Very early in human history, the building of some form of wall became part of our DNA. It is fair to say it is one of the oldest professions. At the same time, those with desires to find ways to undermine such efforts brought and bring their ingenuity and inventiveness to bear.
Whether for defense or to prevent refugees or migrants, to keep secrets or to control public opinion, there are always existential competitors ready to breach the wall(s). In today’s rapidly changing world, the concept of walls has transcended physical barriers and now includes invisible boundaries. While physical walls have been built throughout history, invisible or digital walls have gained prominence in recent times due to emerging technology, affecting multiple political, social, and economic factors.
Walls, regardless of their form — physical or digital — are designed with the intention of separating and controlling freedom of movement.
Physical walls: The traditional border
Physical walls, made of concrete, steel, or other materials, have long been a means to mark territorial boundaries and control migration.
Historically, they have been associated with notions of sovereignty, security, and control. The Great Wall of China, some 13,000 miles long, was finished in 220 B.C. and built principally to protect the Chinese empire from nomadic invaders, including the Mongols.
The 96-mile Berlin Wall was constructed by the Eastern bloc to keep East Germans from defecting to the West, separated by a wide and heavily guarded, mined corridor.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone, is 150 miles long, separated by a 2.5-mile militarized buffer zone that divides North and South Korea.
A 31-mile border barrier separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, constructed to control one population from gaining entry and de facto, keeping those living in Gaza inside.
The United States border with Mexico is 1, 954 miles long, with the “border wall” yet incomplete and so far covering somewhat over 600 miles of fence and intended to keep immigrants out of the US.
Since the 1990s the European Union and Schengen Area have constructed almost 1000 kilometers of walls to prevent asylum seekers and displaced people from migrating into Europe.
These land-based walls are complemented by long ‘maritime walls’, naval operations patrolling the Mediterranean to control the movements of migrants into Europe – most notably on the three major routes towards Greece, Spain and Italy, and with dramatic results, causing the deaths of thousands of migrants.
By comparison, in the same period last year, 1,358 died. These tallies include those who died in the above-mentioned routes across the Mediterranean, as well as at the Atlantic route from West Africa.
Supporters argue that such walls enhance national security, curb illegal immigration, and protect economic interests.
However, critics point out the social, economic, and humanitarian consequences, arguing that walls often exacerbate existing issues and neglect the root causes of migration.
Invisible walls: The new way to close borders
While physical walls are familiar, the rise of invisible walls, a.k.a regulatory and digital borders, has become more prominent in global affairs.
These barriers are set up through policies, regulations, and, more recently, using all the latest technological digital advancements that restrict freedom of movement and hinder cross-border activities.
They are often designed with the aim of controlling the flow of capital, information, and people.
Both financial barriers, such as capital controls, and trade tariffs can be considered invisible walls. Countries impose these measures as a means to protect domestic industries, regulate economic activity, and maintain a competitive advantage.
However, these measures can stifle economic growth, create imbalances, and hinder global cooperation, leading to trade wars and protectionism.
Technological advances have also facilitated the creation of invisible walls. The internet, despite being widely perceived as an open and borderless space, is subject to censorship, surveillance, and various forms of digital barriers.
Governments, by implementing firewalls and content filters, control access to classified information, limit freedom of expression and tighten their grip on power. These measures, most often justified by security concerns, infringe upon individual rights and hinder global connectivity.
China, as of now, has created one of the world’s clearest examples of this kind of wall, the “great firewall” effectively shutting itself off the global Internet.
But China is by no means the only country that has adopted such measures. A 2020 survey from the Oxford Internet Institute found evidence of social media manipulation of public opinion in every one of the 80+ countries surveyed. That’s up 15% in one year, from 70 countries in 2019. Another report by the Committee to Protect Journalists identified Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iran as countries engaged in digital censorship of the Internet and social media as well as jailing and harassing journalists and their families.
Impacts, well-intentioned or otherwise
The motivations behind building both physical and invisible walls frequently intertwine political, economic, and societal factors. National security, protectionism, and economic dominance are often cited when advocating for such barriers.
However, their impact and unintended consequences can be far-reaching and complex.
There are instances in which physical barriers and invisible barriers serve to do common cause, such as provide protective controls or to allow the movement of livestock, or domestic pets in restricted areas.
But the effect on wildlife’s freedom of movement is insufficiently taken into account when a physical wall is erected – and those walls can be many things, from fences to roads to new infrastructure.
Still, what we humans do to help animals migrate may not be sufficient. “Jaguars can’t use Google maps to find tiny gaps in hundreds of miles of impermeable walls,” the statement said of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife claim that “leaving gaps in a wall would protect the animals”. More than a few tiny gaps are needed but with more efforts and cooperation, it should be possible to overcome the problem.
With respect to physical walls, they can create division, apprehension, and isolation among nations. They may lead to the marginalization of border communities, disrupt long-standing cultural ties, and perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices.
Moreover, human rights violations, such as forced displacement and family separation, are often associated with physical walls, thereby attracting significant criticism from the international community.
Invisible walls can have more subtle consequences. By controlling capital flow, countries can shape their economic landscapes, impacting global markets and exacerbating inequalities. Furthermore, limiting the free flow of information curtails the exchange of ideas and stifles innovation, hindering societal progress.
While proponents argue such barriers will enhance security and protect national interests, over a longer period such impediments may fail, and/or in some cases have the opposite effect.
Assuredly there are occasions when new barriers are needed. But when, where, and how, and expected outcomes, must be assessed by multiple disciplines, with benefits and costs carefully weighed. Also, alternative options that better address the root causes of the problems must be considered, even if they initially cost more.
The motivations and challenges in creating barriers vary according to perceived political needs, the result of debates with opponents and the extent of commitment by those who are the proponents. Today it has become an infinitely more complicated task as a result of the explosion of artificial intelligence touching virtually all domains and evolving at warp speed unlike any of the past.
More than individual charismatic leaders, we need to do common cause – everyone, everywhere.
In essence, humankind has been building walls in one form or another since the dawn of history. Done for a variety of reasons, each has been invariably breached after shorter or longer periods.
Robert Frost’s often-quoted line from his 1914 poem Mending Wall – “good fences make good neighbors” – is interpreted as endorsing the idea that to maintain good relations, we need clear boundaries between “us” and “them.”
But that is an oversimplification, neither universally true nor sometimes totally wrong. In short, think carefully before creating any barricade…
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Border wall between Sunland Park, New Mexico, United States, Puerto De Anapra, Chihuahua, Mexico, 26 Jan. 2019 Source: Wikimedia Dicklyon (cc)