Migration’s Magical Realism

The experience of migration, of moving to a new habitat or locale, brings with it magic-like experiences of the new environment. The relationship between cause and effect breaks down, and it takes more (or less) effort to do things that once seemed easy (or difficult). Alice’s experience in Through the Looking Glass has a migration-like feel to it as she runs with the Red Queen in the Garden of Live Flowers. I enjoy the journey that Alice and the Red Queen make as a metaphor for our entangled relationships with others, the environment, and the technolgies we encounter. The biologist Leigh Van Valen originally applied the metaphor to describe how the ability of a family of organisms to survive over time does not increase because the environment is changing just as rapidly. 

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’ but Alice felt she COULD NOT go faster, though she had not breath left to say so. 


The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’


Not that Alice had any idea of doing THAT. She felt as if she would never be able to talk again, she was getting so much out of breath: and still the Queen cried ‘Faster! Faster!’ and dragged her along. ‘Are we nearly there?’ Alice managed to pant out at last.


‘Nearly there!’ the Queen repeated. ‘Why, we passed it ten minutes ago! Faster!’ And they ran on for a time in silence, with the wind whistling in Alice’s ears, and almost blowing her hair off her head, she fancied.


‘Now! Now!’ cried the Queen. ‘Faster! Faster!’ And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.


The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’ Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’ ‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’


‘Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else–if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’


‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’


‘I’d rather not try, please!’ said Alice. ‘I’m quite content to stay here–only I AM so hot and thirsty!’


[what follows is the text of a brief ignite talk at IFTF’s Urgent Futures Workshop on September 14th, 2012]


The pattern and scale of migration is the urgent future of the next decade. Migration is a mechanism of evolutionary change that’s always been there, and it’s shaping our cities, landscapes, economies, and our culture.


But now more than ever, it’s the tools, infrastructure, and policies that are organized around migration–to monitor and shape it–that will have the greatest long-term impact on the migratory experience.


This urgent future is Migration’s Magical Realism.


Magical Realism emphasizes perception. It’s made of surprise and it stretches the normal bounds of reality.


Magical Realism rejects the privileging of science and empiricism, returning instead to mythologies, folklore and mysticism–filling critical gaps between individual experience, causality, and the environment.


Migration has always had the subtle quality of magical realism. Travel to new places releases time, truth, and constraint. New insights are found in new environments. Plants grow more vigorously.


And from the perspective of an individual, unusual juxtapositions of objects and organisms around them produce experiences of simultaneity, surprise, and serendipity.


Technologies that challenge traditional concepts lead to new perception.


Migration’s Magical Realism is the experience of migrants in an urgent future.


The US Department of Homeland Security is the avant-garde of border enforcement, controlling and influencing migration in regions far beyond its own borders in places like Shannon, Ireland and the Dominican Republic.


Migration’s Magical Realism lives in transit hubs where countries each have their own immigration portals, pushing inspections and customs outward, making inbound transport channels as much as part of the territory as the territory itself.


For some navigating the migration bureaucracy will be a core skill and defining characteristic of mobile individuals. For others, the migration problem set will feel invisible.


Traversing borders has always been a selective force for future communities.


If, indeed, the the American homeland is to become the planet, and U.S. officials work to ensure that there are privileged mobility classes, while undesirable “others” face almost insurmountable obstacles to their movement:


Some migrants will see dimensions and opportunities that others are not fully aware of.


And they will drift towards these, as we are already seeing in the trends of increased urbanism and the global creative class.


Migratory flows and their effects will be modeled and simulated before any physical movement actually occurs, leading to new ideals around economic development and a single individual’s life migration strategy.


Establishing and maintaining the Universal Identity will be aimed at maximizing flexibility, avoiding the patriotic impulse, and aiming for more abstract affiliations, while eeking out dual and triple citizenships.


Visa rules, restrictions, and thresholds will become increasingly interpreted at the local level–opening up intractable conflicts over the precise meanings of duration, location, ethnicity, and vocational value.


Migration’s magical realism is event where 15,000 people assemble and move to another region at the drop of a tweet.


It’s whole camps, neighborhoods, and communities assembling around the timing of special events–driven by the logistical synchronicity of shipping containers, routed and distributed in realtime, in anticipation of emerging climate vulnerabilities, carrying tools and supplies in response to disastrous outcomes.


Migration’s magical realism makes it likely that once you summon your vehicle, you won’t know how you got from A to B. You’ll get in, you’ll tune-out, and then you are there. The routes and scenery along the way–the future and the past–are less relevant than what is directly in front of you–the present.


And in Migration’s Magical Realism, magical amulets adorn our necks and line our pockets.


They open doors, locks, gateways, and vehicles–permitting passage.


They enclose rules (some arbitrary), imaging filters, algorithms, and alarms within their shells– obscured, stored elsewhere, and locked away.


Making us uncertain and confused when we are barred entry.


Because it’s tough to inspect the code.


And so we’ll have to hack the signal, reverse engineer the customer services, and find new workarounds for hidden processes that we can’t really see in order to understand cause,


and affect unknown relationships.


In the words of David Foster Wallace, “Never before have there been so many gaping chasms between what the world seems to be and what science tells us it is”


And because migration shapes the conditions for all futures to come,


that gap, that magical reality is the urgent future


and it will be filled with:


elaborate genealogies to establish lineage and secure access


new mythologies as a way of writing (and rewriting) geographic histories of place


alternate worlds and locales meshed together in precarious ways and at precarious times, striving for coherence


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