Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Apple, Android, and 21st-Century Borders

A gray-haired white man in glasses with blurry lights in the background.
Apple CEO Tim Cook during an Apple special event on Sept. 7 in Cupertino, California Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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When Tim Cook was recently asked by a reporter whose mom uses an Android phone whether he was doing anything to improve texting with non-iPhone users, Cook responded: “Buy your mom an iPhone.”

When I first read this, my mind turned to a subject that has been on my mind a lot: borders.  Specifically, the ways in which they still matter.

The realms of Android and iMessage aren’t separate territories on a map in a literal sense, but borders pop up in all sorts of unexpected places, even in the world of technology, where engineers fetishize the concept of interoperability. Closer to home, where I work for a university that prides itself on being innovative and transdisciplinary, borders between academic units and disciplines retain a stubborn resilience.

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The fact that actual borders between actual American states are becoming more rather than less meaningful feels like a reversal of time’s normal progression. The Supreme Court’s unprincipled stab in the back to our most intimate rights, and to the concept of the Union as their primary guarantor, now means we are all at the mercy of our individual states.  Hop on to one of our wondrous interstate highways—monuments to that fading yearning to transcend borders—and the extent to which you can assert some fundamental human rights will vary depending on the most recent dopey “Welcome to the XX State” sign you drove by.

I have been feasting over the past year on Rick Perlstein’s engaging histories of the tumultuous voyage from the Goldwater movement to the Reagan revolution—the saga encompassed in his four masterpieces Before the Storm, Nixonland, The Invisible Bridge, and Reaganlandwhich are a reminder that anxieties about borders are a constant in our history. Within the more isolationist and populist base, the term globaloney was often used to describe the party’s elites’ internationalism. But what constitutes “globaloney” can shift over time: At one point in The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein recounts how as a candidate leading up to the 1980 Republican primaries, Reagan asked his advisers to prepare an “open border” proposal to allow Mexican workers to come and go freely.

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In The Lawless Roads, a book about his travels through Mexico in the 1930s, the English novelist Graham Greene wrote: “The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped.”

That 2,000-mile-long border to the south remains a particularly nettlesome riddle. I can’t turn on the television in Arizona without seeing campaign commercials featuring a candidate standing by the border, promising to finish the wall, mobilize the military, dig ditches, unspool barbed wire, or do whatever else is necessary to “secure” the porous line in the sand and protect us from its unspeakable dangers and from their opponents espousing a Reaganesque “open border.”  In the real world, meanwhile, beyond elections, Mexico and the United States are so intertwined that the recent legislation passed in Congress providing subsidies for electrical vehicles produced domestically counts Mexico and Canada as being on this side of the customs house, the passport officer, and the man with the gun.

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And yet, Greene wasn’t wrong, things are different down there, once your passport has been stamped.  On the day my colleague Mia Armstrong published this piece on the persistence of mask-wearing in Mexico, I was flying down to Mexico City from Houston.  Our flight attendant announced before takeoff in Houston that while we no longer needed to wear masks during the flight, we’d all better have one as we would need to put it on upon landing in Mexico, or we wouldn’t be able to go through the airport, which still has a mask mandate in place. Groans ensued. Borders still matter.

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Mia got married last weekend, by the way, to a Mexican she first met while spending a college semester on an exchange program in Mexico City. The wedding was a moving tribute to globaloney’s highest ideals, the fusion of two cultures and nations, at the familial level. Mia and Ricardo proved love can transcend distance and borders, and that made their celebration all the more meaningful.

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I also discovered they have transcended the border between iPhone and Android, because she has an iPhone and Ricardo has an Android.  What about texting interoperability, I ask.

“Well, we only use Whatsapp!” Mia answers, “because Mexico.”

But it has been difficult between him and her family, Mia conceded.

“We had to get my parents on WhatsApp.”

Take that, Tim Cook.

Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

Wish We’d Published This

Amazon Wanted a Lord of the Rings Show. It Turned to Frodo and Sam,” by Ben Cohen, the Wall Street Journal

What Next: TBD

On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary talks to Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky and organizer Wanda Manning about the fight for broadband in Louisiana—and in rural communities across the U.S. Last week, Lizzie dug in to YouTube with writer and former Google employee Claire Stapleton and Mark Bergen, author of Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination. She also chatted with the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell on how A.I. is changing art. Tomorrow, Lizzie will talk to ProPublica’s Cezary Podkul about how human traffickers are forcing their victims into cybercrime.

Upcoming Events

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On Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 12 p.m. ET, join Annual Reviews, Knowable Magazine, and Future Tense for a conversation about the challenges that the climate crisis poses for insurance—and why some experts think that new forms of insurance, built on technological advances in data collection and machine learning, could be one of the most effective ways to make communities more resilient. RSVP now for a conversation between Alice Hill, senior fellow for climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Carolyn Kousky, associate vice president for economics and policy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Then, on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 1 p.m., join the New America Fellows program for a conversation with Rachel Aviv about Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us. In the deeply reported book, Aviv writes about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations for who they are, and explores how the stories we tell about mental illness shape its course in our lives.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.