Transnationality and Performance

This piece was written for the Border Town independent design studio on divided cities, led by Tim Maly and Emily Horne.  This piece is a personal narrative of my experience with transnationality and the performance of borders.

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Last week I crossed an international border to install an application on my cellphone.  That wasn't the nominal purpose of the trip, but if we step back from our understanding of internationalization and international copyright law, that interaction between border crossing and the performance of an effectively physical act is almost surreal.  More surreal is the possibility (I can't now check) that I could have simply traded my Icelandic SIM card for my American one and have effectively, virtually, performed that border crossing.

That particular pseudo-border is one I've been crossing regularly this month.  My phone can speak GSM over Wi-Fi, instead of the cellular radio — a feature intended by T-Mobile (the US representatives of a German semi-state entity) to cheaply solve the problem of inadequate coverage at the rural borders of their network and in pockets of urban radio-invisibility.  In my case, though, it means that I can trivially make my phone believe temporarily that it's on American soil, and have calls billed appropriately.

Of course, I could actually be on US soil here — the American embassy, whose grounds are legally recognized as such, is just down the road — but my phone wouldn't notice the difference.  Likewise, somehow Roger's cell towers near the US-Canada border are much stronger than the AT&T or T-Mobile towers; my phone always crosses the border long before I do.

Borders have always been permeable, but usually on the time scale of goods and people moving back and forth, not on the scale of situated and immediate trans-border actions in non-border-adjacent space.  This new kind of porosity mirrors the growth of a new kind of transnationality or post-nationality which selectively reverses the current global tightening of border controls.  This transnationality, in concert with the increasing global fluidity of capital, reveals the border to be not just porous, but actively osmotic to an increasing degree.

For the most part, I have been privileged to be on the beneficiary end of that osmosis, a nomad in a transnational community.  My experience of the early Internet pretty quickly became an international one, and professional and personal ties in the hacker community made my circle of friends first national and then international; some conscious lifestyle shifts pushed me towards almost full-time travel.  This narrative ignores an obvious and huge amount of class privilege, which I am going to elide for the moment to talk about the experience of especially Internet-enabled transnationality.

Hackers, as the deepest of the Internet natives, built a lot of the Internet's culture, and now fight a rearguard action to keep that culture in the face of Internet industrialization and more general adoption (the nym wars currently happening on Google+ are a perfect example of this).  The relatively fast social connections and a culture of trust within the context of pseudonymity allows the community to make transient arrangements fluidly and scalably, in the same manner that Couch Surfing is now bringing to a larger community.

In a more every day way, much of the experience of Internet transnationality ends up being about time as a proxy for space, about carrying a sense for the relation of a half-dozen other daily rhythms beside your own.  There is a specific feeling to sensing, without remembering to notice, the rhythm of mailing list traffic, or now tweets.  To knowing that as you get into the office, Helsinki is getting back from lunch, that one should wait a few minutes to see if San Francisco needs anything first thing before you grab afternoon coffee.

As cultural objects have dematerialized and intellectual property law has complexified, another layer of transnationality has been added to both hacker and mainstream culture.  Whether it has meant taking advantage of lax Russian music copyrights in the mid-2000's, or now leaning on torrent trackers hosted in Sweden, the virtualization of culture has made our understanding of transnationality more immediate.  This is more pronounced in the hacker world, as hackers are building the tools in question, not just using them, and with them building human relationships.

The growing use of VPN tunneling to avoid ISP detection of copyright violations is a fascinating specific case of this.  In many cases, the tunnels (mostly semi-commercial) are intentionally run across national borders and sometimes by providers of complicated jurisdictional providence.  Compare this to the rather more literal tunnels riddling the Egyptian border with the Gaza strip, or the tunnels from Mexico to the US.

In the hacker world, economic ties go with all this border crossing activity, especially for consultants, as do politics.  While the hacker world is largely spit between the American libertarian hyper-individualists and the European socialist autonomists, points of commonality exist, and not just on questions of censorship, IP freedom, and technological development — an understanding of the relative obsolescence of the nation state is also doctrinaire.  There is a range of understandings of the depth of the problem or of appropriate reform, just as there is a range of understandings of the complexity of immigration and open borders, but there is broad support for at least the post-nationalism of the white middle class.

It is against this sociopolitical background that we can consider a project like the United Transnational Republic (UTNR), which has come from the Schengen-influenced European side of that split.  Hackers tend to look at problems and see tools that need building.  They also have a long tradition of ignoring realism and building serious practical jokes; differentiating between the last two is often nontrivial.  In the end, it doesn't particularly matter if the UTNR is serious, and the question of scale (unless they reach a surprise tipping point) is just about memetic reach.  Either way, they are a strong signifier of a particular border relationship and conception of the appropriate future of nationality.

Nationality of the sort that the UTNR is trans- of is an enlightenment invention, to allow the often-literal decapitation of the state, the transition between the state as an individual sovereign to a geographic abstraction.  It did not fully flower until the 19th century.  The idea of a necessarily totalizing nationalism, that everyone must have a state (and thus the creation of statelessness as a pejorative condition) is a construction of industrial modernity, which did not run its course of enclosure until the late 20th century.  Borders have existed for far longer than nationality as such has, but nationality changed them, and with them the experience of immigration.  Movements of people became a differently legal process.  Much of the existing incoherence in discourse on immigration around the world (although not the rancor) comes from the difficulty of talking about legality versus economics versus culture, and from people opportunistically using one as a proxy for others.

Most of the actual immigration experience is still about cultural integration and inter-cultural relations.  I am the child of two immigrants, both in the US largely by choice as equals and free agents, putting them somewhat outside some of the traditional American immigrant integrationist narrative.  As a result (somewhat intentional on the part of my parents), although I have been obviously and heavily shaped by American culture, American identity has largely passed me by.  I am only an American when I am outside the country, and my passport is a symbol of leaving, not membership.  At some point, possibly in the near future, it is likely that I will end up as an immigrant myself, probably to somewhere in the EU.

One of the early immigration narratives in the West was the idea of the “free air of the city”.  As a free peasant, still somewhat tied to the land and owing fealty to a lord, but not actually bound in serfdom, if you could (as a man in your majority) travel to the city, gain admittance from the watch (passing a basic filter for class, health, etc.), and live there for a year and a day (without being thrown out for criminal behavior, indebtedness, etc.), you would be free of your obligations.  Breathing the “free air” of the city would literally make you free.  The details vary widely both historically and with modern immigration, but the current immigrant process in many countries is effectively equivalent.  Now, the air makes you British, or French, and we invoke more lawyers and less transubstantiation taken at face value, but we keep the seed of temporal transformation.

Entering a medieval city and obtaining a certain social status there granted you an effective membership in the public of that city, the extended body politic that replaced the symbolic head of state in free cities, centered in literal geographic space on the public squares.  As discourse virtualizes, the body politic is moving to the Internet.  Many bits have been spent on the perils of the fragmentation and degradation of public dialog, but the opposite is at least as true.  The Internet, as a non-geographic entity of political discussion, is the first transnational public.

Ubiquitous translation, as bad as machine translation is, extends the reach of that public.  I was in Oslo the week before last, and this week, as the Oslo bombing and the Utøya shootings unfolded, translation meant that I could not only check up on my friends there, on that shard of my local community, but that I could follow their political discussions, even if I was constrained to answering in English.

Machine translation is limited, though, and language is obviously one of the significant barriers to this concept of transnational community.  Still, as a native English speaker exposed to enough accents to have an easier time with them, I have as much of an advantage there as any monolingual person can.  The cultural similarities among hacker circles where most people speak some English end up being pronounced enough, that, modulo some interpretation, the cultural sameness of those circles ends up being more remarkable than their differences.  While I may be moving between countries, I am largely not moving between cultures.

For all this fluidity, the actual process of physically transiting borders has not always been transparent for me.  My legal identity is somewhat complicated, as a trans person, and for several years between when I transitioned and when I finally was able to fix my passport (thanks to a fortuitous thaw in US State Department policy), I was forced to conduct all of my border crossings in drag and under a partially legal but almost effectively assumed name.  While this was more than a little stressful at first, it eventually became more and more of a familiar farce.  In the process, it made the entire border experience much more marked, and highlighted exactly which kinds of privilege I did and did not have, and their reliability.  I explicitly cultivated some of that privilege, aware of how vulnerable a position I was in, and this mostly worked.  I was asked for a second form of ID exactly once, at a German random intra-Schengen border crossing in early 2007.

The other times I have had trouble at borders have been both much more prosaic and more indicative of the limits of porosity of borders and the osmotic function of the membrane.  Coming in to the UK last summer, travelling for a some time while unemployed, I made the mistake of acting, heavily sleep-deprived, as I would at a continental European border where some imprecision would not be a problem.  I was quickly funneled into the “troublemaker with a backpack” queue, and only allowed into the country when I could sufficiently perform the script of money by producing three credit cards in the name on my passport.  I have had the sad experience of watching many people end up in more complicated situations as they, due to class, race, or national origin, have been unable to perform a script that overcomes that osmotic pressure.

The frame of performance is an interesting one from which to examine the modern, especially American, border experience.  Borders came into being originally as determined by tribal or military control of territory, and so followed terrain features for ease of marking, and because terrain marked natural lines of defensibility.  In some cases, this is still relevant, hence China's absolute insistence on their claim to Tibet — for them a military necessity to project Beijing from a potential march of Russian or Indian ground troops.  The surveyor's art removed this necessary tie to the landscape, creating the straight borders we see now on newer territorial divisions.

With older borders, border crossings also happened where the terrain made traveling sensical and where settlement was easy.  With air travel, borders exist everywhere, by fiat.  Modern logistics and containerized shipping supply chains have also contributed to the omnipresence of borders.  For the convenience of rail and truck shipping, we see international ports designated in isolated, landlocked market towns in agricultural regions in the US.

This fluidity and arbitrariness of the border is clearly illustrated in the layout of international travel structures in modern airports.  These are the areas post-customs and (particularly) post-US passport clearance in those airports that do remote passport clearance for flights to the US, and even more so the pre-border arrival zones.  All of these represent spaces of uncertain national ontology.  While they obviously almost certainly have a relatively parsable legal definition, as spaces they play a unique role as the stage wherein we perform borders.  They are areas which I find have a palpable presence upon entry.

The logistical expediencies of how these spaces are handled in smaller airports are uniquely interesting.  Upon arrival in Dublin (DUB), for instance, you are faced with the situation of a small, single-story circulation network, through which differently designated populations of individuals must be moved, including pre- and post-security domestic and international departures, and domestic, intra-Schengen, and extra-Schengen international arrivals, some of whom will only be transiting and not clearing passport control.  All this must be handled without the ability to have massively redundant circulation patterns, as many newer and larger airports do.  Instead, at Dublin they divide a minimally redundant circulation system in time, flipping doors back and forth between intersecting paths to perform contiguous border space while leaving actual physical locations oscillating oscillating in existential identity.

In Berlin, at Tiegel (TXL), they take the opposite approach, and have a single, relatively unsecured, circulation system for all passengers, but multiply the passport control, baggage check/claim, customs clearance, and security checkpoint interfaces on a per-gate level, leaving dozens of sites of border performance instead of a contiguous presence.  Furthermore, because the gates are reassigned between different types of flights, the border performances come and go disjointly.

In the terminal I enter the US through most often, at JFK in New York, the border is a single massive funnel, singularly uninspiring of anything but bureaucratic unease.  Signs and videos repeatedly caution you against using your phone, taking pictures, or attempting any of a number of other border violations.  It’s also the slowest border I have ever been through, enough so that I am repeatedly tempted to sign up for the so called “Global Entry” fast track system.  Beyond this face, the next most obvious parts of the US border checkpoint are the combination of technological devices of deterrence the security theater, one part opportunity for harassment and one part state propaganda, which is deployed with them.  Even as a citizen, my right to return theoretically guaranteed under national and international law and custom, I worry more about US border crossings than any other.

One of my friends and another of my acquaintances, Jacob Appelbaum and Moxie Marlinspike, are both searched for hours every time they cross a US border.  At this point, neither generally attempts to carry electronics, even a cellphone, into the country, as it will be seized, this despite both working as technologists in the security industry and travelling regularly.  They are questioned, but largely to no particular end; they are generally held just long enough to ensure that they miss their connecting flights.  Jake routinely documents his experiences on twitter as “@ioerror”, something which has come up in border interrogations as cause for continuing and increasing the harassment.  There appears to be neither redress nor a way to opt out of this border performance.

Their treatment as white, male, US citizens of some means and social visibility is still far better than many people's experiences with the border performance.  The complexity of this performance is growing as new props like biometric identifiers and new species of privilege like global entry join older ones, like diplomatic passports.  The script for the performance is also constantly changing, as the osmotic membrane grows more specific and its rejections more opaquely implacable.  The realm in which the border is performed is growing, and the entire state control complex is gathering mass against the cultural and technological reality that is in part tending toward post- or transnationalism.  Hackers, like immigrants and the stateless, are getting caught up in the middle in odd, unpredictable, and variably agentic ways — and the experience is radicalizing the community.

Like everyone else, my life is bound up mostly with those of some few hundred other people, and lived in a specificity of place mostly across some few square kilometers.  Unlike many other people, the future is rather more heavily salted into it, and that space is split over various countries.  It is unclear if transnational culture or border performance will win, or how long a compromise of ever-increasing osmotic pressure can last.  I dearly hope that through it all, the immediate awareness of our ultimate interconnectedness will triumph regardless.

Eleanor Saitta
24 July, 2011
Reykjavik, Iceland