue)... and as a good friend of mine once said, these tests inform a kind of educational caste system. It also creates a phony learning environment; my favorite example of this comes from one of George Orwell's essays titled "Such, Such Were the Joys...":

"... the supply of possible questions was not inexhaustible. They were the kind of stupid question that is answered by rapping out a name of quotation. Who plundered the Begams? Who was beheaded in an open boat? Who caught the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes? Almost all our historical teaching ran on this level. History was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts with resounding phrases tied to them. Disraeli brought peace with honour. Clive was astonished at his moderation. Pitt called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. And the dates, and the mnemonic devices. (Did you know, for example, that the initial letters of ‘A black Negress was my aunt: there's her house behind the barn’ are also the initial letters of the battles in the Wars of the Roses?) Flip, who ‘took’ the higher forms in history, reveled in this kind of thing. I recall positive orgies of dates, with the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming."

These tests should be written to encourage creativity, as well as a student's ability to evaluate, synthesize and analyze sources... otherwise stop wasting our time and your resources.

The criticism of the US Department of Homeland Security, specifically their efforts to prevent terrorism, is spot on, and I believe the following passage from the book as quoted by Wikipedia outlining the paradox of the false positive speaks for itself:

The main protagonist of the book is subjected to water-boarding by the US Department of Homeland Security.  In case you're unfamiliar, waterboarding is when a prisoner undergoes a simulated execution in which water is used to essentially trick the prisoner's body into believing it's drowning, and therefore dying. Here's a graphic:

This is certainly effective means of hurting a person; you're basically killing them without actually killing them. So win-win, right? I suppose the counter-argument, and the one in the book simply relies on pathos. It's inhumane. Logos might suggest that using torture to get information is bound to do only one thing: get the victim to admit to and/or say anything to get the torture to stop. Under an administration that promises to reinstate waterboarding "and much stronger" techniques, it's at least a worthy topic of discussion. Is this who we are? Maybe instead of re-hashing last night's rerun of Grey's Anatomy in the break room, we should be asking these questions of one another. Just a thought.

The intimate relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend is.... okay, they have sex. The description is minimalistic, and actually kind of sweet and tender while remaining true to the feelings of the experience. So what? Well, I suppose some groups would say this encourages teen sex, which we're okay with having graphic depictions of (many that are not sweet and tender) all over the Internet, and in our product ads, but a realistic portrayal of a deeply human moment is probably inappropriate... isn't that just a little bit hypocritical? Will a scene like this inspire teens to have sex who otherwise would not... ?  First of all, we have to acknowledge that the CDC states that in 2015, 41% of all graduating American teenagers have reported that they have had sexual intercourse... some other sources are as high as 62% Secondly, I suppose your feelings on this would relate to the age-old debate that surrounds discussions on censorship: monkey-see- monkey-do. In other words, would a book that portrays (in a very human way) an experience that more than half of America's teens have already experienced, be likely to sway kids who haven't? Those in favor of censorship say "probably," which is an opinion censors are entitled to. I guess we'll never know. I will say this, however, at age 17 my brain was already being waterboarded on a regular basis by a culture that worships sex: I mean music, ads, movies, TV, "locker-room-talk..."magazines, and this was "pre-Internet" BUT it was omnipresent, and if I wasn't listening to a song about it, or looking at an ad that used an undercurrent of sexual imagery to appeal to the consumer in me, I found I couldn't go very long without thinking about it despite the deluge of imagery, etc. Many of these portrayals of a sexual encounter emphasized the act itself and, more importantly, the bodies involved in the act. I'd say very little onus was paid to the humanity involved in the act. My argument is this: if we're going to live in a society and culture that bombards kids with sexual imagery, I'm not going to balk at the portrayals that reveal that physical love is about tender, human emotion. Also, they were being safe. 

Finally, in the afterward, Bruce Schneirer, security technologist, literally tells young hackers to try and hack security systems. Some people might argue that this encourages bad, maybe even criminal, behavior. Well, that's not how he frames it. This analogy occurred to me the other day: hackers are critics, and say what you will about critics, their purpose is to inspire practitioners of whatever (cooking, writing, moviemaking, teaching, etc.) to raise the bar. In his argument hackers form a kind of symbiotic relationship with code writers; one sets the bar while the other helps to raise it. It's maybe counter-intuitive to the square community, but nevertheless logical reasoning. 

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