The Cyberflâneur #16: Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

Our newest resident cyberflâneur is Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, a senior editor at the Nation and author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. A true cosmopolitan herself, Atossa (bio; Twitter) has recently covered the unique real-world experiment with open borders – in Svalbard. We’ve linked to that work and more by Atossa further below.

As our guest-editor diving through our stacks on her areas of interest, Atossa has chosen some excellent pieces. You’ll learn more about space law, Emirati ‘port diplomacy’ and the concept of the ‘global borderland’. As always, you can browse the selections by our previous cyberflâneurs here.

~ Evgeny Morozov


Atossa’s Selections

I.

Free Ports: towards a Network of Trade Gateways

A clear, useful introduction to the concept of freeports, which have existed since Phoenician times and have played an invaluable supporting role in the functioning of world trade ever since. Today, these ports come in many shapes and sizes; the authors of this broad survey of the global freeport world note that they are referred to by more than 45 different names, from “free economic zone” to “special processing zone,” each their own jurisdictional quirks and qualities. Crucially, the paper notes that these zones tend to share the important quality of customs extraterritoriality—the absence of various taxes and tariffs—which makes them more important, and more interesting, during periods of protectionism and economic nationalism.


II.

Zomia 2.0: Branding Remoteness and Neoliberal Connectivity in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, Laos

Special economic zones carry the whiff of the clandestine, as though they exist somehow outside the state’s control. Technically speaking, this couldn’t be further from the truth: it is the state, after all, is what allows these jurisdictions to exist in the first place. But practically, the regulatory vacuum proffered by these zones is catnip for elite interests operating between national and global markets.
Following anthropologist James Scott’s work on Zomia in Southeast Asia, this study of the Golden Triangle SEZ in the Laotian borderlands argues that “special concessions oftentimes represent an attempt to escape state power.” That’s because in the 21st century, “the best way to keep the state out is by way of letting it in through investments, infrastructure development, and deals with officials and governments on all sides.”


III.

Global Borderlands: Fantasy, Violence, and Empire in Subic Bay, Philippines

A fascinating conversation between sociologists Richard Ocejo and Victoria Reyes about her study of the Subic Bay freeport zone in the Philippines. Reyes introduces the concept of the “global borderland” where national laws are relaxed in the interest of international trade.


IV.

Problems with Enforcing International Space Law on Private Actors

Billionaires love outer space; it’s the ultimate frontier, and perhaps the only place (if we can call it a place) that’s still unclaimed and largely ungoverned. That’s because the space laws that were established over the last half-century were concerned mainly with preventing nation-states from colonizing the moon or stars, leaving private actors such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin “with much discretion in the policies and practices concerning space commercialization,” notes author Christina Isnardi. She goes on to argue for the establishment of a binding international (intergalactic?) authority “that has the jurisdictional authority and enforcement mechanisms necessary to regulate private actors in space.”


V.

Policing Mining: in Outer-Space Greed and Domination vs. Peace and Equity a Governance for Humanity!

Some scientists, futurists and speculators believe that the first trillionaire will be made in space thanks to the wealth of mineral riches on asteroids just waiting to be exploited. This punchy article is a good introduction to the asteroid mining starscape and the motivations of the private actors looking to enter the business, with a focus on American laws, firms and regulations. It’s easy to forget that property rights over resources aren’t a given absent an authority to recognize them, so space law—and the lobbyists behind it—are a crucial part of this equation.


VI.

Cold, Dark, and Dangerous: International Cooperation in the Arctic and Space

When I visited the Arctic last summer, I couldn’t stop thinking about aliens and space travel: there was something about the frozen landscape, its geographical remoteness, and certainly the quiet and the climate that made me ruminate obsessively about whether we are alone in the universe. This paper did not answer my existential questions, but it does draw other useful analogies between the Arctic and outer space to explain why both are unlikely sites of productive international cooperation, particularly between Russia and Western states.


VII.

Tribal Data Governance and Informational Privacy: Constructing ‘Indigenous Data Sovereignty’

Who should control, manage and store our personal data when it is by its very nature highly fragmented, easily duplicated and frequently de-territorialized? Lawmakers at the national and international level are a long way from figuring it out; this paper considers the less-discussed data sovereignty of indigenous groups, who retain control over their lands, but not necessarily the information collected in them.
“Data sovereignty means that a particular country, such as China, can require companies to abide by local law as a condition of doing business in its markets,” Tsosie notes—but regulating, say, Amazon’s activities on a reservation in Nevada is much more complex. The way in which tribal sovereignty extends to the digital sphere will be of particular importance when it comes to medical studies or demographic data at a time when large companies are vying for market share in these sectors. At present, “tribal governments are preempted from regulating information technology in ways that would violate federal law. However, tribal governments have a fair amount of autonomy to legislate in areas where they are not preempted by federal law.” This paper makes recommendations for how tribal governments can retain control over their members’ information and privacy.


VIII.

Constructing Commercial Empire: the United Arab Emirates in the Red Sea and the Horn

Rohan Advani’s illuminating history of Dubai Ports World—the biggest force in ports and maritime logistics that you’ve probably never heard of—reveals how a network of maritime ports, over which the firm has acquired long-term leases, dovetails with Emirati foreign policy. Far from being a simple logistics business, DP World has built private infrastructure projects across the African continent and particularly in the Red Sea and the Horn. Advani characterizes the company’s rapid and aggressive expansion as imperial in essence—”a marriage of international economic and political ambitions”—that, while hardly reaching the scope of, say, a 19th century trade company, nonetheless moves “in lockstep with the country’s strategic interests.”


IX.

Dubai Ports World and a New Form of Imperialism

A more detailed audio discussion between Rohan Advani and Thanassis Cambanis on the same paper and the broader theme of Emirati “port diplomacy”.


X.

The Svalbard Archipelago: an Exploratory Analysis of Port Investment in the Context of the New Arctic Routes

Svalbard is one of the most fascinating places in the world: for the past hundred years, Norway has had full sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago, but it must abide by a “non-discrimination” principle that allows anyone, regardless of nationality, to live, work, and do business there. That makes it a rare example of a common space for all of mankind. Now, as melting polar ice presents new opportunities for commerce and new shipping routes in particular, the islands and their main port in Longyearbyen are an obvious place for international shipping firms to start exploring new business opportunities.
Nyman and Tiller are among the world’s experts on the archipelago, and their analysis of what might become of the port of Svalbard given this increased business interest should not be missed (tldr: it’s complicated!). Scholars ought also to take their advice and do more research on the region, given the dearth of data and information there is at present.


More by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian – from our Stacks

Our archive of high-quality content across text, video and audio – our “Living Syllabus” as we call it – has already reached over 10,000 items and grows larger every week.

Here are some recent pieces by or featuring Atossa from those archives:


More About our Cyberflâneur Series

To learn more about how this particularly eclectic edition of our syllabi works, head over here. Note that if you subscribe to any of our weekly syllabi, we’ll keep you posted on our latest cyberflâneurs too. Our subscribers also get a monthly Highlights From the Cyberflâneur edition.

You can also take a look at the previous editions of the Cyberflâneur:

  • #1 Brian Eno – Musician, Record Producer, Visual Artist
  • #2 Hito Steyerl – Artist, Filmmaker, Writer
  • #3 Adam Tooze – Professor of History at Columbia University
  • #4 Rana Foroohar – Global Business Columnist and an Associate Editor at the Financial Times
  • #5 Samuel Moyn – Professor of Law and History at Yale University
  • #6 Rem Koolhas – Architect
  • #7 Paul Mason – Journalist, Filmmaker, Author
  • #8 Shehla Rashid – Activist & Academic

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