Eleanor Saitta: So yeah. I’m going to talk a lit­tle bit about this idea of per­form­ing states. And I’d like to start with kind of the typ­i­cal intro­duc­tion and talk­ing about who I am and where I’m from.

This is who var­i­ous states think I am. I have two pass­ports and Finnish res­i­den­cy card. There’s a few oth­er bits of state iden­ti­ty that we’ll get to in a lit­tle bit. And I’m going to spend a lit­tle bit of time dig­ging into iden­ti­ty because I think it’s inter­est­ing to look at how the rela­tion­ships we have with states shape the way we see states as con­structs and as enti­ties. And so I’m going to start with some old fam­i­ly pho­tos because it’s kind of fun.

So, my father was born in Rome. His father was born in Sicily. His moth­er was actu­al­ly born in the Uffizi in Florence, because that’s where the fam­i­ly office was. And they moved to New York dur­ing the war in 43 or so.

Like many peo­ple, my dad end­ed up in a bunch of dead-end jobs, you know, like many war immi­grants. A bunch of dead end jobs in Beth Page New York, liv­ing out in Long Island. So he joined the Air Force and he end­ed up work­ing on nukes in Greece in the mid 60s, which is what even­tu­al­ly killed him. He got the GI Bill. He went to Cooper Union, became an archi­tect.

My moth­er was born in Melbourne. She was the daugh­ter of a fair­ly well-connected aca­d­e­m­ic. She worked sum­mer jobs to buy pas­sage to London, because Australia was tiny and if you want­ed to do any­thing with your life you had to leave.

They both end­ed up in New York. They moved out to California and then they had me, because this was New York in the 1970s and it was no place to have a kid or real­ly do much of any­thing unless you were spec­tac­u­lar­ly wealthy. (Some things have not changed very much.)

I grew up in California, but the California I grew up in was a California of two peo­ple who were yes, immi­grants, but not immi­grants with­in the American nar­ra­tive of this is America the land of oppor­tu­ni­ty” etc. It was this is America, it was con­ve­nient.” I remem­ber being told explic­it­ly when I was fair­ly small grow­ing up, We’re not from here. We’re not like those peo­ple.” Which is prob­a­bly not a thing you should ever tell a child. Please don’t tell your chil­dren that, even if you believe it.

But it left me with a very inter­est­ing rela­tion­ship with this place which was becom­ing a real seat of pow­er around the world. And we’ll talk about that a lit­tle bit lat­er.

So I grew up, and I went to school and failed out of school, and end­ed up drift­ing into Seattle, and drift­ing into doing secu­ri­ty work. And got bored with Seattle because it was a land of absolute­ly no cul­ture except a love­ly music scene. And end­ed up mov­ing to New York, as peo­ple are wont to do.

Satellite map of the earth showing connecting lines between a large number of major cities

There’s a bit at the end of the move where you’re sup­posed to stop. And I kind of for­got to do that. So this was my 2013, or part of my 2013. And I spent sev­en or eight years trav­el­ing full-time. That year, I think—I think it was that year, I was mov­ing about thir­ty kilo­me­ters an hour for the year.

I was doing it for a lot of dif­fer­ent rea­sons, par­tial­ly because I kind of fell into doing NGO work and and secu­ri­ty sup­port for NGOs ands news orga­ni­za­tions. But par­tial­ly because I real­ized that when I was in the US as some­one who had grown up there, I could­n’t see the rest of the world. And this is some­thing which I think is prob­a­bly not uncom­mon as an expe­ri­ence for peo­ple who live in empires? But it is very dif­fi­cult to get any per­spec­tive of what any­thing else in the world means. Previously to the American empire, I don’t know that we’ve real­ly noticed that lack of per­spec­tive because we’ve…the assump­tion has been that you see the world from the per­spec­tive of where you are. The assump­tion has not been that you live on the Internet and see the world from the per­spec­tive of every­one you know every­where else around the world. But I found that while I was liv­ing there, I did­n’t under­stand the sto­ries, and as soon as I left the coun­try they start­ed mak­ing sense again.

How many peo­ple here have read Kyle Chayka’s piece Airspace?” I rec­om­mend look­ing it up. It’s a great lit­tle essay. He’s basi­cal­ly talk­ing about this idea that there is an aes­thet­ic which has become…both acci­den­tal­ly and inten­tion­al­ly uni­ver­sal in cer­tain kinds of spaces. I used to joke with friends that I lived in one neigh­bor­hood that just had real­ly real­ly shit­ty pub­lic tran­sit, you know, and it would take twelve hours on the bus to get from the Prenzlauer Berg part of the neigh­bor­hood to the Soho part of the neigh­bor­hood.

And this is kind of what he was get­ting at with air­space, although I hope I lived in a slight­ly more gen­uine world. This idea that even out­side this bub­ble of empire that stretch­es across mil­i­tary bases and var­i­ous things, there is anoth­er lay­er of space that a por­tion of human­i­ty moves through that is the kind of dis­tressed wood that you see in cafes. That you see the same table, or you know, the local repro­duc­tion with­in the equiv­a­lent aes­thet­ic of the same table, in cafes just about every­where that are tar­get­ing the same kind of per­son.

One of the things I learned when I was trav­el­ing, and I think it was… It took me a while to real­ly under­stand what it meant to not live any­where. There’s this idea that like oh, it’s just trav­el­ing; oh, I’d love to go trav­el­ing. And then you real­ize that okay like, there’s all these prob­lems of like, well I don’t have a fixed address, you know. Like all of these things of what it means to be…possibly not home­less in the struc­ture of priv­i­lege that that implies, but you still have all of the same legal issues. And one of the things that I learned from oth­er friends who trav­eled in very dif­fer­ent ways is that the equiv­a­lent thing to ask­ing a set­tled friend Where do you live?” Like, what kind of neigh­bor­hood do you live in? Is it a rich neigh­bor­hood? Is it a poor neigh­bor­hood? Do you live in a house? Do you live in an apart­ment?” is, How fast do you move?” or, How fre­quent­ly do you move?”

So for 2013 my goal for the year was to get my aver­age time per city up to a week a city, which I did not suc­ceed at. I think I was about four and a half days. But I had oth­er friends who also trav­eled full-time, but they changed cities once a month. And they maybe moved by train instead of by plane. Or they lived out of a van and drove around the coun­try.

And in many cas­es this was a class dis­tinc­tion but in a lot of them not. One of my cowork­ers at the first secu­ri­ty job that I worked at, and a research part­ner still to this day, lived in a van for the bet­ter part of a decade. She decid­ed she want­ed to leave Seattle at some point and bought a van to dri­ve around the coun­try to fig­ure out where she want­ed to live next. And she real­ized that she real­ly liked liv­ing in a van. So she did. And that expe­ri­ence was anoth­er thing that real­ly shaped the way I kind of saw the coun­try and saw coun­tries as a cat­e­go­ry.

Photo of a tank airborne after clearing a hill, captioned "Don't worry guys, the Internet is here"

When asked where I was from…which is, you know, one of the first things that you get asked, I used to say I was from the Internet. Which start­ed out as as a fun­ny joke and at var­i­ous times became more and less bit­ter. And obvi­ous­ly when I’m out­side of the US I read as American. But one of the inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences and one of the things that real­ly kind of led me to start say­ing that fair­ly seri­ous­ly is that when I was inside the US I did­n’t real­ly feel like an American—I did­n’t real­ly under­stand what this coun­try that I was sup­pos­ed­ly from meant.

Historical plaque with the heading "birthplace of Silicon Valley"

And also there are ways in which I was fair­ly lit­er­al­ly from the Internet. I maybe don’t know what it means to be American but I do under­stand what it means to be a Californian. I don’t know how many of you are famil­iar with the his­to­ry of the Bay Area. It is a very fas­ci­nat­ing place which is full of tox­ic waste dumps because when the first peo­ple build­ing Internet sys­tems and com­put­er sys­tems there start­ed doing man­u­fac­tur­ing, they real­ly did­n’t under­stand safe­ty reg­u­la­tions or they just did­n’t care. So, you get these kinds of plaques which is the sort of hero­ism of oh, this is Silicon Valley, this is all that. And you also have more Superfund sites per hun­dred square miles than any­where else in the coun­try by a fair bit. And I think that that is real­ly an entire­ly just sum­ma­ry of the area, of hav­ing both of those sides. Although I’m start­ing to ques­tion the hero­ism.

One of the things that we’ve been hear­ing late­ly is peo­ple push­ing to rename… Oh, we should­n’t call it Silicon Valley, we should call Surveillance Valley. We should be more hon­est about what it is.” And as my friend Ingrid was say­ing the oth­er day I mean, yes you could do that, but real­ly the sil­i­con is impor­tant too, guys. Let’s not for­get about the tox­ic waste dumps.

Wired magazine cover with the coverline "The Web is dead" taking up about two thirds of the page.

The Internet I’m from is dead. And this was kind of a star­tling thing to real­ize a few years ago. Well, real­ly, a few months ago ful­ly. That the place that I iden­ti­fied with does­n’t exist and has been replaced with some­thing else which is much big­ger, and much more aggres­sive, and in some ways much more hos­tile but most­ly just much more unpre­dictable.

Photo of a Clifford Stoll column titled "The Internet? Bah!"

Now, obvi­ous­ly we’ve been talk­ing about the death of the Internet for a very very long time. This is a piece from 1995 where Clifford Stoll was pre­dict­ing the death of the Internet. So it’s been a pop­u­lar hob­by.

But I want to talk about this idea from a friend of mine, Quinn Norton, called the invis­i­ble city. If you look at the his­to­ry of urban­iza­tion, it took us about 140 years to move some­thing like half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion from rur­al vil­lages to the city. And for most of that peri­od, a lot of peo­ple were basi­cal­ly doing the equiv­a­lent of walk­ing out into the street and get­ting imme­di­ate­ly past­ed by a tram. Because they had real­ly no idea how to live in the city. And it took us a very long time—and you know, we had a head start on this; this is some­thing that’s been going on for longer—to learn what it means to live in a city.

So, civic inat­ten­tion, right. You’re sit­ting in a cof­fee shop and some­one at the table next to you is talk­ing about who they slept with last night. Except it’s not a very inter­est­ing sto­ry. It’s not a sto­ry that you’re gonna lis­ten to just because oh, it’s real­ly fun and it’s engag­ing. No, it’s actu­al­ly just real­ly bor­ing. So you ignore them. Because, why would­n’t you? That was not some­thing that came nat­u­ral­ly to us as a species. We had to learn that oh yeah, that’s bor­ing. They are not part of your social world…who cares? And this is some­thing that… You know, you can you can go back in the archives and find peo­ple who talked about this and talked about this as an explic­it thing that you had to learn how to do. The coun­try bump­kins who showed up and did­n’t get it for quite a while.

We have now in twen­ty years moved half the world’s pop­u­la­tion, give or take—two bil­lion peo­ple any­ways, solidly—to one city. And we all live in one city. And we keep walk­ing out into the street and get­ting past­ed by trams. And we don’t even under­stand what the trams are. We not only do not know how to live togeth­er online, we don’t even real­ly under­stand that it’s a prob­lem. We don’t even real­ly see this.

And then some days you wake up and you notice Oh. Jesus. That’s a tram and it’s in my bed­room.” Which hap­pened to my friend Quinn the oth­er day when eight mil­lion peo­ple decid­ed she was a Nazi sym­pa­thiz­er. Which is a real­ly shit­ty way to start your morn­ing, let me tell you.

Nighttime space image of the Earth with bright spots visible at larger cities.

So I guess now I’m from here. But what I want to talk about is social script. When we talk about learn­ing how to not get hit by trans, on the Internet what we’re talk­ing about is how to be human, how to per­form human in a city, how to per­form inter­ac­tion with each oth­er.

A woman signing paperwork while an airport customs officer looks on

And those are real­ly impor­tant, and they’re real­ly use­ful, and they’re real­ly inter­est­ing when we start talk­ing about bor­ders. How many peo­ple here have crossed a hos­tile bor­der? Yeah. It’s a fair num­ber. I remem­ber the first time I was… This was kind of just at the start of when I was trav­el­ing. And I was fly­ing into the UK. And I’d basi­cal­ly been wan­der­ing around Europe for six weeks with a back­pack, and I was super sleep-deprived. And I show up at the English bor­der being like, Yeah I’m here for like maybe ten days. I don’t know…” This did not go well. They were very not pleased to see a super sleep-deprived, pos­si­bly slight­ly hun­gover American show­ing up with a back­pack and no par­tic­u­lar­ly clear trav­el plans.

And for­tu­nate­ly I did have like three dif­fer­ent cred­it cards with the name that matched my pass­port, so they even­tu­al­ly let me through. But that abil­i­ty to at least pre­tend priv­i­lege, right, whether or not you are actu­al­ly of the priv­i­leged trav­el­ing class or not. The abil­i­ty to per­form priv­i­lege at a bor­der, right—and it is a per­for­mance, you know. That per­for­mance is some­thing that any­one who trav­els in com­pli­cat­ed con­texts learns. And every­one around them learns it, too. And I don’t know like… I’m assum­ing that most of you have EU pass­ports, so you prob­a­bly do not have the expe­ri­ence of being at the all oth­er pass­ports” line and being like okay, there’s four all oth­er pass­ports lines, and I have twen­ty min­utes to make my flight. And you look ahead at who’s in front of you. And you do all of the same racial stereo­typ­ing that you think the bor­der guards are going to do. And then you look at how much paper­work they’re car­ry­ing. And any­body who’s car­ry­ing too much paper­work, you get in a dif­fer­ent line. Because they’re gonna have a very com­pli­cat­ed con­ver­sa­tion with the bor­der guard. Although last time I crossed in there was a very rich-looking American gen­tle­man in front of me who real­ly did­n’t under­stand that no, I’m sor­ry sir. I don’t care if you’re a Swedish dou­ble cit­i­zen. You can’t enter Sweden indef­i­nite­ly with­out a Swedish pass­port. You need to actu­al­ly have the pass­port. He did­n’t seem to under­stand this.

But we end up doing that kind of both mod­u­lat­ing our own per­for­mance; look­ing at how we per­form; choose to per­form priv­i­lege; when it’s acces­si­ble to us; if it’s not acces­si­ble to us then we work around it in oth­er ways. And we watch the per­for­mances of oth­er peo­ple around us when they’re going to affect us.

This by the way is some­thing that I find real­ly amus­ing. I could not find a pho­to of the exact spot or even a map of the exact spot that I’m think­ing of. In Dublin airport—and I think I’ve seen this in Reykjavik and a cou­ple of oth­er small­er inter­na­tion­al air­ports. It’s a one-level air­port. So you get the cor­ri­dor com­ing in from the gate, and you get the cor­ri­dor that goes off to immi­gra­tion. And there’s this box where there’s doors on four sides. They’re auto­mat­ic doors. In at least the Dublin case, there’s a patch of ground where it’s got kind of motion sen­sors on the two feeding-in cor­ri­dors and a timer. When the timer expires, it clos­es one set of doors, waits till it detects the patch of ground is emp­ty, opens the oth­er set of doors. So this chunk of ground is shared. This chunk func­tion­al­ly is part of two cor­ri­dors so that peo­ple can get on to the plane and peo­ple can move along the route to pass­port con­trol.

Now this means that you’ve got a robot mov­ing a patch of ground between nation­al­i­ties. Because when I’ve board­ed there it’s been inter­na­tion­al pas­sen­gers com­ing in, and Schengen flights going out. So this patch of ground has a robot mov­ing it in and out of the Schengen region.

And I always find the phys­i­cal per­for­mance of… Like the lit­er­al­ly phys­i­cal per­for­mance of mov­ing through that kind of bor­der space to be real­ly inter­est­ing. Especially these days as it’s got­ten messier and more com­pli­cat­ed, when I’m leav­ing the US there’s always this kind of phys­i­cal sense of release. Of like, okay, I’m no longer… You know, I’ve made it through pass­port con­trol. I’m on the oth­er side. I’m not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a coun­try yet, you know. Maybe I’ve cleared— I’m just—I’m in inter­na­tion­al tran­sit. I’m still not any­where but I’m also not in the US. And that kind of lim­bo space is some­thing that I find real­ly inter­est­ing.

Back to those social scripts. I want to talk about them a lit­tle bit. And what I want to talk about is live action role play­ing. Now this is gonna sound com­plete­ly ridicu­lous, but bear with me for a lit­tle bit. When I talk about live action role play­ing some of you will have no idea what I’m talk­ing about, and some of you will have a men­tal image of a bunch of peo­ple run­ning around in the woods with foam swords pre­tend­ing to be elves and orcs and beat­ing each oth­er over the head. That is what I’m talk­ing about, but I’m specif­i­cal­ly talk­ing about where larp went in the Nordics. If you’re inter­est­ed in why I think it went there, ask me lat­er and we’ll get drinks.

But this is a pho­to from a game called Ground Zero which I often use as an intro­duc­tion. Ground Zero was first played in 1998. It was a game for about twenty-five play­ers. It was set in Topeka, Kansas in 1962. It’s a Finnish game; it was played in Turku. And the week before the game, they got togeth­er and had a din­ner par­ty in char­ac­ter. You know, kind of lis­tened to music of the era, under­stood what their social rela­tion­ships were, and it was just kind of a nor­mal din­ner.

When the game start­ed, they all went down into the base­ment of a rec cen­ter that had been redone as a bomb shel­ter. And here they are kind of troop­ing down into the into the base­ment in char­ac­ter. And the game was set dur­ing the Cuban Missile Crisis. So there’s an in-game game radio which is play­ing his­tor­i­cal radio pieces. And the sit­u­a­tion out­side gets worse and worse. And at some point it changed over into fic­tion­al­ized record­ings. And at some point, there’s a burst of sta­t­ic and the radio goes dead because New York has just been nuked. And then the pow­er cuts out.

And then about forty min­utes lat­er, there is a mas­sive earth-shattering boom. Because what they thought was a wall full of card­board box­es of canned goods was actu­al­ly a wall full of speak­ers. I think they actu­al­ly blew out about a third of the speak­ers in the wall because they had the amps turned up too high. And that’s it. Then they sit in the dark for the next twenty-two hours and try and under­stand what it means for every­one they know to be dead.

The game ends the next morn­ing. The orga­niz­ers basi­cal­ly rip open a door and say okay, it’s over. And they tell peo­ple the shel­ter cracked, water leaked in. Over the next three or four weeks half of you died of can­cer. We’re not telling whom. End.

And it was a fair­ly emo­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence, espe­cial­ly for folks who were of the gen­er­a­tion that was very aware of the Cold War. This was this was a less dis­tant mem­o­ry then it cer­tain­ly would be for folks their age now. And it was incred­i­bly emo­tion­al­ly mov­ing, you know, the kind of polit­i­cal mes­sage that was part of what they were talk­ing about was real­ly very strong.

This is my friend [Jok?], and she’s talk­ing about des­ignable surface—Johanna Koljonen—and she’s a Swedish media writer among oth­er things. And this is kind of one of the most key ideas, right. You have a game, you want to change peo­ple’s under­stand­ing of the world. One of the biggest things you need to do then is to shape their behav­ior, and to shape their under­stand­ing of the mean­ing of social inter­ac­tion. So we used des­ignable sur­face to do this, right. And this is some­thing that we think about in oth­er con­texts. If you’ve dealt with sys­tems design or ser­vice design as a dis­ci­pline, as it’s kind of devel­op­ing, you think about touch­points, that kind of thing. But sur­face design is look­ing at a much broad­er set of all pos­si­ble inter­ac­tions with the sys­tem that end up shap­ing emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence and emo­tion­al mean­ing, much more than than just kind of this oh yeah, that sign explains how I inter­act with this box.

You can rewrite social scripts fair­ly exten­sive­ly if you use your des­ignable sur­face well. This is a game called Mellan him­mel och hav, Between Heaven and Sea. It was an Ursula Le Guin-themed fic­tion. This was run in 2003. It was an explic­it­ly hap­py nar­ra­tive. It was a tale of a com­mu­ni­ty on a world that has a very long sea­son cycle. And spring is return­ing, and the com­mu­ni­ty is prepar­ing for a mar­riage. And it’s a fair­ly small com­mu­ni­ty so this is a big deal.

But every­one in the com­mu­ni­ty is sort­ed— Marriages are all four peo­ple. And the per­formed gen­ders are not male and female. Although those exist that’s a med­ical issue, basi­cal­ly. There are morn­ing peo­ple and evening peo­ple. So morn­ing peo­ple are the prac­ti­cal ones. They get up ear­ly, they build infra­struc­ture. They man­age the tasks of the com­mu­ni­ty. Evening peo­ple stay up late into the night talk­ing about pol­i­tics. You know, it’s ridicu­lous to think that an evening per­son is going to get any­thing done, prac­ti­cal­ly, because they’re not up when the work hap­pens. Just like it’s ridicu­lous to think that a morn­ing per­son is going to be politically-involved.

So every every mar­riage has two morn­ing peo­ple and two evening peo­ple, and that’s kind of the struc­ture. And, as you can see—these are these are all in-game photos—they had six days of work­shops before­hand. And a lot of real­ly inten­sive work went into kind of strip­ping away and then rebuild­ing peo­ple’s under­stand­ing of gen­der iden­ti­ty and gen­der role and gen­der per­for­mance.

And this had some real­ly last­ing effects. You know, there are a num­ber of peo­ple whose actu­al gen­der iden­ti­ties shift­ed because of what the game let them expe­ri­ence and they under­stood them­selves to be a dif­fer­ent per­son. Not because the game brain­washed them or any­thing but because it gave them a space for explo­ration. They were also liv­ing in extreme­ly close quar­ters in the game. Six folks I know end­ed up shar­ing a fair­ly small like thirty-five square meter one-bedroom apart­ment for three or four years after the game. Because they real­ized that if they did that they could live in cen­tral Stockholm and basi­cal­ly not pay rent. And the game had taught them both some spe­cif­ic tech­niques for how to func­tion­al­ly live in that kind of space, but also had shown them that they could build scripts that were actu­al­ly that aggres­sive in terms of rewrit­ing their lives.

Now doing this in real­i­ty is often hard­er, change is slow­er, con­sent is a lot more com­plex. The tools you can use are more restrict­ed. But social script design can work in inter­est­ing ways.

Illustration of the United States with a thick highlighted region around its edges

So let’s get back to bor­ders. What a bor­der is is chang­ing, and it’s chang­ing fair­ly rapid­ly. This is what the US gov­ern­ment des­ig­nates as the bor­der zone. This is the region of the US, which includes about 90-something per­cent of the American pop­u­la­tion, that cus­toms and bor­der con­trol con­sid­ers to be with­in scope of their oper­a­tions. So any­thing that they can do when you come through cus­toms at JFK, they can do any­where in the bor­der zone. Including every­one in Hawaii. You can’t get away from the bor­der in Hawaii.

We also have spe­cial eco­nom­ic zones. When I was putting this togeth­er I actu­al­ly went to see like oh, spe­cial eco­nom­ic zones. Those are like, fair­ly com­plex pieces of gov­ern­ment bureau­cra­cy. Surely there must be a fairly—you know like, there must be a list, right? And some­body must have com­piled a map of all of the spe­cial eco­nom­ic zones in the world.

Nope.

There were maybe about 10,000 of them. Ish. We know where… Someone knows where all of them are. But they are in many coun­tries fair­ly inten­tion­al­ly opaque. A spe­cial eco­nom­ic zone, for those not famil­iar with the term, is a des­ig­nat­ed region of a coun­try which is not nec­es­sar­i­ly part of the coun­try’s soil for cer­tain pur­pos­es, gen­er­al­ly includ­ing tar­iffs, trade reg­u­la­tions, and labor regulations—labor laws. And often includ­ing a real­ly pret­ty exten­sive set of stuff. This is the set of Chinese spe­cial eco­nom­ic zones. Many of those are cities or entire provinces, so these these aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly like, small patch­es of ground but like a free port, which might be a few ware­hous­es at an air­port which is out­side of the coun­try for cus­toms pur­pos­es. It’s kind of on the same con­tin­u­um. Free ports are where probably…if I had to guess, prob­a­bly at this point maybe a third or half of the world’s art is stored out of pub­lic view. Just because it’s being bought for invest­ment pur­pos­es and they don’t want to declare cus­toms on it any­where because that’s expen­sive and makes it less use­ful as an invest­ment vehi­cle.

We also have net­works of con­trol that tie into a lot of these things. This is Guiyang’s shiny new CCTV con­trol cen­ter that they showed off to the BBC a few weeks ago. The appear­ance of this cen­ter, like, does it need to be this kind of mas­sive room with all of these very shiny desks for the pur­pos­es of what’s going on there? No. But it’s a very use­ful des­ignable sur­face for the state to shape the social scripts of response to CCTV. This is one of the CCTV cen­ters where all the cam­eras in the city are hooked up to a face rec sys­tem. And so they took a pho­to of some BBC reporter, had him get dropped off some­where ran­dom in the city, start walk­ing around, and they found him in sev­en min­utes. Now, we can also talk about false pos­i­tives and you all of the oth­er issues with sys­tems like this, even ignor­ing the minor human rights prob­lems. But as a struc­ture of con­trol which is being rolled it’s an inter­est­ing data point.

Here’s a Western exam­ple, very tight geolo­ca­tion indoors. This is deployed in a lot of malls in rich­er Western coun­tries, where it’s not leg­is­lat­ed against. So they pick up the WiFi radio in your phone, and Bluetooth if you’ve got it on. Cross-reference that against say, the MAC address that the Facebook app has exfil­trat­ed out. You know, there’ll be a data bro­ker that’ll kind of bring all these things togeth­er, so that then they can say, push ads to you for things that you might’ve seen in stores that you spent a bunch of time lin­ger­ing in.

So why do we actu­al­ly need a phys­i­cal bor­der? Like it’s clear­ly… Like, you know, the future is not even­ly dis­trib­uted, what­ev­er what­ev­er, but like it’s clear­ly kind of irrel­e­vant. So a nation is infra­struc­ture for some­one’s stan­dard of liv­ing. Probably not your stan­dard of liv­ing.

This is a a map from 1650 of places that were con­sid­ered nations by…whoever com­piled this map. And so the mod­ern nation project co-rose with indus­tri­al infra­struc­ture. And I don’t think that’s a coin­ci­dence.

So you’ve got you know, a bit more in 1850; the colo­nial pow­ers have start­ed expand­ing. And then all of a sud­den, 1900, almost total. 1940, there are no more gray areas on the map.

Now this is a hilar­i­ous­ly ter­ri­ble map. It does not rec­og­nize any indige­nous pop­u­la­tions that might con­sid­er them­selves to have been a nation. Also, many of these things, cer­tain­ly in 1940, were states by name but not states in any func­tion­al way. But what they care about here, what the peo­ple who com­piled this map care about are nations that are sig­ni­fied and leg­i­ble to the col­lec­tive project of nation­ifi­ca­ca­tion, which was a…you know, again, you can read the receipts. There was a very aggres­sive, care­ful project to ensure that land was not left out­side of the sys­tem of nations, because for the pur­pos­es for which nations were being con­struct­ed, they need­ed the sys­tem to be as total as pos­si­ble. States of excep­tion were…states of leakage—they were weak­ness­es.

Now, we can look at mul­ti­ple things that we might call nations or peo­ples or that kind of thing. We can look at shared cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. And many, some, of these states have shared cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties. Some of them even had shared cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties before some­one drew a line on a map. We can look at the kind of sig­ni­fied nation view that this actu­al­ly rep­re­sents. But what they actu­al­ly are is geographically-bounded coer­cive infra­struc­tur­al col­lec­tives, right. This is a chunk of land where peo­ple are build­ing infra­struc­ture. It is one pool of infra­struc­ture. And you don’t get the choice of opt­ing out of that pool of infra­struc­ture. Because it’s not pos­si­ble to build industrial-scale infra­struc­ture unless it is a coer­cive col­lec­tive project. We can debate the coer­cive bit, but cer­tain­ly giv­en the polit­i­cal tools that peo­ple had at the time they did­n’t know how else to do it.

Who here has read The Art of Not Being Governed? James C. Scott? Okay, a few. So The Art of Not Being Governed is an expla­na­tion of the pol­i­tics of Zomia, which is this bit of Southeast Asia, or specif­i­cal­ly the parts of Southeast Asia that are too far above sea lev­el to grow rice. Because his­tor­i­cal­ly, states in that region were con­nect­ed to rice grow­ing. And one of the real­ly inter­est­ing things about that his­to­ry is that it’s not the nar­ra­tive that we tra­di­tion­al­ly hear of like, states expand and bring peo­ple into their fold, and that kind of thing. It went both ways. You had a lot of peo­ple being like, Hmm. This state isn’t work­ing out so well for me. I think I’ll leave. I’ll go up into the hills and become a non-state per­son for some peri­od of time, until maybe con­di­tions get bet­ter.” And all of that stuff about shared cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, that all changed. That all changed, and changed actu­al­ly quite rapid­ly, in line with these col­lec­tive move­ments.

Freshly unearthed sweet potatoes, still covered in dirt

One of the things which end­ed up being very use­ful, by the way, were sweet pota­toes. They’re great. You put them in the ground. They grow. You can’t take them with you, they’re too heavy. You can’t steal them, they’re not expro­pri­at­able by a state. You leave them in the ground for two years—they’re still there. And it’s inter­est­ing when we’ve talked about shift­ing bor­ders, if we think about you know, how cli­mate change may shift the rice-cultivatable areas in that region, we may get the state­able areas there—at least in the tra­di­tion­al def­i­n­i­tion of what states have been in that region—shifting just based on bio­me shift­ing. Now, of course mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy has changed what is state­able in those places.

Production has become glob­al. This is part of a fair­ly sim­ple sup­ply chain map for a lap­top. It’s very very sim­pli­fied. But if we want to sur­vive cli­mate change, we need to see not just pro­duc­tion, not just the sup­ply chain side, but all of the infra­struc­ture projects have to be con­ceived of in terms of glob­al scope, right. Because they have a glob­al impact.

I have one more fam­i­ly pho­to which sig­nif­i­cant­ly changed my rela­tion­ship with the US. Just before I left I became a full US cit­i­zen, which is to say a cor­po­ra­tion. Which was a real­ly weird expe­ri­ence because it real­ly does put you in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent mode of inter­act­ing both with the US and with most oth­er states. Part of that cap­i­tal flow, in some ways. So there’s part of me that can move around much more freely than the phys­i­cal body can.

We are in a moment of choice as a species. If we are going to sur­vive the next hun­dred years—eh…let’s be more real­is­tic: the next six­ty years, with what we cur­rent­ly see as globally-organized indus­tri­al civ­i­liza­tion intact and func­tion­ing, we need to ter­raform this plan­et. Now, the good news is this is the eas­i­est plan­et to ter­raform that we’re ever going to inter­act with. If you look at the kind of rea­son­able mid­line sce­nar­ios, we’ve passed two degrees Celsius. And if you look at the rea­son­able impact esti­mates for what that means…we’re not keep­ing indus­tri­al orga­nized glob­al civ­i­liza­tion after two degrees. So, if we want it back, if we want to have our future back, we need to start ter­raform­ing. We have lost the abil­i­ty to be local, right. This idea that we can only act local­ly, what­ev­er, that we can live in a place and see our­selves as just peo­ple who live in that place, that’s gone. We now get to learn what it means to be a glob­al species.

What this requires of us is that our infra­struc­tur­al col­lec­tiv­i­ty, you know, that geographically-coercive, geographically-bounded infra­struc­tur­al col­lec­tive, that thing that we made the nation to do, that has to get bro­ken up. We have to unbound all of those infra­struc­tur­al col­lec­tives. Because if we don’t, we will build infra­struc­ture that does not work for the plan­et. This is not option­al; we do that or we die.

We also need to flat­ten wealth inequal­i­ty. And we need to do that not because the megarich are killing the plan­et and should be mur­dered. Although they are, and they pos­si­bly should be. But we need to do that because every­one in India wants a car, and an air con­di­tion­er, and a fridge, and that is entire­ly fuck­ing rea­son­able. And if we would like to stop them, our options are…kill them, or fig­ure out a way to give those things to them. And we’re going to pick one of those things and start doing that. And we will not psy­chi­cal­ly sur­vive, we will not cul­tur­al­ly sur­vive, killing most of the world, and we prob­a­bly should­n’t try. So there­fore we should prob­a­bly fig­ure out how to both flat­ten what we take and also pro­vide that infra­struc­ture in a way that is actu­al­ly func­tion­al for every­one.

Nighttime space image of the Earth with bright spots visible at larger cities.

Now, all of this means that the thing that we built the nation to do we don’t need any­more. As you may have noticed, things that have become unnec­es­sary in polit­i­cal terms do not just go away. But let’s think in slight­ly deep­er time, right. Modern nations are about 400 years old. The era of total nation­hood is maybe eighty years old. We live in a tran­sient moment of total nations. This will pass. One of the things that I think we can do that is pos­si­bly one of the more impor­tant things that we can do right now is to fig­ure out how to pre­hearse an under­stand­ing of what it means to exist beyond the total nation. And by pre­hearse I mean play. You know. That’s how we under­stand, that’s how we learn about things that are unknown to us, right. Later on we fig­ure out oh okay, you can go to a class­room, you can recite these canned facts—that does­n’t help when you don’t under­stand a thing and there’s no one to teach you. So we need to pre­hearse our way into a future. Thank you.


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