The illusion of a world without borders

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the discourse of security has replaced dreams of dem

The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago is rightly taken as a symbol, not just of the ending of an oppressive regime, but of the dismantling of a monstrous barrier between families, communities and societies. It also marked the moment when a new, more "borderless" world seemed upon us.

It is good that we can celebrate the demise of that ugly institution this week. But we should bear in mind as we do so that, around the world, there remain many walls that still keep loved ones apart, workers from their places of work, and communities from joining together.

In the early 1990s, it was widely felt in academic and policymaking circles that, after communism, the "end of history" was upon us. As the internet hooked up those with access to computers, as air travel became ever cheaper, and as the increasing liquidity of capital saw more wealth moved around the globe than ever before, this became -- through the dogma of globalisation -- the prevailing view in the west.

But, for many, the idea of a borderless world was never much more than a convenient phrase, used to justify an increasingly aggressive capitalism. And post-9/11, it has certainly become much harder to maintain the view that we live in a hyper-globalised world where international movement is as easy as waving a passport at the border.

Even for those with the luxury of travelling wherever and whenever they want, the lengthening queues at the airport and increasingly intrusive identity checks are emblematic of the constraints that have been set on this freedom. More importantly, for others, the post-9/11 world has brought the introduction of new borders and divides every bit as unbridgeable as the Berlin Wall.

This is obvious in places where today's Berlin Walls take an equally physical and imperious form (as in the case of the Israel-West Bank barrier, for example). There the border is every bit as ideologically invested as the East-West German border was, and the sufferance caused every bit as stark. It is less obvious, but no less important, however, where the borders between people are enforced by more subtle, insinuating forms.

The plethora of biometric profiling techniques and border-tightening measures that nation states have erected over recent years in the name of national security is a case in point. On the US-Canadian border, for example, where the NEXUS system is used to keep perfectly legitimate but economically less desirable migrants out of a country in order to cherry-pick the workforce. Or as in the UK, where the idea of "hardening" the border was last week floated by the chairman of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, Kim Howells, as an alternative to stepping up the war in Afghanistan. These border controls may be raised in the name of national security, but one only needs to stand in line at customs to appreciate how their operation is so readily inflected by class, race and ethnicity.

Such developments are the product not of a borderless world, but of what some call "gated globalism": a world of borders policed in the name of underexamined aims (such as "security"), where freedom of movement for some comes at the price of greater restrictions for others. These are the actually existing freedoms of today's neoliberalised boundaries, their effects far less visible than those of a wall, but their implications for many no less damaging.

So perhaps less has changed in the course of two decades than we might like to think. The idea of a borderless world was an illusion of the excessive western triumphalism of the 1990s. Today it remains an illusion, but because of excessive western anxiety. The figure of the terrorist has replaced the communist "other" and the discourse of security replaces the dogma of one-size-fits-all democracy. The only difference, in fact, is that those technological developments that promised the death of geography in the 1990s now herald its return. For those whose ability to move is restricted on account of where they come from, or beccause of what they believe, today's borders are indeed every bit as impregnable as the Berlin Wall.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.