The primary goal of the Transborder Immigrant Tool is to increase safety during border crossing by directing heavy-footed immigrants to safe routes, shelter, food, water, and friendly sympathizers. With the recent surge in militia membership and the Obama administration’s announcement that they will be reducing the number of Border Patrol agents next year, it looks like we’re getting ready to witness a showdown for the ages. And Dominguez couldn’t be happier about the level of shit he is about to seriously disturb.
My research lab at Calit2 is called BANG Lab, which stands for Bits, Atoms, Neurons, and Genes. One of the areas I’ve focused on since I’ve been in San Diego is developing what we call border-disturbance technologies. There’s another teacher here at UCSD, Brett Stalbaum, who really enjoys traveling in the desert, but he has no sense of direction, so he developed what we call a Virtual Hiker Tool—a GPS you can wear on your wrist that always coordinates the most beautiful view, the most beautiful way to go, on the day you’re traveling.
What potential did you see in the Virtual Hiker Tool from the standpoint of an artist-activist who wishes to disrupt the standard protocol for crossing the US-Mexico border?
I thought it was really interesting because it moved GPS away from an urban application and placed it in the natural frontier. I’m always interested in how we shift these ubiquitous technologies and configure them toward other issues and disturbances, as I like to call them. And of course, the border is right there. We know individuals crossing the border mainly die because they get lost or run out of water. It’s the devil’s highway, and it’s been that way for 500 years.
We looked at the Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet. We were able to crack it and create a simple compasslike navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway—things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border.
When will it be available to the public?
We’re at the end of the alpha stage, in terms of the technology, so the next level, which will be the most difficult, is interfacing with communities south of the border: NGOs, churches, and other communities that deal with people preparing to cross the border. How can we train them to use this? What is the proper methodology? Those are really going to be the most nuanced and difficult elements with, let’s call it, the sociological aspect of the project.
Are you worried that you’re going to rile anti-immigration militias?
One of the first things we did at BANG Lab was to interfere with the Minuteman Project in 2005. They were quite angry because not only were we committing public actions against them, but Calit2 and the UCSD system were also supporting it. They’re well aware of who we are and what we do. Once they get full knowledge of the Transborder Immigrant Tool—and we’re very transparent about it—I’m sure they’ll be quite critical.
That’s one word for it. You sound like their worst nightmare.
I would imagine they won’t be too happy with us, but again we’re not trying to hide. It’s a safety tool. It’s not trying to resolve the political anxieties of these communities or resolve the inadequacies of a fictional border for a so-called free-trade community. Again, our position is that it’s not a political resolution; it’s a safety tool. That, at the core, is what we’re attempting to do.