For the Want of Fences
There are myriad of contradictions when we think about fences as a cultural tool. The issue is illuminated by the recent issues with the Amazon rainforest, but also extends to the moral quandary regarding when it is okay to boil ants alive or cull sharks on mass. Humans build houses and make an environmental judgment about what is ours, based one the of the most arbitrary principles I think has ever been imagined; fences.
We humans must put fences around everything. European Reverends and Politicians justified the eradication of Native Americans using the principle of fences. Any land that was not fenced, was not occupied. Any people who did not build ‘permanent residences’ (The Native Americans did build permanent residences in some locations, which is a conveniently ignored fact). Of course, germs and disease did kill more Native American’s than people did, though it is also obvious that European Governments did not consider Native Americans to be people. though some people had good things to say, the predominant view that Native Americans were ‘savage’ and ‘other’, not fully human. The death of animals can be easily overlooked so we cannot let colonists off the hook. Their stances on what was civilized were justified by passages in the bible about fences — or enclosed land.
However, the love of fences extends even further. The only way we know how to protect or utilize the environment is the designate spaces which people will live, farm, mine, explore, and take part in recreation. There are always boundaries within which we can exist. I think it has something to do with the mental scope of our lives, and through some genius of social consciousness of the kind discussed by Damasio, Gallese, Sacks, Pratchett, De Martino, Godfrey-Smith, and other thinkers (Their ideas are not represented here, but the argument is influenced by their work). Our minds are connected to our bodies through neuronal networks that use the emotions constructed by the perceptual responses to our environment, then our models are built. Our emotions and moral beliefs travel into the whole society until, in a perfect reality, every person’s model accepts compromise and achieves synchronization with other minds. Part of the larger social model that must be generated is the idea of boundaries.
There is no one right answer to how those boundaries are created. Different animals will live in very different modes depending on their evolutionary niche. Peka (Pacific Flying-Fox) live gregariously and will roost on mass in a few locations which remain the same until those trees are destroyed by deforestation — human creating new boundaries for themselves regardless of other organism’s boundaries — or hurricanes. Peka roost in incredibly specific places and will fly all over the islands they live on, and then return each morning to the same tree. New roosts will be chosen quickly and almost always remain stable for long periods.
Bringing myself back to the human experience, boundaries are not set there either. In Iran, the — live as nomadic pastoralists, have done for centuries, and continue to choose that way of life to a large extent. Their boundaries are set differently to mine, and to that prescribed by most governments. To them the important element of the environment is the pathway their life travels; where each clan will stay on the route at any given time, how their camps will be set up, where the animals are supposed to be kept in relation to the living spaces. Their lives are no less defined than someone who lives in suburbia and has agreed to stop at red lights. Each person believes their understanding is logical and that the world is complete, that the world is the way it should be.
Yet we still have not reached the end of how humans are defined by the arbitrary fences we build around our selves. We construct our world on top of observable, understandable reality, until our beliefs, superstitions, or moral impositions become truth.
Once we have achieved that feat, built our temples, universities, libraries, cities, national parks, highways, farms, orchards, and sewers, we make the plunge into areas unknown. It is the inevitable advancement we can’t resist. We feel we must expand into other areas, so we create blanket false-hoods — they are not people, the economy is flagging, interconnectivity is a good thing, The World Trade Organisation is more important than human rights — to justify our next move. Then we redefine our boundaries, breaking into other peoples’ or animals’ environments, homes and marked enclosures.
Currently, the Amazon Rainforest, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, is being burned by wildfires. Although some fires are surely natural or caused by accidents, others are being perpetuated or started due to the policy of the Brazilian government, who are for clearing the rainforest in favour of creating land in which to graze their cattle. Other fires have been ablaze in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, but it is in Brazil where the biggest issues lie. Here we have an example of humans deciding to encroach on land that has never been within the human enclosure before. It is regarded as a natural treasure and extremely important for the earth’s bio-diversity and defence against climate change. We know the risks, we are aware of the damage it causes, yet we as humans are still willing to reach out beyond our fences, break into non-human areas and build new fences which will essentially define the new boundaries of the Amazon Rainforest.
Conversely, we also know how to object to an incursion into our defined territory. There are countless examples of nations redefining boundaries and guarding them jealously; Britain (Brexit), Israel (Palestine), China (Hong Kong). It seems the contradiction inherent in expansionist nationalism, which is to break our own rules, is one that gets conveniently ignored by the national narrative. Brexit has been framed as an independence vote, yet Scotland’s second independence referendum is met with criticism by some politicians. Israel and Jewish communities around the world balk at the criticism thrown Israel’ way, yet both political parties in Israel plan on expanding Israel’s presence further. And China has stationed large swathes of military apparatus in Shenzhen, some of which have crossed the border into Hong Kong. Beijing plans to take Hong Kong from pro-democracy protestors and squeeze the city until the pipes come out — while the world watches and forgets where its morals lie. But I digress.
For this argument on fences, there is one example that bemused the world and harkened back to the 19th century — because the world had forgotten evangelical missionaries are still roaming the planet. I am of course referring to the missionary who was killed on North Sentinel Island because he was trespassing, on an illegal mission to convert the populace. Righteous arrogance is never too far from the social news stream.
Here is the perfect representation of the physical and cultural fences that people try and break down when it is convenient. The missionary had no right to go to the island. The Indian Government has forbidden visiting the island, to avoid tourists and other people ending up there, yet the missionary still felt the need to invade their island, carrying an unwanted doctrine. The fact that the story made the news at all shows how little regard the human world has for other people’s fences; there is an uproar when someone is punished for trespassing. It is a shame he had to die for his trouble, but what he was doing was a crime. The Sentinelese people had a right to act as they did. He was attempting to move his metaphorical fence — based on his personal beliefs, enclosing other people whose culture did not care for his invasion and dealt with his crime accordingly, within their cultural boundaries.
The future seems ripe for constant conversations about who encroached on whose land, culture and thought. With unmanned drones, it is impossible to know with certainty who is responsible for bombings or other aerial attacks. The whole charade becomes meaningless, inundated with political posturing.
The internet is expanding in scope all the time, it is becoming more important that there be regulation regarding; human rights, intellectual property, freedom of expression, harassment or abuse. What we understand as human spaces surrounded by fences, walls, or oceans, will soon not be enough to separate ourselves from others who wish to encroach on space we thought was ours alone. Facebook has already begun by listening to your phone and presenting ads to your feed without being asked. AI’s remit will continue to expand. It is easy to imagine whole countries shutting down because a greedy, expansionist, imperialist enemy has taken over the nation’s servers, or filled the internal network with autonomous cyber-spies. Soon we won’t even need a human to be at the end of the code for the infiltration to occur, we can just give the orders to intelligent algorithms. One day after that there will be no human in the machine anymore.
We are seeing more and more fences being built around the world; metaphorical walls, razor wire borders, economic zones, national independence votes, and capitalist land grabs. There is no guarantee the attempts made by humans to expand their reach, as well as keep unsavory ‘invasive’ others out will be successful, but very soon they will become obsolete.
We are moving into an era within which humanity needs to understand that no physical borders make sense anymore. An ideological border can move in cyberspace now, and wars for ideas are being fought directly between keyboards, and by extension, often lonely minds searching for connections. We need to think about this network more carefully. For social beings, we seem to be missing the fact that social barriers are being taken down.
As an aside, there are elements of Virtual Reality which are profoundly beautiful and wonderful.
However, at the same time, we risk losing more and more social interaction, which will lead to people being disconnected from their actions, behaviour, thoughts, and opinions.
We need interaction with other people to understand our conscious selves. That includes the corporations, news networks, and governments that have become online persons in their own right, for we need to get a handle on the narrative. While politicians gesticulate and shout about walls, independence, and democracy, the world is becoming borderless in a way that we cannot account for. China has accounted for it, in their dreadful authoritative way, by closing it off to their people and controlling the narrative. We do not want to go that way, but we do need to stop it from going in the opposite direction. In that world the network goes to war with itself, all meaning is lost to evangelical ideologues, and any social connection is lost in a sea of marketeering for profit.
We had fences, then we had borders, then came satellite monitoring, and soon the internet broke everything. Now we have a world in which our fences are all but meaningless. Eventually, an autonomous network of machine thought will maraud where it pleases and control everything it chooses. Eventually could be a long way off, but it is inevitable. By then humans will be technologically and politically obsolete. Borders will only exist in technologically barren post-apocalyptic zones. On the plus side, we will no longer be organisms fighting over where the boundary fences should be.