Friday, June 10, 2011

Walking through Walls - Borders and the Future (part 2 of 2)

Following is part 2 of 2 of my presentation to the Border Crossing Lectures in Tijuana, April 29. (yesterday's Part one here.)

3. Virtual sovereigns and real networks.

In the Big Bend region of West Texas, a strange incident occurred a few years ago in which a bunch of real cowboys went to war against the virtual border wall. As they tell the story in the liberated territory of Marfa, where conceptual artists have taken over the old Indian-fighting Army bases and poets control the radio station, a craft from the Department of Homeland Security’s fleet of “OVNIs” fell to earth. The craft was a drug blimp, one of the tethered aerostats that shimmer over the plain like clouds chained to the yard, painting a zone of sophisticated electronic surveillance across the border area and into Chihuahua. When the blimp got loose, it started bouncing around the desert like some accidental surrealism, ignoring property lines and scaring all the cattle. So the ranchers rounded up a posse, hunted the drug blimp, and “killed” it. The government tried to arrest the cowboys for destroying government property, but gave up after realizing the cowboys might fight back.

The blimp was an unofficial component of the “virtual border wall” being developed as a somewhat science fictional way to secure the 2,000-mile long border between the US and Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security recently cancelled the “virtual fence” program that was being developed by Boeing for a fee of hundreds of millions of dollars. You might think that is because they figured out that imaginary fences do not keep the coyotes out. Quite the opposite: that announcement only meant that an even more sophisticated array of surveillance and repulsion technologies will be implemented at different points along the border, each tailored to local conditions. Many of these technologies are under development in San Diego at the headquarters of "HSARPA”—the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, a border security think tank modeled after the Pentagon’s “DARPA” (the people who brought you the Internet, armed space satellites, “Total Information Awareness,” and the Predator drone (also born in San Diego)). And they need your help, as evidenced by the broad solicitation for new technology proposals up on their website this year, including technologies that enable:

“Detection of, tracking of, classifying of, and responding to all threats along the terrestrial and maritime border – in particular, technologies that can:

• Classify humans versus animals in rugged terrain, concealing foliage, water obstacles, mountains, and other environmental constraints

• Lower false alarm rate with raised probability of least 90%

Operate at low power consumption levels—2 year battery life

Detect, exploit, interrogate, and remediate subterranean border tunnels

Detect and track low-flying threat aircraft

Improved analysis and decision-making tools that aid DHS watchstanders in evaluating information and making more timely and accurate decisions.

New and improved airborne sensors, including persistent, wide-area surveillance capabilities, for better land border security to assist in locating illicit activities, materials, or their means of conveyances.

The original Tijuana border wall is made of old portable landing strips—leftovers from the Vietnam War that were re-used in the Persian Gulf. Its descendant will be a force field derived from Star Trek, enabled by electronic eyes that see on, above, and below the ground.

[Pic: Author William Vollman peers through the border fence in Imperial.]

The government request for a machine that can “interrogate” a tunnel reveals the true strategy. The next generation of border fortifications will be invisible and essentially *imaginary*—an American exercise in State-sponsored science fiction very similar to Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” space-based defense against Soviet nuclear missiles, which did not have to be *real* to break the financial back of the Soviets trying to match it. The border wall does not actually need to work to fulfill its purpose.

In her 2010 book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, University of California-Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown makes a compelling case that the real purpose of the global boom in border fortifications is to restore the idea of the sovereign State, in a world where the nation-state is diminishing in relevance and coherency. In Brown’s view, the US border wall primarily exists to reinforce in the minds of American citizens the idea that the border—and the Nation—*really exists*. Because clearly, the border wall does not fulfill its intended purpose of repelling the non-state networks that infiltrate the border every day with unauthorized commerce in people and consumables. The border wall is an authoritarian variation of the “California Map Project” of artist John Baldessari, in which he made the map real by installing giant letters spelling out “C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A” in the actual places where those letters appeared on the map. The border wall draws the line from the map in “real” space, but as HSARPA’s call for ideas shows, it does very little to make that line “real.” Its declaration of impermeability and permanence seems especially silly when one looks at how fluid the border has been over the past 150 years, or how very porous it is revealed to be in a map that overlays demographic and economic data to show how deeply Mexican culture reaches into the Southwestern US (one-fifth to two-thirds of the population of every border county), and how deeply American corporate commercial networks reach into Mexico.

[Pic: Images from John Baldessari's "California Map Project"]

To the extent the next generation border security systems will work, it will not be because they actually function as physical barriers. It will be because people *believe in them* as a representation of the idea of the country they define. Government-designed surveillance and interdiction networks, operated by the inheritors of Dr. Strangelove’s war room, really only work in Hollywood reality—as an accepted narrative of government power that reinforces the identity of the citizen living in a protective Panopticon. But information does not pay much attention to border walls, and systems of centralized authority rarely succeed in controlling naturally-occurring information networks. The more important borders in the 21st century are the the borders between cyberspace and meatspace, which are rapidly being obliterated. Do you think Beijing will really be able to build a Great Firewall of China that will keep out Facebook? Maybe you should ask Hosni Mubarak about that.

Israeli commandos have scouted out the future for us. Ten years ago, the Israeli military faced the challenge of how to control the “feral city” of Gaza—a densely populated, continuously improvised, structurally complex three-dimensional urban labyrinth where, like the Baja border, alternative networks for the movement of edge-people and edge-commerce branch out whenever their movement is blocked by linear fortifications. The Israeli Defense Force chartered its Operational Theory Research Institute, dedicated to applying the poststructuralist theories of Deleuze & Guattari to the domination of Palestine. How do you turn the city into a weapon against its inhabitants? Break down your tactics to the squadron level, use helicopters as weapons platforms in a three-dimensional wargame, turn tunnels into “sources of fractal maneuver,” and train your troops to walk through walls. In his 2007 book Hollow Land, Architect Eyal Weizman describes how the IDF learned to see the city as the networks it harbors, rather than the lines shown on the map. To combat a network of tunnels, they created their own, adopting a strategy of urban “infestation” that ignores established modes of movement through the city. Instead:

To begin with, soldiers assemble behind the wall [of a house] and then, using explosives, drills or hammers, they break a hole large enough to pass through. Stun grenades are then sometimes thrown, or a few random shots fired into what is usually a private living-room occupied by unsuspecting civilians. When the soldiers have passed through the wall, the occupants are locked inside one of the rooms, where they are made to remain — sometimes for several days — until the operation is concluded.

These tactics have proven successful in IDF attacks on Palestinian networks. The Paratrooper Commander in charge of one of the first operations, a former student of philosophy and architecture, explained his conception of these maneuvers:

'this space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. The question is how do you interpret the alley? We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. I want to surprise him! This is why that we opted for the methodology of moving through walls...Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. I said to my troops, "Friends! If until now you were used to move along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!"'

At the same time as the Israeli commandos were improvising their own anthills in the fabric of Gaza, virtual borders were being surpassed with even greater innovation in Tijuana. It was here that ingenious entrepreneurs first converted the imaginary wealth of an online “virtual world” into cash money in the “real” world, by disregarding the boundaries between the two worlds. The company Blacksnow Interactive set up the first “point and click sweatshop” here, paying unskilled workers cheap wages to spend long hours playing three simultaneous games of “Dark Age of Camelot” (a fantasy online multiplayer roleplaying game similar to World of Warcraft or Ultima Online), collecting magical talismans and imaginary real estate to be sold for real dollars on eBay. Litigation shut down the operation, but the law still struggles to maintain the newest borders between the real world and the emerging virtual worlds.

As we look at the border in an age of Network culture ascendant, we need to do so with the special goggles of a Deleuzian Israeli commando, and see the presence of the networks that are the real nervous system of the cities on both sides, networks that pay little attention to the border. The idea of the nation-state reveals its exhaustion as the states send tanks and bombers to fight non-state networks, have the secrets that sustain their power revealed overnight and en-masse through a single eccentric website, and find their decades-long grips on authority overthrown by smart mob revolutions incubated on Facebook, Twitter, and repurposed online dating sites. Network culture has little use for borders, other than as a tool of atemporal play—the way borders serve as instruments of time travel that help us escape surveillance in our present reality.

As we look at the robot eyes of the surveillance cameras, we need to pay more attention to how Networks let the people conduct surveillance on power. Consider the example of Trevor Paglen, an experimental geographer from California who connected the tail numbers of mysterious civilian aircraft with corporate documents and flight plans to expose and map the CIA’s secret program of “extraordinary rendition,” flying prisoners to secret prisons in faraway countries. In Mexico, UNAM’s Nelson Arteaga Bolleto has documented how the people of Monterrey and Reynosa (at least the young and middle class) use Twitter and Facebook to conduct networked surveillance of cartel takeovers of their cities. The combination of social media and ubiquitous computing through smartphones and their cousins is young, but incidents like these point us toward a future in which *the people* govern through constant real-time surveillance of those to whom power is entrusted. We already have the ability to see, and maybe walk, through border walls.

Network culture—in which most of the information ever created by human beings in the past several hundred years is immediately available at the click of a mouse—gives us the tools to see the border differently. These are the tools of hackers who repurpose networks, of musicians who create their works on laptops from mashups of a hundred other recordings. These tools reveal the atemporal nature of the border, as a space of constant change and intermixing, a process whose direction can be influenced by networked participants in its literal and semiotic space. We can see, for example, that the border is a fluid thing that has always moved. That the border is a permeable thing, and that its very permeability will define how it changes in the future. The geopolitical futurist George Friedman, consultant to major American corporations, plausibly predicts in his book The Next 100 Years that by 2030 declining population growth in the US and Europe will turn the current anti-immigration sentiment on its head, as governments from the north compete to attract immigrants from the south—and that demographic trends along the border will so radically redefine the cultural politics of the United States that the border will become either an anachronism of the old world of the twentieth century, or the focal point for military conflict—perhaps when the Tejano governor of 2050 decides the Army National Guard is under his control and he no longer wants to take orders from George Bush’s Mexican-American nephew, George Prescott Gallo Bush.

Projects like the intervention being conducted here by CECUT, Pepe Rojo and his students use these tools—the playful, atemporal tools of science fiction writers—to see alternate pasts, presents and futures of the border zone through which they are moving. To see how all of those versions of reality coexist in the minds of all of us here now, and each has the power to contribute to the manner in which those realities are manifested in the imminent future. The paramilitary fortifications of the border are also the irrigation structures of the more intermixed society to come, and our manipulations of the present can help the territory being incubated become one that is more authentically free than either of its precedents.

The movie about to be screened, Sleep Dealer, shows us a world in which `physical borders are irrelevant, because they are crossed through virtual means—whether Ramirez’s drone pilot bombing Mexican space by remote control from a California television studio, workers building American skyscrapers by controlling robots networked into their infomaquila, dreams and memories being uploaded by nomadic writers, or a young hacker manipulating satellites and listening in on covert operations from a concrete shed in rural Oaxaca. As you watch the film, see if you don’t agree that it is an excellent example of the cyberpunk aphorism: the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. And consider how the technology of the Tijuana street is already finding its own uses for the things of the border Interzone, and how that will change the future today.

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