Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 39, Spring/Summer 1996

Borders geopolitical, technological & personal

by John M. Bancroft

First there is
a mountain
then there is
no mountain
then there is.
-- Donovan Leitch

Borders are news. Whether they divide a newly independent state from its parent, the world's technological haves from the have nots, or one ethnic enclave from another, borders have the potential to flare into international prominence as flashpoints of political, economic, or ideological friction.

But they don't have to. This issue of The Arid Lands Newsletter is about how communities living on opposite sides of a border can forge working relationships and perhaps even create a multicultural entity that transcends the political. As Helen Ingram and Bob Varady observe in our lead article, "among nations, good borders surely make good neighbors."

And as Wendy Laird and John Anderson demonstrate in their essay on the evolution of The International Sonoran Desert Alliance, common people making common cause, even if they speak different languages and are rooted in different cultures, can have a real impact on the complex transborder issues that shape their daily lives.

By its nature, this issue of ALN also is about the shifting border between technologies old and new and about the porous boundary between one editorial regime and its successor.

The Technological Divide

Constant readers of ALN know already that Number 39 is the first issue to be published primarily in digital form. Chances are good you are reading this on your computer screen or in a printout downloaded from the Internet.

If you have access to the World Wide Web, your copy of ALN comes complete with graphics and hot links to related sources of information elsewhere on this network of networks. If your connection to the network is via e-mail, your copy of ALN is "limited" to text alone and materialized in your electronic mailbox overnight. Either way, its form is both dynamic and ephemeral in a way the printed magazine never was.

For the moment, the technological disparity among nations and communities means that some ALN subscribers have become former subscribers. We plan to publish a photocopied abstract for those without electronic access, but it won't be the same; it will just be the best we can do with the fiscal resources at our disposal.

Our hope is that various community organizations with net connections -- libraries, schools, government agencies, NGO field offices -- will help us pick up the slack while the infrastructure of digital communication makes its uneven, economically driven progress into places out of the commercial mainstream.

Even if, as David Fuller explains in this issue's closing article, there are hybrid high- and low-tech options available to those who live in areas where the information revolution is apt to be a long time coming, the fact is that the border between the wired and the yet-to-be-wired is both deep and wide. And its implications extend far beyond the degree to which those on either side of the hardware gulf have or do not have access to information. The technoeconomic border runs between neighborhoods with modern sanitation and those with open sewers, between states where money flows like water and those where water is dearer than wealth, between countries with staggering per capita consumption rates and whole continents whose residents stagger from want of basic nutrition.

None of this is new, of course, at least not fundamentally. The terms of the debate may have shifted, but the fact of unequal access to resources natural, durable, or metaphorical remains largely unchanged. As the human population grows, however, the disparities between the connected and the disenfranchised become more visible and the consequent disputes over who deserves what share of a finite store of goods becomes more visceral. And it is at the border that dissatisfaction too often explodes into conflict.

All of which makes the work of those who seek to bridge the borders -- through dialogue or trade or aid in time of trouble -- more urgent than ever.

Editors, Coming and Going

Katherine Waser -- librarian, cyberpublisher, permaculturist, and folkloric drummer -- takes over formally as editor of ALN with the next issue. As I did when I took over from my predecessor five years ago, Katherine will inherit both a publishing tradition and an experiment in publishing.

The tradition, first articulated by ALN founding editor Patricia Paylore, is embodied in the notion that a magazine published by a university research outfit like the Office of Arid Lands Studies ought actually to be useful to readers who have little to do in their daily lives with the academy. The professors, after all, have ample opportunity to speak to one another, at symposia and from the pages of learned journals, of methodology and of what might or might not be.

While that cross-pollination of ideas is essential to the academic as well as to the larger human enterprise, the learned contributors to ALN speak from these pages not only to their colleagues but also to those who labor outside the grove, often in more literal fields, to improve the lot of their neighbors and their trading partners and their children. The questions ALN seeks to address run more often to the best way to revegetate a patch of land degraded by overgrazing than to which theorist of the moment eventually will be admitted to the canon -- although, given our schoolhouse roots, we are apt to dabble there, too.

If the tradition has primarily to do with substance, the experiment has largely to do with form. The question here is how best to deliver the goods, and that is the challenge I pass along to Katherine. I've been fortunate to have heard often from you, our readers, and my hope is that Katherine will continue to benefit from your generous offers of encouragement, advice, assistance, and other pragmatically oriented intellectual capital. And if she doesn't hear from you often enough, I have no doubt that she will come right out and ask you for your help, as I have done more than once.

Finally, Gentle Readers. . .

I just want to say what a pleasure it has been not only to edit The Arid Lands Newsletter (a pleasure I relinquish reluctantly) but also to work daily with the faculty and staff of OALS, and especially with my colleagues in the Arid Lands Information Center.

I live some 2,000 miles from my old home in the desert now, beside a broad bay fed by a river that runs, believe it or not, bank full the whole year long. And while Tampa is, without a doubt, a green and pleasant place; and while my work here, on my own clock now, is satisfying; and while, in this dawning digital age, distance is no impediment to communication and collaboration . . . still I find I miss the faces of my co-workers and the commotion in the hall outside my office cubicle.

That, I guess, is nothing more than human nature. As a species, we're hard to please and harder to satisfy. Which makes the pleasures and the satisfactions I've found here all the more remarkable and rare.

Thank you, friends. Thanks for everything.

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John Bancroft, as proprietor of Bancroft & Associates: Web Sites That Work, continues to consult with the Office of Arid Lands Studies on matters pertaining to digital publishing. He also is a dreadful sentimentalist, as you can see, and hopes you will overlook the flaw.

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