The Declining Significance of Traditional Borders (and the Appearance of New Borders) in an Age of High Technology
in P. Droege, Intelligent Environments, 1997, Elsevier Science, pp. 484-494.

This paper is drawn from a forthcoming work entitled Windows Into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology.

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Gary T. Marx

It's a remarkable piece of apparatus

-- Franz Kafka, The Penal Colony

Samuel Goldwyn, one of the founders of the Hollywood film industry, said: I never make predictions, especially about the future. Although I am also originally from Hollywood, I will not take his advice. I will make a prediction in the form of a simple hypothesis: traditional borders (whether physical 'hard' borders such as walls and distance or 'soft' cultural borders such as national frontiers) are weakening. In some ways it becomes more difficult to draw clean clear lines separating individuals and groups from each other and from their environments (e.g. the analysis of brainwaves that the individual sends forth which had been unreadable, or the ability to cross the lines of self and body through subliminal forms of olfactory, visual or auditory communication). This also applies to familiar, previously distinct objects such as phones, computers and television which are merging -- and to the merging of what had been distinct formats and data types such as sound, image, print and data. New forms and borders whose meaning is unclear or contested are appearing at an accelerated rate.

Developments in communications and surveillance technology are particularly important in undermining the physical, geographical, spatial and juridical borders that have defined the self, communities, homes, cities, regions and nation-states as entities which are believed to be distinct. The meaning and importance of distinctions such as between urban and rural, and center and periphery, are changing. International borders and face-to-face interaction are not as central as they have been. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein (and a recent television commercial) there will be no more there or then, everything will only be here and now.

I will consider four broad areas where boundaries are changing and very briefly note some social implications of this. The borders involve: physical space, the senses, time and the individual's body and self.

Physical/Spatial/Geographical Borders

We are seeing new global and regional units with more inclusive borders. There is increased evidence of regional economic integration, e.g. the European Economic Community and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It is common to refer to the globalization of many aspects of the economy. Japanese and US cars are made with parts from many countries and are eventually assembled in diverse locations outside those two countries. Multinational corporations continue to grow. We see political integration in Europe with the European Community, and the United Nations is playing a more active role than ever.

At the same time, we see a dialectical move toward smaller, fragmented, local units in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and parts of Africa. This is even true in Great Britain, where the myth of a single British nation is increasingly being challenged by Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Kentish identities, among others, aided by the resources and new sources of legitimacy offered by the supranational Council of Europe. In Italy, there is a movement to separate the north from the south and the same applies to dividing California into northern (San Francisco) and southern (Los Angeles) states. Aspirations for autonomy are leading to the weakening and even breaking up of the more inclusive political units that grew in the last century. This may result in the creation of new regional boundaries based on a common language or adjacent territories, e.g. the new Euro-region district linking parts of England, Belgium and France as a result of proximity to the channel.

Even place boundaries within countries are changing. For example, for an increasing number of people the traditional boundaries between work and home are blurred. With telecommuting, we see an increase in the number of people working at home. As well, fast-track employees with beepers, cellular phones, computers with modems and fax machines are expected to be constantly available for work no matter where they are. In addition, company rules such as those against smoking or using drugs are applied to off-duty as well as on-duty behavior. The workplace becomes everywhere the worker is. At the same time, with child day care, health, lounge, recreational and commissary facilities, workplaces become more like homes.

With more people owning vacation homes and entering time-share arrangements, the notion of a permanent fixed residence is softening. In the US in 1994, there were close to three million time-share owners, up from six hundred thousand ten years ago. The number of mobile residences --from fully developed luxury motor homes to basic vans --continues to increase. Of course there is a spatial component to this, but it is fluid and mobile. With an increase in such migrations, we hark back to an earlier period in which non-territorial bands roamed land that was not defined by geopolitical sovereignty.

Another factor, related to increased temporary immigration, is that more people with dual-national identities may, over months or years, commute between their places of origin in less developed countries to economic and other opportunities in more developed countries. A consequence for political systems is that migrants may recreate in their new country political parties and associations found in the original country.

Actual and proposed legislation in some countries permit dual citizenship and absentee voting. This recognizes what had previously been only a psychological reality for many immigrants --their sense of belonging to both their country of origin and nation of migration. In recognizing this multiplicity, social mechanisms help break the prior imperialistic or totalizing aspect of place and political jurisdiction. World economic interdependence and the ease of travel encourage such dualities.

New spatial forms such as shopping malls, entertainment worlds like Disneyland and large apartment, university, and corporate complexes can be seen as quasi-public or private. While privately owned, they are dependent on steady flows of people in and out. The ratio of public to private spaces has been altered so that the amount of public space, as traditionally defined, appears to be declining. In addition, what had formerly been public, or at least ignored, space --such as empty lots --is increasingly built upon.

Another change involves connections and communities not dependent on identifiable physical space. An efficient postal service and the invention of the telephone greatly enhanced this in the last century, as did the increased ease of travel via trains, cars and planes. Yet recent developments merging the telephone, video and computer take this much further.

Mystical, avant garde jazz musician Sun Ra was fond of saying "space is the place." By this he was referring to outer space. But on earth today, I think it is more appropriate to say space is no longer the place.

The ability to instantly communicate breaks dependence on physical co-presence for interaction. Many of our most basic social assumptions have involved a physical rather than an electronic world. This is changing in a cyberspace environment. The founder of an expanding electronic bulletin board in New York City states that architects put up buildings "... that stick way up in the air, whereas I'm building all these little connections you can't see." The new connections are horizontal and invisible.

This of course raises a rich set of social issues. It becomes possible to live far away from others --on a mountaintop, in the desert, on the sea, under the ground or even in outer space, or in a moving vehicle with a computer, a modem, a fax, a video and a cellular phone --and have immediate communication with anyone anywhere who has the appropriate technology. Beyond real-time interaction, the world's data banks and artistic and entertainment archives could become independent of the traditional restrictions of physical distance and time.

It has even been suggested that the millions of people on the Internet apply to the United Nations as the first nation in cyberspace. While cable television promises five hundred channels, the Internet already offered ten thousand channels by 1994 and is growing. There are now more than sixty million personal computers in the United States.

Borders of the Senses/Perception

The territory included in our unaided senses is tiny relative to what there is to be sensed. These borders are enlarged, or even eliminated, with the technological extensions of our senses made possible with devices such as night vision technology and means for analyzing DNA patterns.

The senses of course represent a different kind of border. It is not a border which one can physically cross as when going between countries or places. Nor is it a conceptual border as between the sacred and the profane. It is a cognitive or experiential border between the known and the unknown, or the experienced and what can only be imagined.

One question to ask about borders or frames is what is on the other side? With the conceptual border, there is a logical opposition (if not always opposite) based on the included/excluded. Physical borders may separate places with different social definitions (e.g. between countries) or physical attributes (e.g. the sides of a river or a valley and mountains) that condition human behavior. But sense borders stand in a different relation to their other side. They represent a limit and are opaque. They are a barrier like a locked door or a box canyon. One is simply stopped. The other side is not an equivalent place (such as a different nation-state), nor is it an opposite (such as cold). It is instead a non-transcendable barrier. Technology may eliminate a border, as with night vision technology. Or it may simply extend it, altering the ratio of what can and cannot be perceived, as with binoculars or satellite imaging. The outer border remains but is extended. In the first case, we have transparency and in the second a pushing of the limit but not its obliteration.

The senses have also served as a border that has helped to separate the true from the false and the 'real' from the imaginary. The border function of the senses as a screen for judgement is weakening. Consider for example the ability to digitally retouch an image. Among well-known examples are National Geographic magazine's altering the size of a pyramid so it would look better on its cover. In my research on undercover tactics, I report a case in which police, in order to gather evidence of conspiracy to commit murder, took a picture of the intended victim lying down. Through digital retouching, they then separated the head from the body, added red for blood and printed the image. This was then presented to the suspect; offered as proof that the deed had been carried out.

A related form is the reanimating of dead actors. Film stars such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe may return to the screen in new performances. The computer animation which created the dinosaurs in the film "Jurassic Park" can generate screen images that look like recognizable people, and voices can be synthesized.

Virtual reality applies here, as it gives a feeling of reality without its being 'physically present' in traditional form. We see 'cities and buildings of the mind'. It becomes possible for an architect to walk through buildings that are not yet built. Molecular scientists can explore cells which exist in reality but which they can not enter in traditional ways.

Temporal Borders

Time insofar as it is thought to involve the past and the future, is also a border. It shares with the senses the idea of a border between the known and the unknown. To the extent that the past has been experienced or known, it stands in the same relation to an unknown future as does the unseen at the limit of our ability to see with the naked eye.

But time differs as well, in that its availability has previously been fleeting, like trying to watch a particular area of water in a rapidly moving river. The past is gone, and traditionally our ability to recapture it was limited. Yet with modern technologies, it can in some ways be preserved and offered up for visual and auditory consumption. Time is enlarged from a flowing river to a stagnant pool. This goes beyond filming of a birth, a wedding or a battle to surfacing and preserving elements of the past that were not previously available, such as photos of a growing embryo. The growth of computer records offers a different type of preservation and access to information that traditionally was unavailable.

In extending our ability to know the future (particularly on a probable basis), we see the breaking of yet another border. Traditionally many elements of the future were open-ended. This supported American optimism and a belief that with hard work or good luck things might get better. DNA analysis or expert systems which yield predictive profiles based on the analysis of large numbers of cases claim to offer windows into the future.

Another temporal border involves the lag between the occurrence of an event and communication about it. Such time frames have been greatly shortened. The immediate past and the present merge. It took many days for news of Napoleon's defeat to reach France, and some battles were fought after the Civil War was ended because combatants had not received the news. Now the stock market reacts immediately to faraway events. There is less time for judgement and greater pressure for instant action in the twenty-four hour global world offered by CNN, in which world leaders and citizens simultaneously learn of major events soon after they happen.

The temporal buffer offered by slower, more restricted means of communication is reduced. The borders between action and inaction, on-and off-duty and public and private that were available with the 'natural' rhythms of day and night, weekends and holidays, are less evident for more people who are 'on call' regardless of the time or where they are.

Borders of the Body and the Self

In the past, walls, darkness, distance, time and skin were boundaries that protected personal information and helped define the self. Information about the self resided with the individual and those who knew him or her. The number of records on an individual was limited. But now with the growth of data banks, we see the rise of a shadow self based on images in distant, often networked computers. Many records involving health, employment, arrest, driving, insurance, ownership, credit, consumption, education and family are available. Indeed one's entire gastronomic history with some restaurants is in their computers.

The self takes on an extended meaning in what Laudon (1986) calls the "dossier society." With the enhanced means of classification and data processing identified by Foucault, ways of defining the self have greatly expanded. We become not only the sum of our own biographies, but part of broader social types believed to have the potential to behave in certain ways. Individuals are defined according to being in or out, above or below some cut-off point, according to a differentiating standard. This may be favorable to the individual in offering a more comprehensive characterization and even choice as to what one emphasizes (e.g. a poor academic record may be disallowed if one can show that he or she is the kind of person whose learning disability means performing poorly on timed tests).

Yet this may also work to the detriment of the individual to the extent that others gain access to or create data about the person and distribute this without restriction for their own ends. This creates the possibility for a silent, massive blackballing system in which individuals are denied opportunities for employment, housing and consumption, with no chance of responding. The traditional border described above was one which blocked information about the self from flowing too freely to others without the individual's knowledge or will. Here the traditional border (like a door closed to protect privacy) kept information within. In so doing, it enhanced its value to the individual, who could use it as a resource, doling it out as was appropriate.

But the boundaries of the body/self also served to keep out unwanted influences and information. Averting the eyes, not listening, closing a door or drawing a shade, walking away, are all means to protect the self from the entry of alien stimuli. But with recent technical developments, the self is less protected from covert intrusions and manipulations. These might come in the form of aromatic engineering in which various scents are pumped into air conditioning and heating systems (e.g. jasmine, lemon) or subliminal messages sent over computer screens, radio and television.

There are other maintenance and military uses of what the Russians call "acoustic psycho-correction." Since the 1970s, Russian experimenters have claimed to have techniques to control rioters and dissidents, demoralize or disable opponents and enhance performance.

This can be done with computerized acoustic devices said to be capable of 'implanting thoughts in people's minds' without their awareness of the source. Such inaudible commands may alter behavior.

A final related factor involves a blurring of the borders between the human and the non-human. Cyborgs are not just science fiction. We are increasingly seeing humans with artificial parts and research is well underway on artificial skin and blood. In secret US military experiments, computer chips have reportedly been implanted in chimpanzees, and a variety of implants have been proposed for humans. We see robots designed to behave as humans and efforts to have humans become more efficient by modeling their actions after machines. The ease with which we divided the human from the non-human and the organic from the inorganic is challenged.

This is not the place to consider a rich set of social issues raised by the above changes. But these issues can be briefly noted:

Some Qualifications

The above comes with some qualifications. I write as a social scientist and not as a fundamentalist. For the latter, things are true because he or she says they are. Instead I offer these ideas as hypotheses to be subject to systematic empirical test. I do not share the certainty of the American journalist Lincoln Steffens who said after his visit to the Soviet Union in 1919, "I have seen the future and it works." I don't think there is a historical inevitability to these developments. In George Orwell's words, "I don't believe that the society I describe will arrive, but something resembling it could arrive."

Given a social milieu involving a free enterprise system, conflicting interests and human agency and ingenuity, there will be continual challenges to the control of the machine. Humans act in response. Highly complex, interdependent, technological systems have ironic vulnerabilities. The technology grows out of and enters into prior social contexts which must be understood: we should no more adopt technological determinism than any other single approach. Technology must be seen as both effect and cause.

A broader aspect of how technology is changing borders is that it may urge us to pay more attention to how the structures and possibilities offered by the technical and physical world condition the social meanings we in turn place upon them and social life.

In his fine book "The Fine Line," Evictor Zerubavel (1991) emphasizes the discontinuity between the physical and social worlds. In a scholarly and imaginative fashion that should serve as an example for those in the Simmelian tradition, he shows how we impose cultural distinctions and meanings on the undissected flow of the natural world. This of course is the sociologists stock-in-trade. Our business is the never ending demonstration of how what individuals take to be normal and the natural order of the world is really socially constructed. Meaning comes from us and is not inherent in objects.

Yet there are limits to this position. Both the Apollo moon landing and the TV series Star Wars are socially fabricated. But on is a fabrication in the second sense and the other is not. One was constantly shaped by the physical world and the other by the imagination of its script writers.

There is a danger in taking our preferred line of reasoning too literally. The physical world channels and makes certain cultural distinctions likely. Many of or social creations are not random, even if the limits of the natural world offer a range of interpretive and analytic possibilities. For example we make sense of sun rises and sunsets (even if the rigid popular line demarcating darkness and daylight is an imposition on a seamless flow). It is not by accident that most cultures have much more to say about these than about mid-day or midnight. Our Western notions of privacy and liberty are made possible partly because of the ecological and technical limitations on the ability of rulers to exercise complete control (a factor which is changing), posing challenges for the preservation of these cultural beliefs.

My interest is in the neglected role of the physical and technical in supporting or undermining the control of information. These must be considered as important determinants or limiting or channeling factors in understanding social forms related to information control and access. A closed door, being beyond the range of the senses, and civil inattention/averted eyes may all protect information but their roots are not the same. One approach would be to consider functional equivalents from the physical and social worlds.

A broader point of my emphasis on how technology is changing borders is to urge sociologists to pay more attention to how the structures and possibilities offered by the technical and physical world condition the social meanings we in turn place upon them and social life.

We need humility in thinking about the future. It is difficult to anticipate the long-run consequences of technical innovations. For example, a sociologist present at the time of the invention of the printing press might have said "All it will do is enhance the power of the King and the Church." The link between mass literacy and democracy was hardly obvious. The automobile was welcomed by urban specialists as an anti-pollution device to overcome the problems of horses. Many consequences are unanticipated and unwanted --as well as the reverse. Actual impacts are many and complex, and likely to lie somewhere between the pessimistic predictions of the Luddites and the optimism of the techno-cheerleaders.

To predict such things is not to advocate or welcome them. I stand between the cynical spirit of the sociology of social stratification in which, as American blues singer Ray Charles reminds us, those that got are those that get and the techno-optimism of American entrepreneurial pragmatism, tempered by an appreciation of the critical spirit of European humanism.

In Franz Kafka's short story "The Penal Colony" we read of a prison captain who invents a machine for perfect punishment and who ends up being killed by his own machine. One need not rigidly accept Frankensteinian visions, nor become a machine-breaking Luddite, to appreciate the importance of approaching the future with the caution of a flashing yellow, rather than a green, light.


Laudon, K.C., The Dossier Society, New York: Columbian Univ. Press, 1986.

Zerubavel, E. The Fine Line, Chicagon: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991.

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