, For Planetary Governance

Reimagining Borders & Mobility: An Open Index Of Planetary Principles

Authors: Joel Fear, María Buey González, Alisa Pashkova, Alla Semenovskaya

At a time when the governing of current border configurations and mobility is proving to be inadequate at responding to planetary crises, how can they be reconsidered via reimagining borders not as static barriers but as functions able to respond coordinately to today’s planetary demands? Can borders be redrawn to address mobility not as a privilege but as a condition of solidarity and exchange?

A planetary-scale crisis requires a planetary-scale response, and the current configuration of global borders, mobility, and their governing has proven inadequate to address these needs and must be reconsidered.

Throughout history, different borders have been drawn and maintained by different motivations. One of the more stubborn frameworks is Westphalian Sovereignty, which proposes that each state has executive authority over its territory. Its origins can be traced back to 1648 and the signing of the Peace Treaties of Westphalia that gave power back to imperial states—the sprawling ideology of which would come to define the boundary of their sovereign territory. Empires would later develop entire systems of control over their borders, facilitating the movement of assets and labor, but constraining the movement of people.

In 2021, the inadequacies of this framework are extremely evident and unable to respond to the complexity of human needs while confronting crises at both the material and immaterial periphery. Pandemics, climate degradation, and mass migration have eclipsed the capabilities of our governing bodies and simply cannot be managed by states working within their current territories and zones as they are.

A call for planetary governance then may be answered by reimagining borders as a function of coordinated response and mobility—not as a privilege but as a condition of solidarity and exchange.

In setting up this colossal task of mapping the borders to come, we must survey the borders we have. Beyond territorial topologies and antecedent boundaries, many less tangible bordering operations are layered simultaneously upon our experiences and interactions. Supply chains, data sets, vaccines, bandwidth, semiotics, and contraception are some acute models of bordering technologies that are crucial in understanding the ways we interface with dynamics of access and zoning on a daily basis.

Perhaps some of the functions, conditions, and priorities of this bordering provide a glimpse into how we might generate a responsive platform, one that can integrate nuance and mitigate intersectional fallout.

Borders (and bordering) is a specific phenomenon grounded in generalized logic—and it is here where we seek to compile An Open Index of Planetary Principals; an open list of scalable priorities and functions that should be considered for both their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reimagining the kinds of borders needed to respond to our impending futures. First, an overview of the index so far:

  • Borders can moderate, where the zoning and topology is fixed, but conditional access can be given and taken away;

  • They can be dynamic, where borders may adapt, soften, and even toggle on/off for certain conditions;

  • They are often multilateral, where borders are set and agreed upon by two or more different parties;

  • Borders can also be connective and facilitate joining and formation, not separation;

  • Bordering is a generative process, where the mapping of spatial zones creates the territory, and the territory doesn’t necessarily define the map;

  • They can be responsive, where borders have the capacity to react to emergent contingencies;

  • Borders can even be custodial, where the rights and care of passage are facilitated by the border technology itself;

  • Borders are also situated, where the subject at any given time is both inside and outside an aggregation of different borders, built by context and relational constructs.

Next, we examine four different sites with unique bordering and mobility conditions and isolate the individual operating principles. Then by layering them upon one another, we can illustrate the various ways this index can be understood as a set of priorities, which could be used as parts to construct the complex system of multilayered and gradient bordering we need.

Multiple different borders need attention, but for now, our focus is on the Arctic Ocean, the transboundary aquifers throughout Africa, Taiwan’s Digital Democracy, and Natural Language Processing. These sites, chosen for their varying priorities and material conditions, are a way for us to examine different governing principles that give rise and apply pressure upon the bodies and technologies that inhabit these spaces.

  • The Arctic Ocean

As a relatively uncharted territory until recently, the Arctic Ocean—which borders eight nations across North America and Eurasia—has recently become a site of more active geopolitics, creating tension within the multilateral union of the Arctic Council. As the ice melts, the surrounding nations are attempting to lay claim to the ground beneath the sea via the legal frameworks of the Continental Shelf Convention and the exclusive economic zoning laws that govern the sea, giving each nation the right to manage resources within their territory. But as it stands, many of these claims overlap and contradict one another.

The melting sea ice illustrates the involuntary response of this boundary to climate change and is beginning to render some custodial technologies obsolete. In 2017, the Christophe de Margerie—a liquid natural gas tanker—was the first commercial ship of its scale to cross the Northern Sea without relying on the buffer of an icebreaker. Climate models predict that by 2050, the frozen Arctic Ocean will have had its first-ever summer with no ice.

  • Aquifers

Next, we look at the aquifers that run under the borders of multiple nations on the continent of Africa.

The lack of quantitative information on groundwater resources—the continent’s major irrigation and a drinking water source—has forced different organizations to work together to generate the maps needed to precisely understand its distribution.

At the same time, the territorial conditions of these aquifers, which apply to land across different borders, demand a more coordinated strategy. In 2000, the Worldwide Hydrogeological Mapping and Assessment Programme was created. It compiles data on the quantity, quality, and vulnerability of groundwater resources from national, regional, and global sources. The generated maps provide critical information to help communicate groundwater issues to experts, decision-makers, and the general public, allowing for the collective moderation of this vital resource.

  • Taiwan

In Taiwan, democracy is a living technology that all can contribute to. It is a digital democracy that uses the internet as a prototyping tool for global governance, where space is composed of voluntary, interconnected, and autonomous networks conducted by decentralized and diverse stakeholders, forming a new hybrid model of multilateralism.

Broadband is considered a human right in Taiwan. Online platforms like vtaiwan or the 1922 toll-free number allow individuals to contribute to a public sphere of citizens and lawmakers, allowing for rapid and accurate response and facilitating political organizing, resource distribution, and policy change.

There, the digital does not replace, but augments, collective intelligence. This allows for more intergenerational solidarity pushing for collective creativity and intimacy, bending traditional bureaucratic borders of political participation into something much more dynamic and responsive.

  • Natural Language Processing

Finally, we have Natural Language Processing (NLP), a subfield of linguistics, humanities, and computer science focused on training computers to understand and generate human language.

As automated bias creeps from the data set to the model, it reflects back an essential image of how power and social hierarchies reside in language. The challenges proposed in modeling sentiment analysis, theme extraction, context determination, and translation reveal more about ourselves than expected, and may come to shape the way people communicate with one another.

NLP systems—although still teething—could become a manifold that will help overcome borders of language within and across cultures. An earpiece that translates language in real time is a custodial bordering technology that not only enables but stewards access while preserving the situated contexts of different territories and language variations—reimagining language as a border not of separation but of intimate connection.

Once these variables have been disentangled from their contexts, they can be reconnected and re-set in a different kind of stack—one which is able to respond to the multilayered complications of present times. Its reconfiguration should be one in the form of a platform, a complex system that enables the synchronization of different actions.

The borders to come must be understood not as static barriers but as functions that can enable, and react to, new mobility configurations, ones more in tune with current demands. Understanding borders as functions made of different constants and variables will allow independent and interdependent regulatory responses to moderate entanglement.

Borders conceived as functions would be “dimensionally varied and multiply constrained”(Negarestani 2018, 12). This is to say that they can only be adequately realized when being analyzed attending to qualitatively structural constraints distributed across different levels of the functional-structural organization, according to Reza Negarestani. Borders would be deep—deep in the sense that they would be organized at different levels and scales. The picture of a border would be described not in terms of how it appears, but how it is organized, “specifying what activities, with what roles, and what spatial and temporal organizations and dependency relations are required” (Negarestani 2018, 13).

After this video was made, new violent and dramatic episodes on different borders around the planet have occurred, others existing have continued to intensify, without any real attempt by governing systems to avoid or solve them.

This project was developed from an infrastructural perspective in a short period of time without the capacity nor pretension to analyze the terrible migration events that specific millions of people are facing nowadays. The authors acknowledge the approach to the project doesn’t address the current crisis and definite sufferings of forced migration. Further research and broader fundamental transformative action have to be done.

The project was conceived as part of The Terraforming design research program at Strelka Institute, directed by Benjamin Bratton and Nicolay Boyadjiev.

María Buey González is an architect from Spain. Her work explores the implications of automation, computational technologies, and model-based design processes on both the relational and the built environment. She builds her career on interdisciplinary collaborations that combine research and site-specific practice, often in alliance with related institutions.

Joel Fear is an art director and graphic designer from New Zealand working out of New York City. His work is usually situated in cultural and technology spaces creating identities for galleries, museums, individual exhibitions, events, software companies, and web3 platforms. https://joelfear.com/

Alisa Pashkova is a filmmaker, researcher, and producer from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Their work explores the embodiment of complex systems, collectivity, and urbanization.

Alla Semenovskaya is a strategist based in Moscow with a background in business development and launching emerging technologies. Her recent work has specialized in research projects exploring climate and environmental policies. asemenovskaya@yahoo.com


Negarestani, Reza. 2018. Intelligence and Spirit. Urbanomic/Sequence Press

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