Driving back up the line to my grandmother’s house, as I passed one curiously discontinuous segment of 18-foot-tall border fence after another, I brooded over the larger meaning of my encounter with the authorities. I had long nursed the belief that the borderlands where I came of age, in which my neighbors and my family and I had crossed the river to Mexico weekly if not daily with a minimum of inconvenience, had ceased to exist. But on that bright summer day in 2010, I realized that I did not yet comprehend what was taking its place. I had only begun to understand the complexities of the modern border and its intricate economies of authority and surveillance. So I decided to investigate, to experience the border complex as a sympathetic journalist rather than a suspect tourist.
My initial question was relatively simple: How does the border work? What devices and systems have we invented to secure a 1,954-mile international boundary—of river valleys and canyons, mountains, deserts and vibrant communities straddling both sides of the line—that people have crossed more or less freely for hundreds of years? What I discovered, over weeks and months of reporting, is that no real agreement exists among policymakers about how to define the border itself. Is it an obstruction or a conduit? A military domain or a civil and commercial one? Is it meant to join communities or keep them apart? I searched in vain among the pronouncements of our political leaders for clarification of such questions.
Despite this ambiguity—or perhaps as a result of it—the federal government has since 2003 doubled the flow of funds to Customs and Border Protection, the division of the Department of Homeland Security with primary responsibility for policing the border. CBP, which encompasses the Border Patrol, has in turn deployed increasingly advanced means not only to scrutinize, search out, and seize an immense stream of drugs and bodies (to use CBP parlance), but also to channel a concomitant river of data—electronic manifests, lists of travelers’ names, dates of entry, and untold terabytes of video footage—all of which must be analyzed, quantified, indexed, and stored.
Technologies of surveillance and control all aim to achieve a perspectival advantage over some adversary, but the vast quantities of data produced by these devices threaten to overload the system, thus defeating the original goal. Fusing those rivers of data into a comprehensive and intuitively manageable real-time graphical interface, for instance, had been one of the foremost aims of the Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet, the federal government’s doomed mega-contract with Boeing to build a “virtual fence” along the nation’s borders. In January 2011, after five years of effort and more than $1 billion had yielded a mere 53 miles of partially operative tactical infrastructure in southern Arizona, the Department of Homeland Security canceled SBInet. It was not yet clear what would take its place.
Despite the failure of SBInet, the border is increasingly defined not by geography or war or acts of Congress, but innovation. Border-control assets—from radar blimps to Predator drones to virtual fences and other military-grade surveillance machines—are evolving rapidly, if imperfectly, and with them so is the border itself. What was once little more than a line on a map has become a theater of operations.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.