Seeing Borders Through the Eyes of Technology

Photo: Tanja Kanazir / Drugo more (Flickr gallery)

London-based writer, artist and publisher James Bridle gave a talk about borders in the age of contemporary communication and surveillance technologies, on Thursday, 15 October, 2015 at Youth Cultural Centre Palach.

When traveling out of our own country, we soon face the fact that border space is not a relaxed and happy place, but selectively permeable membrane and a line of ultimate surveillance, drawn by fences, cameras, barriers, police cars, special rules and the necessity of obedience to authority.

According to James Bridle, physical boundaries can sometimes appear in the most unusual ways. The Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco are classic examples of external borders, while the town of Baarle-Hertog is best known after its physically diffuse border – with a total of 24 separate pieces of land that are either Belgian and enclosed by Dutch territory, or vice versa – so it happens that one restaurant has different licensing laws on either side of the dining room. The same model is followed in effect by embassies worldwide: one can step off the streets of London, Paris or Vienna and into the territory of another nation—the path taken by Julian Assange.

camera: Janez Janša/Aksioma; video editing: Filmaktiv

Strictly speaking, the border is not defined by laws, but rather by a legal regime whose precise code can be constantly reconstructed by political intent. It’s in the interest of power to extend as far as possible what Bridle calls “effectively lawless zones” — lawless not in the sense that no rules apply but rather because the laws in question can be manipulated, rebuffed or extended at will. Border zones are thereat being expanded from the firm ground to the international waters, so in the sake of controlling the constant influx of immigrants, the patrols of the European border agency Frontex (short for Frontières extérieures or, literally, “external borders”) are getting closer and closer to the shores of North African countries. At the same time, the approach that is in clear contradiction of the non-refoulement principle of international law, which states that refugees must not be sent or pushed back to a place where they might be at risk, is fast becoming politically acceptable around the world.

Everywhere is a border zone now, as political powers erode civil liberties and asylum rights, and new technologies contribute to an ominous global scenario in which our identities are determined by faceless systems.”

Emphasizing the influence of technological development, Bridle shows that borders aren’t merely the lines on geopolitical maps any more; modern technologies are providing new spaces – outside the world of tangible objects – where our identities exist today. The question of citizenship, which represents someone’s right to have rights, faced some significant changes since we’ve become the citizens of that vast and hardly knowable system, called the Network. The use of technologies for the purpose of stretching and redefining the borders moved us into the electromagnetic spectrum, “the borderless zone that is one endless border zone, allowing the free play of ephemeral legislation over fixed, physical bodies”.

Thanks to modern technologies, it’s not necessary any more to wait for the people to arrive at the borders of a national territory, firm ground, or physical space in general, for the legislation apparatus to make a decision about the fate of a foreign body. Australian customs patrol intercepts the arriving immigrants at sea and interrogates them via teleconference, hundreds of miles away from the shore; at border crossings around Europe, virtual agents of the AVATAR system asks questions of travelers, whose responses and reactions are then monitored in order to recognize the possible illegal immigrants; world powers use drones to fly over international waters and reach deep into territories of other countries; secret services give us “algorithmic citizenship“, changing the variables depending on our online behavior, which ultimately determines our rights.

How is politics manifested in technology? How technology sees us? How does the space of the border change? How does everywhere start to resemble border space? What can we learn from technologies, in order to develop our own, new ways of living in these spaces?  

Source: Bridle, James. 2014. Living on the Electromagnetic Border.

James Bridle deals with the ways in which the digital, networked world reaches into the physical, offline one. His work has explored aspects of the western security apparatus including drones and asylum seeker deportation. Bridle's writing on literature, culture and networks has appeared in magazines and newspapers, including Wired, Domus, Cabinet, The Atlantic, The New Statesman, Matter and many others, in print and online, and he writes a regular column for The Observer. His artwork and installations have been exhibited in Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Australia and have been viewed by hundreds of thousands visitors online. He has been commissioned by organizations such as Artangel, Mu Eindhoven, the Istanbul Design Biennial, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, and he has been honored by Ars Electronica and the Japan Media Festival. His formulation of the New Aesthetic research project has spurred debate and creative work across multiple disciplines and continues to inspire critical and artistic responses. He lectures regularly on radio and at universities, conferences, and other events, including SXSW (US), Lift (CH), dConstruct (UK), and the Milan Design Festival. He has been technologist in residence at Lighthouse Gallery and an Adjunct Professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Programme at New York University. In 2014 he was resident at the White Building in London and Eyebeam in New York and received the Graphic Design of the Year award from the Design Museum, London. James has a Master’s degree from University College London in Computer Science and Cognitive Science, specializing in Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence. Bridle was named as one of the 1000 Most Influential People in London by the Evening Standard in 2007, and one of the 100 Most Influential People in Europe by WIRED Magazine in 2015.

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