Madeline Ashby and I have a history. We’ve known each other for years, attended the same writing workshop, stood by each other in times of personal distress. We bonded over that time, not least over the fact that each of us has experienced misfortune at the hands of border officials: Madeline, a US citizen, at the hands of my own countrymen; mine at the hands of hers. If there was anyone I would expect to find common ground with on such matters, Madeline Ashby would be there at the front of the line.
She posted her Master’s thesis online last week: “Loss Prevention: Customer Service As Border Security”. A bit of speculative fiction sits at its heart, a story called “Welcome to the Jungle” (also posted over on boingboing under the more concise title “Surfaces”). It’s probably impossible for me to be objective about this work — not just because Madeline is my friend but because, well, I’m all over the damn thing. Our respective border experiences explicitly inspired her choice of subject matter; the epigraph is an excerpt from this very ‘crawl. I pop up repeatedly in the text. The document is dedicated to one Andrew Beaudry, the truncheon-wielding douchebag who maced me back in December 2009. There’s no denying that the project, as it exists, would not exist were it not for those fond memories of Port Huron.
Impossible to be objective. But I’ll try to get as close as I can.
This is unfamiliar territory for me. It’s not the kind of thesis I’m used to: no formal data collection, no quantitative analysis. The centrepiece — the “Results” section, or maybe the “Methods” — is a piece of unabashed fiction, describing a day in the life of a Customs officer sometime in the near future. It’s an example of something called “science fiction prototyping” which is apparently gaining currency among the design crowd. If I understand it correctly, it amounts to constructing what-if scenarios as a way of product-testing the future, and in one way it makes sense: our brains are built for narrative after all, not statistics. It’s easier to internalize data when they’re presented in a way the brain finds intuitive. I’m not entirely sold on the model — slapping the word “prototyping” onto a genre that’s been playing what-if for over a century strikes me as more of an exercise in rebranding than genuine innovation — but I’m all for making future scenarios more tractable to an audience. In this sense, “SF prototyping” is to the futurist what the Chernoff face is to the statistician.
The difference, though, is that Chernof faces are based on data — eyebrow tilt scales to standard length, breadth of nose might represent body mass, and so on. In the case of “Loss Prevention”, I’m not entirely certain what data are being presented. I’m not even entirely sure what was being researched: border security is repeatedly described as belonging to a class of things called “Wicked Problems”, but that class is defined so broadly as to be virtually intractable. (In fact, the first quoted characteristic of a wicked problem is ”There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem”, which to my mind reduces the functional utility of the concept somewhat.) If someone held a gun to my head I’d hazard that a “wicked problem” is any really, really tough problem with multiple underlying causes and no one-size-fits-all solution; and I’d have to question whether anything so vague warrants such formal taxonomy (and, apparently, so much attention in the literature).
Madeline herself admits that “Instead of pursuing more traditional research methods, I strived to something very similar to what I do as a science fiction writer. The age-old dictum to write what you know extends to the areas of design, as well.” Well, yes. But research, by definition, involves venturing into the realm of things you don’t know, the better to learn about them. Sticking to what one knows seems to miss the very point of the exercise. Madeline didn’t even formally interview a relevant expert who sat on her own committee, on the grounds that “he has already written extensively on the subject”. I find this odd: the author of this thesis is curious and pretty quick on the draw. I would not have expected her to read through an expert’s “extensive writings” and not be left with a single follow-up question afterward.
All that said, though, it’s hard to disagree with “Loss Prevention”’s basic argument — that we should replace the everyone’s-a-potential-tewwowist approach to border security with a “customer-service” model. It’s hard not to smile at Madeline’s unrepentant highlighting of the parallels between customs lines and the cattle-processing techniques used in slaughterhouses, (I’d much rather reserve the word wicked for those Ashbyesque insights than waste it on Rittel & Webber’s woolly neologising). And it’s impossible to fault many of the techniques that make appearances in the story “Surfaces”, if for no other reason than that I’ve experienced them myself at border crossings and can attest that they work. Friendly conversation works better than hostile intimidation; indirect full-spectrum lighting is more pleasant than bare-knuckled fluorescence; multilayered security/passenger-assistance works better than a single fortified embankment at the end of a long room. Elsewhere in the thesis Madeline describes these as “shovel-ready” measures but they’re not really; the shovel went in years ago, the measures long-since implemented far and wide except along North American borders.
In fact, there’s only one truly speculative element in “Surfaces”, and that’s, well, the surfaces: interactive touchscreens that line the chutes where livestock wait their turn at the booth, walls that serve up advertisements and tourist info at a touch — and it’s that touch that matters, because the walls also read your fingerprints when you tap the interface. The system grabs your ID and runs a background check before you ever get to the front of the line. Madeline acknowledges throughout the thesis that such measures are likely to be controversial, but in the story at its center you see no such interrogation: the protagonist simply thinks The system works, and we close on a smile.
And yet there are so many ways that system might not work. Suppose privacy-minded folks start wearing gloves when passing through Customs? Do we outlaw handwear in airports? Suppose people refuse the bait, choose to keep their hands to themselves? Do we taser them if they don’t tap an ad for the Airport Hilton? Do we escalate the tech, install lasers to scan people’s irises from across the room, then go on to banish sunglasses? Does the avoidance of unobtrusive data-mining become suspicious in itself, do people who haven’t tapped the wall get automatically routed to Secondary on the grounds that they’re more likely to be hiding something? I don’t know if this is a wicked problem per sé, but it’s certainly a bitch of one; yet “Surfaces” doesn’t interrogate it at all.
It’s this lack of interrogation, this willingness to take things on face value, that I find most disquieting about “Loss Prevention”. It uncritically repeats the oft-heard claim that border personnel’s jobs are “difficult and dangerous, and it should come as no surprise that after a while, some of these individuals can become jaded…”
No. Stop right there. BPO’s jobs are not especially dangerous: cab drivers suffer four times the homicide rate of even real cops, those men and women who actively seek out and hunt down the bad guys, who high-grade their experiences to greater risk. Your average 49th-parallel border officer, in contrast, sits in a booth processing tourists and truckers. In terms of the risk of violence at the hands of your fellow primates, border guards might as well be selling running shoes next to your average cabbie. And if you want to look at risk to life and limb from all sources, they’ve got it even easier: they’re better off than roofers, truck drivers, and farmers among others. Real cops don’t even make the top ten when you look at mortality from all criteria. Border trolls don’t even show up on the scope.
I don’t know quite how to reconcile such data with these faith-based claims of chronic danger faced by BPOs. Nor do I know what to make of the fact that Madeline followed the dual tales of our respective border ordeals with “I recognize now that my experience and Peter’s are the exception to the rule. Both Canadian and American border security personnel are put through rigorous training before they begin their work… most every traveler has at least one annoying story about clearing customs, but they will have several more boring stories to go with it.” Or maybe I do know, a little: I know, at least, that that back-pedalling little caveat has the same logical structure as “For every innocent person Texas may have executed, there were several who deserved what they got.” Even if factually true, one would be hard-pressed to cite it as any sort of mitigation.
Still: is it factually true?
I cannot speak to Madeline’s experience. In mine, intimidation and hostility has been the norm when crossing into the US; polite and friendly interactions have occurred less than half the time. Apparently Madeline has fared somewhat better— her thesis recalls the times she “smiled” her way past Customs desks and “sweet-talked agents”, prior to her own moment of awakening. So perhaps it’s me; maybe I just have some knee-jerk hatred of authority figures, maybe I put out some kind of hostile vibe that the guys in uniforms react to. Maybe I’m the common denominator here, maybe I’m asking for it. That was certainly the presumption of a lot of those who weighed in back when Squidgate was in the news.
And you know, maybe they had a point. “Surfaces” speaks of eye contact between guard and civilian as though it were a good thing, something to be cultivated, but I’ve lost count of the people who’ve told me that the reason they never have trouble crossing the border is because they know enough to never make eye contact with the guards. As if simply looking someone in the eye is a challenge, an act of defiance deserving of countermeasures. (It is, of course. Amongst dogs and gorillas. Which should tell you something about the kind of border guards these people are used to encountering.)
At any rate, I’ve lately been in a position to test that hypothesis. I’ve travelled a lot over the past few years: to Cuba, to Australia, to France, through Iceland, repeatedly to both Germany and Poland. I’ve never had a problem at any of those borders, even though I crossed most of them as a convicted felon. The one time I was pulled into Secondary (entering Australia), the guards were friendly and cooperative, going so far as to engage me in conversation about the kind of books they enjoyed (try that on at the 49th parallel: a US border guard who reads books. What a concept.) They pretty much behaved the way Brandy Schumacher does in “Surfaces”— and as a result, crossing all those borders was a delight. (Yes, even Cuba.)
So it’s not just some general hate-on I have for authority figures. Nor is it eye contact (Europeans don’t seem threatened by the sight of human pupils). In my case there are two obvious correlates to a smooth border crossing: either the existence of a criminal record, or the non-involvement of Americans. (I suppose I should say North Americans; I haven’t experienced anywhere near the same level of grief from Canadian Customs, but I’ve encountered so many horror stories from others — non-Canadians, mainly — that I’m perfectly willing to expand my condemnation to include border guards throughout the continent.) It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to figure out which of those correlations is most likely to be causal — although I suppose you could argue that border guards might be more polite to criminals such as myself because they’re more afraid of getting beat up.
Nor are we talking only about my experiences, judging by a recent survey of travelers that rated the US border “the world’s worst” by a 2-to-1 margin. The same survey reported that “more than half of visitors found American border officials rude and unpleasant”. That’s a majority, folks, and it’s entirely consistent with my own experience. So in light of these data, what are we to make of “Loss Prevention”’s apologetics? It cites no data to support the claim that most border guards are well-intentioned and diligent; no data to support the claim that the job is especially dangerous. The numbers I’ve been able to unearth would suggest exactly the opposite.
“I recognize now that my experience and Peter’s are the exception to the rule.” The “now” implies that Madeline Ashby has changed her mind, that she began the exercise subscribing to the notion that the system was systemically flawed but has since learned that it consists of mainly decent folks who do their dangerous, difficult jobs pretty well. What inspired the change in perspective? What new data countered the old? Maybe she conducted some kind of systematic survey. Maybe someone pressured her to toe some party line, and she caved. Maybe she simply hopped down to the border for the equivalent of one of those “ride-alongs” so commonly recommended by advocates of law enforcement— you know, the ones who urge you to see the real story for yourself, for all the world as though the presence of a civilian riding in the back seat won’t have any impact at all on whether cops choose to beat the crap out of this homeless man, or send that drunken injun on a “starlight tour”, no sirree…
The point is, she doesn’t say. The back-peddle exists in a vacuum, with no explicit context to give it weight. And in light of that lack, I have to ask myself a question about my friend and colleague Madeline Ashby.
I have to wonder if she’s simply drunk the Kool-Aid.