Citizenship Forecast: Partly Cloudy with Chances of Algorithms

Costica Dumbrava |Contribution to GLOBALCIT Forum: Cloud Communities: The Dawn of Global Citizenship? | 2 March 2018
cyber_aTechnologies such as Blockchain could allow people to create virtual communities based on shared interests and sustained by instantaneous consent, beyond the reach of nosy governments and regardless of national borders. By widening access to rights, expanding political voice and creating more secure and diverse identities, digital citizenship could address current challenges related to the imperfect attribution of status and rights (statelessness, disenfranchisement), widespread political apathy among citizens and artificial divisions created by national borders. To paraphrase the text of a famous cartoon: ‘on the Internet nobody knows you are a foreigner’. 

In his thought-provoking kick-off contribution to this GLOBALCIT ForumLiav Orgad enthusiastically embraces the idea of a global digital citizenship that could remedy some of the deficiencies of the present system of territorial national citizenships and, potentially, transform the meaning of democratic citizenship.Other contributors to this forum have pointed out several important tensions and dangers lurking in Orgad’s proposal. Rainer Bauböck worries that replacing political communities, which are based largely on ascribed but equal citizenship, with freely chosen cloud communities would be ‘fatal for democracy’. Purely consensual political communities cannot work because political associations need coercive systems capable to enforce laws. As ‘exit-based conflict resolution systems’ (Primavera De Filippi), virtual communities are too volatile to ensure stable membership and commitment to rules. They are also ill equipped to do the policing and punishing required by political organisation (Robert PostMichael Blake). Orgad’s cloud communities could be seen instead as akin to civil society organisations. As novel forms of coagulating solidarity, interests and identities, they can be instrumental for checking, challenging or complementing governments, but they have neither the means, nor the legitimacy to replace democratic citizenship.

I agree that technologies may offer surprising opportunities for improving and reimagining our social and political life (Francesca StrumiaPeter Spiro). Information and communication technologies already offer to some people better access to legal status (digital IDs), allowing them to participate more effectively in political deliberations and decision making (e-forums, e-voting), to mobilise against authoritarian regimes (twitter revolutions) and to transcend borders in order to engage with communities of origin (diaspora politics).[1] Using powerful computers, myriads of sensors and sophisticated algorithms, ‘smart cities’ can identify and address public issues and concerns, such as traffic congestions and security threats. However, I worry that we too often take technologies for granted and fail to discern between technological opportunity and mythology.

My contribution to this debate is to raise two general points about the risks involved by linking citizenship to technology, namely making citizenship vulnerable to biases and failures that typically affect technology and increasing citizenship’s dependence on technology…

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