“You either bend the arc or it bends you”

‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow.

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Attack Surface‘ (2020) is a gripping action-packed story of oppression and resistance with plenty of insights into the potential of new technologies and big data. It is also a powerful manifesto for the necessity of activism.

The central character, Masha, is a nomadic surveillance consultant employed by some very dodgy corporations to advise oppressive regimes – and she also uses her skills to help the very campaigning groups targeted by her technologies. Unsurprisingly she is highly conflicted and alienated; disconnected from both her amoral employers and from her activist friends:

“The people around me belonged where they were…They actually lived lives…They carried phones, they talked on those phones, messaged and hopped from tower to tower. They were each data-streams, converted from analog humans doing things to data that could be quantified and analyzed, by people like me, who didn’t belong anywhere.” (p.270)

Masha is challenged by her friend Tanisha (‘Neesh’) to explain how it is that the struggle for justice has achieved any progress:

“Do you have a theory of change?

I shrugged. “The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice?”…

”You know what makes it bend, Masha? People hauling on that mother, with all their strength, with all their lives. We pull and pull and pull, and then, bit by bit, it bends. People hear Dr King’s quote and they think, oh, well, if the arc of history is going to bend towards justice then all we have to do is sit back and wait for it. But the truth is, it bends because we make it bend, and the instant we let up, even a little, it snaps back.” (p.275)

When Bayard Wilkins, a veteran campaigner addresses a protest meeting in Oakland, California (‘I was there with Bobby Seale in sixty-seven’), he makes a similar point:

“I’ve been standing my ground… right here, waiting for the arc of history to bend towards justice. That arc doesn’t seem to want to bend. It wiggles and it shakes, but hard as I pull on it, hard as we all pull on it, it just hasn’t flexed…

I’m just one man and I am not going to stop hauling on that arc until it starts to move. Because there is not alternative. You either bend the arc or it bends you: you stand up, or you surrender. There’s no middle ground, friends.” (p.325)

The novel charts Masha’s long crisis of conscience; one which mirrors on a larger scale the daily choices we all face between accepting or resisting each of the aggressions and injustices we see – whether large or small. Her rationalisations feel familiar:

“Vast historic forces had brought this world into being, and I had to live in it with everyone else. If I took vows of poverty or swore myself to revolution, it wouldn’t overturn the order…We were born as individuals, and we died on our own, and even the tightest, best co-ordinated group was just a bunch of singular individuals choosing to work together for a while.

All of this was self-serving…but self-serving wasn’t the same as wrong.” (p.403)

Ange, like Tanisha, speaks for the activist with a well worked out theory of change which places humans at the centre:

“…information doesn’t want to be free …People do. People use technology to make themselves free, by using it to share and organize and connect. Freedom isn’t something technology gives you, technology is something you use to get freedom.” (p.431).

Masha is able to bring her experience of the psychology of both sides of a struggle to their discussion of tactics and understands how those in power rely on apathy and inertia whereas advocates of change need serious momentum.

“Your enemies don’t need people to disagree with you, they just need people not to care.” (p.438).

In the afterword to the novel, IT security expert Runa Sandvik, who helped develop the Tor anonymity network, helps to locate the heart of the story in its hopeful humanity rather than its dystopian technology, and advises us to:

“Make sure you understand the negative impacts – the cost – that new solutions have on our lives. Only then can we start to make better choices for ourselves and our collective future…This book is a powerful reminder that you, like Masha, can choose how you live your life. How you use your skills, knowledge and time.” (p,499).

In his author’s note, Cory Doctorow takes a clear political view of the relationship between activism and technology:

“Technology can be a force multiplier, for the powerful and powerless alike. But the use of technology by the powerless is more salient than when it is wielded by the powerful, because giving power to the powerless is a change in kind, while increasing the power of the already powerful is merely a change in degree. But that temporary power boost will be denatured by the powerful as quickly as they can manage it, so the advantage is not enough to make lasting structural changes. To make lasting structural changes, you need to use technology to change politics.” (p.501)

While the book’s main themes can be seen as technology and surveillance, it should also be read as advocating for social movements, activism and struggle and how we decide between whether to say and do nothing or engage and resist; whether to bend the arc or let it bend us.

See also:

Interview with Cory Doctorow from the LA Review of Books (January 2021)

The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

What if?’ Dystopias in fiction (December 2017)

Reading dystopias (July 2015)

More fictional dystopias (March 2017)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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