My Interpretation Of Attack Surface

Cory Doctorow’s novel exposes one vicious division in human society today.



Source: Pixabay

I recently read Cory Doctorow’s novel Attack Surface. This was my first encounter with his speculative works and I — for some reason — had a foolishly preconceived notion that this work would be a typical American work of SF — a lot of scientific-technological jargon woven around a generic plot. But I was wrong. His is a work with little technical nonsense, a realistic prognostication (or current affairs), and a lot of socio-political questions. All with a good solid simple plot.

As a whole, I think the author has successfully managed to portray the division that has erupted in our world today ever since the ubiquity of personal technologies. This division I perceive as such:

On one end, a new elite has been formed of those who own or control modern surveillance technologies. They form the surveillance elite, who exploit the attack surface. And on the other end are those who work-on or consume such technologies — the populace, the mass.

The main character Masha is a modern day data science knowhow, who is sailing on two boats. On one (which is more a yacht) is good money, security, privileges, travels around exquisite elite places; while on the other are friends and fights for freedom and against oppression. She, of course, isn’t completely sure which boat she should commit herself to. She says:

Having a day job where you help repressive regimes spy on their dissidents and a hobby where you help those dissidents evade detection is self-destructive.

And this observation of hers turns out to be true. Both boats aren’t friendly to each other — in fact, they are out for each other. And this is what her story is about.

In the beginning, she is working for a company called Xoth which is helping the Slovstakian government to suppress the popular uprising. The government uses all kinds of measures from spying to autonomous taxis and Masha’s job is to help them in all this by making sense of the data generated by the ‘perpetrators’. Which she does pretty well. At the same time she cheekily assists the rebels too. She works under strong female figures who not just intimidate her but also, deep inside inspire her. Their life is dull, mechanistic and devoid of any values apart from success and achievement.

Her friend on the other hand is fighting a battle for a fundamental rights alliance in the US. This takes us to the heart of the struggle of the general people who still have a lot to fight for in society, who still have values not just revolving around professional success and achievement and who as nemesis have authorities who use the technologies they use as a surveillance weapon against them. To track them, to understand them and to eventually curb them.

She continues to hop around until her actions are deemed to have gone against the company, she is exposed and is forced to quit. This leads her to her friend. While initially, she shares her expert knowledge on how to remain secure and what they are up against, soon she has to decide. She is of immense use for the elites who require her expertise and continue to lure her — while her heart gradually diverts towards her old friends and the rebels whose situation she understands and connects with. During all this she reveals to us her past and how she entered the industry. She had a sense of right/wrong all along!

Her situation reminded me of the 18th century French thinker Turgot who, while having a liberal viewpoint, was appointed the Minister of Finance by Louis XVI. There he suggested crazy reforms, calling for imposition of land tax on nobility and clergy and freedom of commerce/industry among many. Of course, the French regime wasn’t open to such measures and the subsequent hostility of nobility and higher clergy meant he was soon dismissed from his position.

Turgot too was on both boats. He too had sufficient ability and knowledge to be of use to both the elites of his time and to the general people.

Unlike Turgot however, Masha’s expertise has immediate consequences. She is living at a time where multiple rebellions are going all around. The things she knows, has been doing and can do is being used by the elites to suppress the very movements her friends are involved in and she has a heart for.

The situation the author has sketched is one that every conscious person has to face. Indeed this kind of polarization has been around forever, albeit in different forms. Teaming up with elites has always meant security and privileges, while fighting for/with the mass has meant risk and discomfort. Yet time and again in human history this fight against the elites has occurred. This leads us to question why. Perhaps the answer is: that little part of our mind which we call conscience which can not only discern right from wrong but also forces us to choose. Masha’s case is the same. And it reflects the conundrum each person with the ability to appease both ends has to face. While the fact that this polarized struggle has been a permanence in human affairs may be enough to discourage a lot of people deeming it futile — It’s those same fights against the elites that have helped human society evolve, if one may use such a term.

As to the story and the plot of the book, I didn’t find the work formulaic at all. In fact, guessing by the way the events are arranged, I got the feeling that the novel was written by the author in a solid and continuous burst of empathy and excitement — like every work of literature should be written! It is an easy uncomplicated read and eventually manages to teach the value of privacy, friends and most importantly: living in a democratic society and the powers we all have by default. Along the way, the book manages to provide valuable insights on modern technologies and the system that creates and exploits them.