On march third, a young man named Brian Flanagan was refused entry into Ireland. The border police officer he happened to have been paired up with believed the occupation Brian cited as his reason for entry, “user experience designer”, was made up.
Because “user experience designer” actually does happen to be a real job, and because Brian happened to be very well connected, a storm of real time social media protest rapidly ensued. While he was still in custody at the Irish border, supporters grew to include John Gilroy, a tech savvy Irish senator. A few phone calls later, Brian was on his merry way into Ireland to set up a subsidiary for the Silicon Valley startup he works for.
There is a lot to take away from what happened, like how great twitter is or how clueless the Irish border police are. But both praising social media and making fun of slow moving institutions is getting a bit old, isn’t it? There are much more interesting lessons to be learned here.
For one, how it is that a politician can micro-manage state institutions like this, and what does that say about the of separation of powers in Ireland? But there is an ever better one. Were did the outrage on twitter draw its arguments from? Say that Brian Flanagan hadn’t come to start a hip subsidiary of his Silicon Valley company, but instead had been a Romani father with two young children – would twitter have cared?
The legitimacy of the protests seemed to have been found in who Brian Flanagan is, and in why he was going to Ireland. Brian is a young, wealthy, urban professional, and he was going to Ireland to make investments. The rest of the argument is implied – someone with those credentials is good for the Irish economy, and it is self evident that he, with all his money to be invested, should be welcomed wherever he goes.
So to answer my own question, of course we would not have cared had he been a Romani refugee with two young children. The measuring stick we use to determine someones right to move freely around the planet is their perceived potential for economic contribution. In other words, how useful we believe you will be. That might seem reasonable – it is up to the Irish to decide who they let into their country, and it seems natural that they will want to take in people who will be “useful”.
But when that argument is actually taken to it’s logical conclusion, we are suddenly sitting in a world where freedom of movement is determined by wealth. If you are rich or successful enough, the world is open to you. If you are not, nations are free to deport you back to Romania.
A long time ago, even that might have seemed like a perfectly reasonable situation. Borders exist for a reason, right? And one group of people who occupy one patch of land have the right to keep others out, with violence if they want to, right?
But the edges around that argument are blurring. The very same social communication tools that were outraged that this high class individual was subject to the same treatment as a lowly gypsy just a few days ago, is simultaneously eroding the a priori belief that national borders are moral.
Is it still sound to believe it is right for rich investors to travel the planet as they see fit, while the less fortunate are confined to whatever nation they happened to be born in? Do we really, as human beings, still have the god given right to tell other human beings that “Here is a line in the sand. You are not allowed to cross it and go to this part of the planet, because this part of the planet is mine."?