Social Computing in 2020 Honorable Mention: “Mexican Laser Light Extravaganza” by Justin Andrew Gutierrez

About the Author:
Justin Andrew Gutierrez is an undergraduate in the Interdisciplinary Computing in the Arts / Music program at UC San Diego. Gutierrez expects to receive his degree in 2009.

For more information about all of the contest winners, please see the full contest winners announcement.

Participants in the competition warrant that their ideas are their own. Where ideas include component-ideas or materials by others, applicants warrant that any intellectual property owned by others and used in their submissions is approved for use and appropriately attributed.

The copyright or patent for any material submitted for the competition remains with the original owner.

Description of the Idea:

A Spherical Revolution

We have all heard the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Because of the advancement of technology, the quick spreading of words has inevitably altered the outlook of social communities throughout history: the Gutenburg Bible, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. In the 21st century, the spreading of messages is happening even faster and more conveniently than paper leaflets and books, with the emergence of methods such as text messaging, mass emailing, and small, net-based computers (“netbooks”). In general, two trends are occurring: the messages are traveling faster, and the methods are becoming smaller.

The final form of these messages are also becoming more unfiltered in terms of the events they represent. Because of the recent advancement of net-based technology, such as the growing versatility of cellular phones and more reliable internet streaming, messages are traveling through wire and air to compact devices in other forms besides text: audio and video. The messages in these media are richer than text, because of the included human elements of voice, facial expressions and gestures. What this means is that people are able to receive messages and events in their actuality—straight from the horse’s mouth and eyes. At any particular moment, a person with a contemporary cellular phone can search videos on the Web, and bring them to view into their very palm. This has become quite a revolutionary way to find, or rather experience, information.

Because of the accessibility of video streams, and the non-existent cost of displaying personal video on the Web, individuals and groups have began to project personalities, original documentaries and entertaining material, with a generally indirect goal of projecting themselves onto the world. With social networking sites as a platform for distributing video, some individuals have gained acknowledgement worldwide for video recordings that have added unique qualities to the Internet. Internet video sites, such as youTube, have allowed for individuals or groups to be judged by the global community, which in turn projects what they have to potentially offer to the world.

I believe that a future advancement in social computing is the projection of ideas into physical space from a network of people. An online group called Graffiti Research Lab is already using computing to project text into physical space; this group uses LASERs to display graffiti onto walls of buildings, bridges etc. This type of graffiti tests the definition of vandalism, because although it defaces property, it is not permanent. Such a technology could be absolutely powerful for online organizations that wish to get a message across in a potent way without damaging their own reputations. The only connection that online groups now have with this, however, is to watch it happen in videos. What if internet users could vote on a political message they would like to be displayed on say, the U.S.-Mexico border? This message could then be taken outside of cyberspace, and placed into the real world. This allows for collective contribution to a powerful statement.

It also seems that since media transfer is becoming more reliable and faster, and the methods more compact, the message could be carried around with people, and displayed at a myriad of locations. Imagine this: A networked, small, spherical device with a viewing screen, LASER projector, and a keyboard (See illustration). A group could collaborate online, meet in different parts of the country with these devices, and display the collective message onto a building, crowd, concert, etc.

In a social context, this is a revolution, because a forced audience may not have to agree or listen, but a displayed message, whether LASER text or video, will be implanted onto memory—just as corporations attempt to do with TV commercials between shows. Best of all, the message does not have to be hung, shouted, or acted out. It’s just there, and could be displayed from hundreds, if not more, feet away. What’s more, is that it can be taken away, with no trace of it even being there. The implications are incredible, and this technology could lead to an empowerment of many online-based movements.

Imaginative Realization, Embodiment, or Illustration of the Idea:

The Mexican Laser Light Extravaganza

January 21, 2021—5:00 p.m.

The clean, white, rental van crept into the large parking lot. People here are unloading their baggage and slamming car doors shut. The lot is crowded, and is lit like a baseball stadium. Children sneak around cars, looking for passengers to sell candy to while parents pedal knock-off iPhones and plastic books that a person can use to download magazines.

When people are done unloading, they will head toward a narrow corridor on the far side of the lot—a square passageway that burrows deep­, deep into a 10-story wall of concrete. After about 300 feet, this passageway will turn into a narrow tunnel, just wide enough for two people to stand side-by-side. The tunnel will then transition into a tube encased in white light, and the ground will begin to slide them deeper within. The tube will swallow and guide them into the main terminal of the San Diego-Tijuana International Airport. Here, they will scatter and file into rocket jet planes, and to be shot away from the giant wall, and towards their final destinations.

The cities are amid a hot, sticky summer, and are boiling in their own brown stink. It is said that tensions increase in this kind of heat—people will get loony; they sometimes snap. Don’t any of you remember the Son of Sam murders? That’s exactly how it was in New York—hot and stuffy. No one wanted to be there, in this place where you must suffocate and dwell at the same time.

The white van parks; its engine rumbles higher as it idles. It turns off, and the passenger door opens. One man and two women emerge from the dark interior in olive green attire and jet-black service boots.


Jan looks around for a few seconds. She relaxes her shoulders and pulls back her silky, brown hair into a ponytail.

“Okay, Torres. Open the bag,” she says, flashing her brown eyes toward the van’s empty shell.

He reaches waist-deep into the interior. His brown arms and back look defined and thick in the bright light. He returns swiftly with a small, black duffle bag, and carefully lowers it to the asphalt, which still radiates warm heat from the miserable day.

Juan Torres grew up in Playas de Rosarito, but had come to the States eight years ago on a workers permit with his older brother, Jorge, to work at a citrus farm in National City. Three days before they would have to return to their grimy beach town, a massive war between a cartel from Mexico City and some Tijuana drug lords began with the mowing down of 200 families at a mall complex. Their mother was there. Juan never returned.

“Should we take them out now? Here?” Angela asked. Her blue eyes dart from the bag to Jan. Her blonde hair is tied back so tight, that her face looks unnaturally younger, like the results of a fresh Botox injection.

“Yes, just as we planned,” Jan says sternly. Her eyes are steady. “Take an 8Ball, and hide it until you hear the word.

They give Jan a short nod. Juan squats and unzips the bag.

Inside the duffle bag are three metallic, dark-blue spheres, slightly larger than grapefruits. They have eight, slender depressions, each with three buttons. Between these slots is a protruding device that looks like a camera lens. The other sides have two more indents, filled with numerous buttons as well. Above the indents are an unlit screen and a speaker. Each person briskly removes a sphere and drops them into olive-green knapsacks.


People in the States sometimes act strangely in the heat—they decide to go for jogs in layers of sweat clothes, only to be found baked to death on the side of the road. They blast the air conditioning in their homes at 60º Fahrenheit, until the power grid collapses and the houses again become hot. In the southwest corner of the United States, however, other things get strange; people bend in different ways. The river of drugs seems to run more like a rapid than its usual, steady stream. More Mexicans get stuck on the border wall, falling to a dusty death. That, or they may get long-distance tazed by Border Patrol officers to the point of a fried brain, extra crispy. All these accidents, more desperate attempts to cross, more border vigilantism. this miserable, goddamned heat, this miserable life.


Jan, Juan and Angela grab official, olive-green U.S. Department of Homeland Security Border Patrol hats and slap them on their heads. No one notices them, or at least no one makes eye contact. You must always avoid eye contact. In this expanse of asphalt, no one is free from questioning: you could be an illegal, a drug dealer, a terrorist, anything that threatens the safety that blankets America’s suburban havens, its empty green parks and giant entertainment centers.

They walk steadily now. First they start as a line, a horizontal wall that traverses down a lane in the parking lot. They branch off between cars, slowly dispersing into a wider line across the lot. Some of the kids selling candy spot them, and disappear under the shadows of big, American cars. They know there is no taking chances here—they could be Border Patrol agents, or sometimes the even more dreaded “Federales,” the ones who use the revised 2015 NAFTA’s loopholes to jump the border and hunt down drug dealers, or even a lowly Mexican peasant trying to get by on the tourist traffic. It could be hours of incarceration, interrogation, torture—whatever makes their quota. You never take a chance; you never look them in the eyes.

Now they have disappeared from the big lot. There is yelling and screaming near the entrance to the corridor—people want to squeeze ten at a time into the two-person walkway. The news crews are setting up their tall satellite dishes, pointing bright lights and the passageway and at handsome news reporters. They’re flailing signs with messages to both countries: “HOW MANY NEXT TIME, PIGS?!”, “TEN STORIES TOO MANY!” Armed NAFTA agents hold back the crowd with precision-aim tasers, tear gas, and high-frequency aural paralyzers.

Three nights ago, an army of Mexican police raided a drug factory in north Tijuana. More than fifty men dashed out of the building into a busy crowd of civilians, waiting patiently to cross the border. In their panic, they pushed and shoved the crowd until a stampede ensued from fear and chaos. Frustrated and agitated policemen tried to break through the crowd, but to no avail. They attempted to shoot down the suspects among the crowd, some who ran for higher ground: the NAFTA border wall lookout. Ten suspects, and twenty-five civilians, ran up ten stories, desperately trying to avoid the metal rain. They plummeted to their death on the American side.

Tragedy on the northern front.


Now spread over a quarter mile apart, they make their way to the wall. Large floodlights are installed on top, pointing south toward Tijuana. On the American side, motion sensor lights kick on if anything moves closer than 300 yards. In between the wall and the lights is a no man’s land of shadows—where the dust is only moved by the scared feet of runners, and the heavy wheels of Border Patrol vehicles.

Juan Torres runs in the trench below the border wall, a blue tooth earpiece flashing on his right. He comes to a halt, and waits. A U.S. Border Patrol cruiser crunches gravel under its tires as it passes above. The earpiece comes to life.

“Take the 8Balls out and connect to the server.”

Juan grabs the ball out of his bag and shakes it a few times. The blank screen flickers on, and begins searching for WiMax2 signal. Juan’s eyes are fixed on the screen, waiting for the loading pinwheel to stop spinning. This can’t be good, it’s taking to long. He hears a soft crunch above the trench, and he hides the bright screen from view.

A spotlight. The perimeter is being searched.

“Shit,” Juan says under his breath through the earpiece. “I got nothing yet. Are you guys online?”

“Yes, Juan. We are waiting for you,” Angela grumbles. “We don’t have too much time here, we have to hurry.”

“Just give it time, Angela. I’m sure it will pick up a signal shortly,” Jan says.

Above, there is a soft, rolling crackle. A metallic door clanks shut. Juan hears English spoken loudly.

“La Migra is nearby, but they don’t know I’m here,” Juan says softly.

In Juan’s knapsack, the ball announces itself with a chirpy arpeggio. The searchlight swings in his direction, toward the big wall.

“Forget I said anything. You two need to start now, and get them away from me!”


January 19, 2021—North County San Diego

“It’s like this,” Jan said to the others. “We get on the server, process the messages like old RSS feeds, and project them onto the border wall.”

She set the 8Ball into her hands. A button is pressed, and a stream of neon-green light comes out of the camera lens like a strand of luminescent silk. It shot outward onto her bedroom wall, ending in brightly lit text that read: “JUAN, ANGELA, JAN.”

Juan’s eyebrows furrowed as he rub his chin. Angela was lying on her stomach, her head resting in her hands.

“That’s really –omthing, Jan,” Juan says over her crackling computer speakers. He shifts left to right, his movements scrambled and ridgid on Jan’s computer monitor.

“I don’t know what to say,” Angela crackles. Jan’s screen momentarily freezes, and then Angela is live again. “Is this considered vandalism?”

“It’s been done before—used as a way for graffiti artists to tag on buildings without the effects being permanent,” Jan says. “People have got themselves into trouble, usually because they were too slow to move, or the technology was too bulky.”

“And the Liberation Front already knows about this?” Angela asks.

Jan let out a slight smile, and then quickly opened a new window on the Internet browser.

“No, but that’s only a text message away,” she said. “I’ll send out a group message, and we should have plenty of interesting messages to display on a giant wall by tomorrow.”


Footsteps crunched louder and louder. Juan could see a splash of green light on the wall in the distance, and the steps suddenly stopped. From this angle, he could not see what it displayed. He could hear that the people above him had become quiet, and within a minute they sped off in their cruisers.

Damn, he thought. This could be his last night on this side of the fence, and he was spending it in this stinky ditch. He started counting: ten, nine, eight…five, four, three, two…

Juan hits a button near his thumb. Green light sprays out in a pyramidal fashion, and rests on the big concrete wall.


Five seconds later, the message flashes off and then on again:


Juan leans his back against the trench’s incline, holding the ball steady. After thirty seconds, Juan turns off the ball, and begins to run east.


Angela turns the ball off. She runs at a steady sprint towards Juan’s position in the trench. “Every thirty seconds,” she whispers, her voice shaking as she runs. After a minute, she stops, and looks back. Three beams of flashlights scan the vicinity where she had been standing. Angela attempts to salivate to moisten her mouth as she waits for the flashlights to turn off.

“They’re on to me,” she says nervously over a Bluetooth earpiece. “I’m going to have to wait it out.

“I’ll get them off your back,” Jan says softly into Angela’s earpiece. Just be ready to have your ball on in thirty seconds.


Jan stands steadily, and shakes the ball back to life. The device sits idle for a few seconds as it connects to the server. She presses a thumb button, and a beam of green light streams and disperses toward the wall two hundred feet in front of her.



Five seconds later, the message changes:


“Damn it!” Jan mumbles. She pushes a button and the next message flashes on. The message on the wall shakes with her hands, though her feet are planted firm.


Angela hears the tires of the border cars rolling fast towards the east, away from Jan and herself. She shakes the ball back to life, and shoots the green ray of light onto the big border wall.


Juan is face down in the nasty mud of the trench, breathing hard. Dirt and plant matter go flying every time he exhales. A boot presses against the middle of his shoulder blades, while a pair of hands secure his hands behind his back with a white zip tie.

“No!” he screams. “Pinche pendejos! No!”

He sees a pair of legs make their way toward him. They have on olive-green pants and black service boots. From three feet away, they accelerate and Juan is kicked in the stomach like it’s the starting kickoff for the high school football game. Juan grimaces and vomits water and chunks of food.

“Carne asada, señor?” a voice said sternly above the legs.

Juan lay gasping for air, cursing the officer under his breath.

“You think this is all I can do?” The voice said in raspy, Norteño-accented English. “It has not even started yet, señor. Ya no lo empieza.”


Jan and Angela sprint up the trench’s incline, their steps sliding as they slam their feet onto loose gravel. They hold their spheres in their bosom, cradling them like infants. The top is reached, and the two women get to the ground. If they run any farther north, and they risk being blinded by the massive motion-activated spotlights.

They spot a peliculiar sight on the freeway. Behind the giant lights, a quarter mile away, the cars on it have stopped. People are honking, whistling, shouting in the direction of the wall.

“The people saw us, Jan,” Angela whispers in a shaky voice. “It worked.”

“They have Juan,” Jan says back coldly, with no attempt to whisper.

Juan is on the ground of the trench, one hundred yards from the girls. Flashlight beams are concentrated on the floor of the trench, and the troops are pointing their weapons. The lightning sparks of taser-guns flash into the women’s eyes, and Juan is screaming.

“We have to do something, Jan!” Angela cries.

Jan wastes no time. She stands firm and grasps the ball. She clicks the buttons on the sides of the ball for a few seconds, and then launches the laser onto the giant border wall.



Within minutes, freeway onlookers jump the short freeway divider between asphalt and the desert floor. They are running across the chaparral with bats, flashlights, and digital cameras.

“Jan! People are coming!” Angela cries gleefully from the ground.

“Juan will be okay, let’s go,” Jan says.

The girls sprint north, while the crowd flows south. It breaks and jumps over a barbwire fence, passing the giant, sleeping lights. The lights blast on, and it lets loose a violent yell. It runs toward the trench, fast and hard, until it disappears below the trench.

The white van slips away into the night.