Monday, June 27, 2011

A sketchy report on the Apollocon that was

Apollocon has come and gone once again, and I find myself with a cup that runneth over of enthusiasm and inspiration. This is a good thing, and the primary reason I find myself attending conventions these days. Writing is a solo endeavour, and the inherent isolation of the discipline can be wearying. New Braunfels, although being in the general proximity of San Antonio and Austin, is apart enough that I do not have regular writerly contact with other folk (other than online) and breaking this isolation, I have found, is essential to replenish the wellspring of creativity. This is partly in response to the stimulating flow of ideas that abounds, but mostly, I suspect, from my deep shame that everyone else appears far more productive than I.

Ann VanderMeer at Apollocon 2011

After having missed last year's edition due to conflicting obligations, it was good to reconnect with the Houston crowd, which differs in subtle ways from the Armadillocon and Aggiecon folks (although there is some natural overlap). For dinner, I tagged along with John DeNardo, Stina Leicht and Lawrence Person to the Cajun Town Cafe for some pretty darn good eats. Food, as everyone knows, is an integral part of the full con-going experience.

Rocky Kelly and Gabrielle Faust at Apollocon 2011

I admit to some trepidation in the early going. There were a variety of SNAFUs with scheduling, such that until Thursday night prior to the convention, I was not included on any programming. Fortunately, their crack team of pencillers-in got to work and before long I had a full slate of scheduling on which to hold forth. My contributions to Friday's Cthulhu panel were modest, since I've read only a few Lovecraft stories, but I did manage to enlighten the audience on the existence of Shoggoth On The Roof, which alone is worth the price of admission. Running hard all day, plus my general lack of sleep from the week before, caught up with me and I ended up calling it a night relatively early in the evening. Having only one real room party going on made the decision easier.

The book fairy, aka Cecilia Bugbee

Saturday got off to a sluggish start. My energy levels were low and overall I simply felt run down. I gave it the old college try during my three panels, but if I'm being honest, the audience is fortunate there were so many other knowledgeable folks up there on the dias with me, otherwise the discussion would've spiraled downward very quickly.

Chris Nakashima Brown at Apollocon 2011

Once evening rolled around, however, my fatigue seemed to evaporate. I attribute that to the great people around me. I had a fun dinner with Ann VanderMeer, Rocky Kelly and Gabrielle Faust as well as the dinner crew from the night before. Ann and I had some entertaining conversations, but surprisingly never once did The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities come up, despite the fact HarperCollins releases it in just a couple of weeks. I've not had the chance to hang out with Gabrielle at a convention before, but she was great fun. And Rocky is always an upbeat and entertaining fellow to have around--I can't imagine a better convention guest.

Marianne Dyson (center) and other participants of Apollocon 2011

Somewhere along the line I found a few minutes to talk with Chris Nakashima-Brown about his planned revamp of the No Fear of the Future group blog, and caught up a little with Martha Wells, Bill Crider, Rhonda Eudaly, Alexis Glynn Latner and others, although the fleeting moments went by far too quickly.

Room party at Apollocon 2011

That buoyant energy carried over to Sunday, even though there were many excellent room parties Saturday night, and I found excellent conversations at each of them. Interestingly enough, my last panel of the con, Fire off! The Science Fiction/Fantasy Canon, proved to be the most entertaining and engaging of the weekend. With Alexis, Lawrence and Larry Friesen (Bill Crider had to leave early and missed it) we had a grand time pulling up a wide range of yesterday's classic authors and stories to give a sweeping list of worthwhile reading for someone looking to be well-grounded in SF and fantasy literature. Dante's Inferno was one early example, and we touched on a good number of 19th century writers before we even got to Verne and Wells. My contributions included Cilfford Simak, Leigh Brackett, James Tiptree Jr., Peter Beagle, Jack Vance and A.E. van Vogt. Others brought up Stapledon, Blish, Ballard, Dick, Zelazny, Burroughs, Kuttner, Le Guin, Norton and Lafferty, plus all the giants one would expect us to touch on. Interestingly, we often recommended reading works that weren't their best-known or most successful simply because some of those more famous works hadn't aged well. We were all struck silent for a moment when we realized that a significant amount of Greg Egan's work is now more than 20 years old, thus qualifying for "classic" status.

Brent Morgan and Cherie Morgan show off their steampunk finery at Apollocon 2011

There didn't seem to be quite so many regional writers this year as in the past, but this was more than made up for by the steampunk contingent, a literary-cum-fashion movement that shows no sign of abating any time soon. And that's fine with me, as I find the retro-futuristic style endlessly entertaining. I also learned that, yes indeed, all the other writers and artists participating are far, far more productive than I, and I need to get my lazy butt in gear and stop wasting so much of my limited writing time typing out blog posts about conventions I've attended.

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.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Walking Through Walls—Borders and the Future (part 1 of 2)

Following up on my post about my recent kidnapping by the Tijuana Liberation Front, I have been asked to release my hostage video, in the form of a transcript of the remarks I gave April 29 at the Border Crossing Lectures in Tijuana put on by the media studies faculty of the Autonomous University of Baja California and the Tijuana Cultural Center. Included are some of the slides that were visible to the lines of cars watching the talk as they crossed the border, as well as some web annotations. I plan to post the piece in two parts, today and tomorrow.

The speech preceded a screening of the Alex Rivera cyberpunk film Sleep Dealer, and tried to provide some context for thinking about the possibilities and futures revealed by that outstanding work.

Walking through Walls

1. Runners!

In Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, 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 Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, maybe even Dick Cheney’s pet Iraqi Ahmad Chalabi—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 US 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—that plays Muzak while it decides whether or not to shoot you—conveys its true purpose very clearly, like the iron fences of a suburban gated community: to keep people *in.* The light that shines through the gate as Rudy crosses over signals that, in his search for Memo, the innocent hacker Rudy has wronged in his unthinking acceptance of his own culture’s narrative, 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 mission, 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 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.

2. Edgelands.

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 country 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 US-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 in to 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 80% 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 observes 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-person cannot enforce their rights as an “owner.” 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. 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. And the real story of the book is that, by devising a stratagem to prevent the products of their self-expression from being co-opted by Capital, the designers chart a path to their own liberation from alienation.

Here in the edgelands, there are other paths of evasion.

Click here for Part Two - Virtual sovereigns and real networks