spectacular tactics: transborder immigrant tool

“In the spectacle,” writes Anselam Jappe, “a fragmented society is illusorily restored to wholeness.” I was mulling this line over as I reflected on the Activist Technology Demo Day event. Whenever the semblance of an excited community forms, I tend to recede to the periphery – wondering who will be there and what I might see. That happened when the panel discussion started. Microphone problems made it difficult to concentrate on the discussion. As participants moved in closer, I moved further away.

We get together around things and people. The things may be problematic, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the idea that the manner in which things and people are mobilized matters. Consumer electronics and networks are essential to most (if not all) the projects demoed at the event. The iPhones, iPads, bluetooth and 3G networks, arduinos and GPS systems – all mobilized to depict what could be possible. Yet a strong case seems at hand in Debord to criticize the use of the these military derived, mass and anonymously manufactured, nomadic-capitalist benefiting consumer electronics. Still, there was something earnest in the event – even though a separation was taking place.

“Did you know that Stuxnet was just a virus on a USB stick,” said a friend I met on the periphery, “Isn’t that so 1990s?”
“What would that make the Iranian downing of the drone?” I replied, “I understand they spoofed GPS signals to guide the plane to the ground.”
My friend was quite impressed by that clever tactic.

De Certeau speaks of the ingenius manner in which the weak make use of the strong – “the tactics of consumption”. (PEL xvii). Tactics of consumption seem to be at the core of tactical design – we figure ways to consume electronics in unexpected and unintended ways. One of the most intriguing and challenging examples of this kind of tactical consumption/design is Ricardo Dominguez’s Transborder Immigrant Tool. I had a chance to see it displayed at The New School in December.

The Transborder Immigrant Tool is a “disturbance art project” that involves supplying illegal migrants with a way-finding device to navigate a safe and successful crossing of the United States and Mexico border. The project exploited an affordance of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geospatial Information Systems that delivers location services to cell phone users regardless of the user’s legal status. A cheap GPS receiver with a software-loaded map was installed onto readily-available track phones – cellphones that do not require a subscription or authorization beyond activation by exchange of money. The Transborder Immigrant Tool was a highly-publicized, locative-media intervention into the southern border of the United States.

The Transborder Immigrant Tool demonstrates a tension I’m hoping to work and think through in this class concerning tactical design. On the one hand, there is the tactical use of GPS and GIS to empower a political and economically marginalized group. On the other hand, there is the deployment of these tactics as a media event, as a highly public interrogation of the border condition. Certainly the stakes are high to warrant critical attention: hundreds have died crossing the border due to the dangerous geographic terrain. But does this kind of attention help to improve those conditions? Is it a matter of carefully balancing the spectacular event with tactical design or simply ignoring the event and focus on tactical design?

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Categories: Reflective Posts

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