The invisible frontiers are the zones where modernity has failed to make good on its promises: famines, wars, corrupt bureaucracies; ghettos without exits. For those who rest content in the faith that capital heals everything, the invisible frontiers remain invisible.
A drive through the wrong side of town shows the grocery stores closing, the encampments of homeless, the empty factories. A drive through the rustbelt shows the devastation hidden from coastal enclaves: entire neighborhoods, demolished. Closing schools. Closing hospitals. The invisible frontiers show what happens in the breakdown of capitalism and government: the societies of hobos, the existence of spontaneous guilds in trailer parks, child-care co-ops, community gardens, and utopian storefronts.
In general, invisibility happens because of lack of access to capital, social or otherwise. The health-insurance lobbyist can buy access to the Senator; devoted student activists cannot. People on the other side of the digital divide — the 12% whom the Pew tells us have not even a dial-up connection — cannot tell Silicon-Valley engineers to design community-participation software that runs off of cell phones.
Insidiously, however, the invisibility of people is usually mutual. Even if you volunteered to design infrastructure tailored to the people on the other side of the digital divide, they might have a hard time answering your questions. The uses of digital infrastructure are new to a people who lost their houses to concrete highways.
Landscape invisibility compounds class invisibility. Stockton, a foreclosure capital, is home to Hispanic truck-drivers and factory-workers who have lost their houses in great numbers. They are no different than other, better-known working-class immigrants in San Diego, Chicago, and New York. First, the poor lose their landscape; next, they become invisible. Whatever capital has forgotten about dissolves like the soft paper of mid-century paperbacks, crumbling in the hand. On the digital landscape, the overworked and harried rarely contribute to community web2.0 bike-maps. They too become invisible. We keep planning, however, as if there were no frontier, and nothing invisible beyond it.
The truly sustainable — the thrivable designer — reaches hands across the invisible frontier. Reaching across the digital divide, the thrivable designer puts technology for rethinking government, energy, and food directly in the hands of those communities who live in food ghettos (where there are no grocery stores) and dial-up deserts (where one pays upwards of $40/mo for a slow connection on a pc shared by 5). Thrivable design listens patiently, entering dialogue with potential users who find the new terms difficult.
Thrivability recasts the designer's place: no more in the halls of power, hanging out in shiny buildings with others of money; now instead, the designer belongs in the city, on public transit, or exploring the suburban ghetto. Thrivable design on the invisible frontier pays attention to all those details of life hidden in the landscape — the public places where strangers meet, the memory of people who have migrated a long way together, the corridors people travel who don't have access to funds.
The thrivable designer sees life — people trying to make a living, communities that need tools — where old-fashioned capitalists see only failure. Thrivability recasts the designer's role: no more the paid lieutenant of corporation and state; now, instead, the wanderer around invisible peripheries, the witness and facilitator of emergent states.