0. Border and Futures
“BORDER CLOSED. NETWORK OPEN.”
So reads the text of an information card handed out earlier this summer to occupants of the twelve lanes of cars backed up two hours and longer to cross the border from Tijuana into metro San Diego. The card was one of hundreds of different future interventions conducted by science fiction writer Pepe Rojo, also a member of the media studies faculty of the Autonomous University of Baja California, and 150 of his students—energetic members of the imaginary Tijuana Liberation Front (FLT). Over a period of two months, with official sponsorship from the Tijuana Cultural Center and a guerilla budget, Rojo and team hacked the paramilitary zone of the border crossing with experiential suggestions as to how locals can see their own future through that razorwire prism of cultural confluence. Notable interventions included:
• A robotic interpretive dance intervention among the long line of pedestrian crossers, with student dancers incorporating the panoptic landscape of the crossing as parts of their bodies, movements, and sounds.
• A newspaper from the future, reporting on the border closure to protect the Mexican population from the new civil war in the USA, featuring classified ads for organs for sale and the rental of Michael Jackson clones for birthday parties and funerals, distributed to the lined-up cars by street vendors—causing many recipients to first ask, “Isn’t this Thursday?”
• A talking dispensary of science fiction minibooks by contemporary Mexican authors (and one proto-space opera by a nineteenth-century fabulist Dominican priest), carefully positioned on the sidewalk leading to the U.S.
• A living, non-linear future history of the liberation of Tijuana as an independent city-state, expressed through fragmentary works of street art.
• Future scenarios printed on bookmarks and handed out for consideration by the crowds.
These interventions culminated in a four-day series of lectures and programs at the border crossing by Mexican science fiction writers Bernardo Fernández (aka Bef), Gerardo Porcayo, Miguel Ángel Fernández, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, and children’s author Francisco Hinojosa, along with Bruce Sterling and this author, with commentary by University of Florida Professor and Latin American sf scholar Dr. Elizabeth Ginway.
The lectures were presented under the blobject awning of an abandoned Mexican government passport office, at a lectern separated from cars by nothing more than concrete construction barricades, with the massive Orwellian fortifications of the U.S. border no more than a hundred yards behind as backdrop. The motorists lined up to cross were instructed by outlaw signs to tune in a local simulcast on their car radios, the better to understand the bizarre slides, cyberpunk cinema, and Nortec remixes timed to interact with the ubiquitous low-flying helicopters and the Blade Runner–esque commercial landscape of the crossing zone.
The occasion provided an opportunity for a cross-cultural conversation about borders and science fiction in the twenty-first century, considering answers to the question of whether science fiction has the tools to help the denizens of such a dystopian present reinvent their reality. Might Tijuana—a sprawling, improvised shantyland that exploded in the past century as a remora feeding off various permutations of American prohibition—be the “City of the Future”? Following is one thread of that conversation, a redacted transcript of one of the hostage video broadcasts released by the FLT during the conference.
In Alex Rivera’s Mexican-American cyberpunk film Sleep Dealer (2009), Jacob Vargas plays Rudy Ramirez, a Mexican-American drone pilot who protects American corporate assets in Mexico from damage by the locals. Rudy is a clever variation on an interesting archetype in the American popular narrative: the Spanish-speaking immigrant who becomes an American soldier, often recruited by the special forces as a talented double agent to infiltrate his homeland. Unlike his predecessors—like Tom Clancy’s cartel-buster Ding Chavez, Richard Nixon’s Cuban “plumbers,” the fascist future-yuppie Argentines of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers—Rudy Ramirez starts to question the reality and semiotics of the border and the power structures it represents.
In a movie about borders, Rudy is the only character who crosses one. And he goes the wrong way! Or at least his culture tells him that, in the voice of the cyclopean robot fortification of future San Ysidro. Who leaves the shiny order of utopia for the dusty chaos of dystopia? Might there be a reason why the border wall is so much more intimidating from the U.S. side than the Mexican side? The gate at the end of a metallic tunnel, guarded by a robotic combination surveillance camera, retinal scanner and machine gun—playing Muzak while deciding whether or not to shoot you—conveys its true purpose very clearly, like the iron fence of a suburban gated community: to keep people in. The light that shines through the gate as Rudy crosses over when, in his search for Memo, the innocent hacker that Rudy has wronged in his unthinking acceptance of his own culture’s narrative, signals that Rudy is really seeking his own liberation.
The surveillance is greatest at the border because, on the other side, there is no surveillance—at least from the culture of your origin. No surveillance by your State, no extension of the omnipresent eye of social class, no more semiotic definition by the advertising industry’s chosen cultural referents. Borders are where we go to escape the eyes of our own society.
Watching Rudy Ramirez in this film, you realize that the prototypical Mexican border crosser in American genre cinema is an alien hunter: a representative of American property chasing criminals, revolutionaries, or stolen property. And that what they are really seeking is not the completion of their missions, but their desire for freedom from the alienating confines of their own society. The Texans in the Western are always chasing a killer, or Comanches, or Pancho Villa, but, when they go over, it is also their own escape to freedom—sometimes the hedonistic freedom of Prohibition-era Juarez; sometimes the freedom to fully express primitive instincts of profound violence, as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; sometimes even the freedom to try to create a better community.
The armed Americans crossing the border are all like the Sandmen of Michael Anderson’s 1976 film Logan’s Run—the policemen inside a giant shopping mall city of the future who enforce the law of the computer that runs the society: preventing “runners” from evading the rules that sustain the society’s orderly luxury. When Sandman Logan-7 is sent outside the walls as an undercover runner, the odyssey leads him through a series of conflicts with the technology that controls him, and finally free to the green ruins of Washington, D.C., where he and his mini-skirted concubine find themselves a new Adam and Eve inheriting an entire continent of liberated territory. The American dream, renewed!
Of course, the reality of crossing over—either way—rarely works out that way. Causing one to ask: do you really need to cross the border to escape its confines? Might we find the liberated territory in our minds by more thoroughly interrogating the representational territory of the border? There are many entry points to the Interzone, and even more exits—sometimes through borders that disappear overnight.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the elaborate series of border fortifications that physically expressed the “Iron Curtain” was dismantled. The walls and fences and no man’s lands that bisected Europe from Finland to Albania, including the German wall that divided two parts of the same city in half, were torn down. Like pulling a piece of tape off a painted surface long faded, the removal of the Iron Curtain revealed a weirdly preserved zone: border wall as accidental wildlife refuge. European conservationists have since made substantial progress in transforming the zone of the Iron Curtain into the “European Green Belt,” an ecological network of parks and reserves running from the Barents to the Black Sea.
Borders like the Iron Curtain and the U.S.-Mexico line create edgelands: the blurred spaces between different land uses and territories that can be occupied by the invisible, the accidental, and the unofficial. The English poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts invented the term “edgelands” for their 2011 book of the same name, as a way to describe the unnamed transitional zones created where urban development meets open land. Farley and Roberts focus on the exploration of edgelands in the interior of their own country, as “England’s True Wilderness.” By giving a name to these invisible places that exist at the margins of all of our cities, they provide the rest of us a vocabulary to use to be able to see these places.
Edgelands represent the potential for liberated territory. The slivers of open land between jurisdictions and uses is often territory that cannot be occupied under the existing legal regime, because it is environmentally delicate, or toxic, or a floodplain, or a failed business project trapped in development limbo, or quarantined paramilitary space such as the California border zone. Edgelands therefore become natural targets for habitation by edge-people—people without real property, without real legal identities. In the interior of the United States, a careful observer can find the improvised edgeland homes of the invisible people the society barely recognizes. In my town of Austin, Texas, I have found an earthen dome-tent built from found materials in the shadow of a radio antenna along a busy street; a clan of Burmese fishermen living in an abandoned shack on a stretch of the Colorado River near the airport; a cave of fallen branches beside a stretch of railroad track running through downtown, protected with neon string, a plastic toy light saber, and a picture of Santa Claus. Edgelands are where we go to find refugees, favelas, commerce outside the law, and wild nature spliced into human space.
The occupation of edgelands—by people, dwellings, business—gives tangible reality to the invisible world unacknowledged by the official systems of the State. The Peruvian economist and economic development proponent Hernando de Soto argues that the key tool for accelerating economic growth in “developing countries” is the conveyance of enforceable legal title to outlaw homes and unincorporated black market businesses. De Soto’s study of Egypt noted that eighty percent of the public housing did not officially exist: unrecorded residents had constructed several additional floors onto most of the public apartment complexes. In Latin America, de Soto observed that most small business activity is so small and informal as to exist entirely outside of the system: the State cannot track the activity, and the business people cannot enforce their rights as “owners.” Perhaps even more confounding is when the invisibles occupy spaces that are owned and created by Capital, but consumed by the edge—like the unfinished 45-story skyscraper in Caracas that has been taken over by two thousand evangelical Christian squatters who haul water and wood by pulley up to high-rise flats without windows or balconies.
De Soto’s real complaint is that there is a world that lives outside Capital—a world of things that exist in the sense that we can observe them with our senses; but have no official existence, because their contours and coordinates have not been described in the legal ledger book of the State. Things without borders do not exist, and the borders that matter most are the virtual ones: the codes that define official reality by describing what can be sold and at what price.
In his 2010 novel Zero History, William Gibson tells the story of a product that evades Capital, by breaking these same rules. (See my “Some Monster Manuals for the Evasion of Capitalist Networks,” NYRSF 272, April 2011.) The protagonists of the story search for designer denim clothing that is produced in underground ateliers, distributed through random viral networking. Because it has no brand, no name, and not even a price, it does not exist in the commodified realm of Capital. It cannot be found until you stop looking for it. By devising a stratagem to prevent the products of their self-expression from being coopted by Capital, the designers chart a path to their own liberation from alienation.
In edgelands like the borderzone, there are other paths of evasion.
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. (“Objeto volador no identificado” is the Mexican equivalent of “UFO.”) 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 U.S. 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 [born in San Diego, courtesy of a company with the wonderfully Golden Age name of General Atomics]). 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 detection . . . at 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 conveyance
The original Tijuana border wall is made of old portable landing strips—leftovers from the Vietnam War, 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.
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, UC-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 U.S. 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 U.S. (one-fifth to two-thirds of the population of every border county), and how deeply American corporate commercial networks reach into Mexico.
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, 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 twenty-first century are the borders between cyberspace and meatspace, which are rapidly being obliterated. Can Beijing really build a Great Firewall of China that will keep out Facebook? Ask Hosni Mubarak (or David Cameron).
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 there 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” there, 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 nonstate 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 Trevor Paglen, the Berkeley experimental geographer 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 Professor 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. And the recent riots in the UK have led the government to ponder special police powers to suspend social networking during periods of domestic (or class) unrest. 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 border as a space of constant 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 U.S. and Europe will turn the current anti-immigration sentiment on its head. Governments from the north will compete to attract immigrants from the south, and the 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 conducted at the Tijuana border crossing by Pepe Rojo and his students use these tools from the workshops of science fiction writers: seeing alternate pasts, presents, and futures of the border zone through which they are moving; seeing 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. And every sf writer belongs to her own local chapter of the Tijuana Liberation Front.
As the faded stickers around Tijuana advise, “El futuro necesita imaginarse.”
Chris N. Brown lives in Austin, Texas. He is co-editor, with Eduardo Jiménez Mayo, of Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic (Small Beer Press, 2012)."
A PDF copy of the NYRSF issue in which this article first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.