Old Divides New Devices: Global Citizenship for Only Half of the World
By Lea Ypi (London School of Economics and Political Science)
There is no doubt that we live in an age of global communication. But who is able to communicate and how is access to the means that enable that communication (computers, mobile phones, internet lines) distributed?
Consider again the facts of global interconnectedness with which Liav Orgad begins his piece. But consider them from a different perspective, not that of the wealthy Western academic who blogs about cloud communities. If half of the world population spends time online, it means that the other half does not. While 94 percent of the youth population in the developed world has access to the Internet, 70 percent of youngsters in least developed countries do not. While almost one-third of the global population uses smartphones, the other two-thirds (the vast majority) does not. If global internet use in 2017 was at 48 percent, 52 percent of the world’s population was left out. In the least developed countries only 15 per cent of households have access to the internet from their homes and 85% rely on schools, offices, libraries or other public connections to access the web. The proportion of men using the internet is higher than the proportion of women, and the proportion of private internet access in developed countries is twice as high as in developing ones (ITU, 2017).
All this suggests that the narrative of global interconnectedness on which the ideal of global citizenship rests is only half true and true only for half of the world. There is of course the claim that even for the half of the world that is connected, the technology might not work very well. There are the dangers of digital identities being stolen and of data centres, Internet servers, and the rest of the infrastructure being vulnerable to hacking, as Dumbrava emphasises in his contribution. But my problem is even more basic. One of the most attractive features of global citizenship based on blockchain technologies seems to be that it does not entail the right to exclude. But either proponents of that ideal start with the world as it is, or they do not. If they take the world as it is, they endorse an even more pernicious form of exclusion, the exclusion of those who have no access to the internet from the community of those that do, and they proceed to reify the separation between the two. If they start with the world as it ought to be, they owe us an argument on how we can get from here to there. How can we make sure that the half of the world that has no access to the internet can do so? How are we going to take care of the costs of IT provision? What will put an end to the inequalities that make it the case that for some people (like me) mobile phones are an extension of themselves and for some others only an aspiration? Who controls the production of the tools that lead to differentiated access of the means of connection?
It will be clear from my lines above that I approach the question of global citizenship presented in Orgad’s piece from a radical egalitarian perspective, concerned with inequalities of access to the material means of production, and the related power positions of those who control such access. In the contemporary world this means raising very basic questions, such as who owns Apple and Microsoft, and how we can make sure that everyone has a mobile phone that works as well in central London as it does in the remote areas of Albania (where it typically does not). Apple and Microsoft are the modern equivalents of cotton and spin factories. We have the same reasons to worry about who controls their ownership and who has access to the technologies that they enable as much now as we did in the past. But if we ignore the problem of asymmetrical access and proceed as if the internet was already within everybody’s reach, we run the risk of entrenching one of the most problematic divides of our time.
Given the perspective I have offered, I hesitate to show enthusiasm for Orgad’s proposal for reasons very different from those of Robert Post, Michael Blake or even Rainer Bauböck. My argument is not that cloud communities based on voluntary membership do not offer the benefits of a collective coercive system of rewards and punishments like the one offered by modern states. I do not think that states are necessarily either more just or more democratic than cloud communities, or that they “provide us with goods that cannot be provided by even the best systems of informational technology” as Michael Blake suggests. If you are a representative of the half of the world that has nothing to do with the internet you are of course failed by IT providers, but you are also failed by your state. Indeed, you are failed by those providers precisely because you are failed by your state. It is because the state is captured by powerful groups who merely exploit you and who are uninterested in guaranteeing you access to those basic goods that the state is supposed to guarantee (at least according to the liberal myth) that you are excluded within the state as much as outside.
When we assess the benefits and limitations of state citizenship versus a voluntary model of global citizenship, we have to make sure that we compare like with like. We have to make sure we don’t compare an ideal of the state with the reality of failing blockchain technologies, for example. We need to compare the reality of the state with the reality of cloud communities or the ideal of the state with the ideal of cloud communities. Speaking about ideals, like Orgad, I am attracted to a system of voluntary membership where citizenship does not come coupled with the right to exclude, and like De Filippis I can see the advantages of “trustless systems (i.e. system where trust is no longer needed).” Indeed, both of those things are compatible with the kind of utopian society Marx thought would come after capitalism had been superseded and when the need for a state (understood as a collective coercive system of punishment) would have withered away. But speaking about reality, capitalism is alive and kicking: capitalist relations control the state and they will control cloud communities. Without remedying the asymmetries of access to the means of connection, and the exclusions they generate, the ideal of global citizenship will be as illusory as the ideal of a state that is effective in distributing social goods. But while in the case of the state, we have at least a history of political mobilisation and, if lucky, democratic learning processes and institutions on which to rely when seeking change (as Bauböck also points out in his piece), nothing of that sort is available in the cloud. So we should probably hold on to state citizenship for the conflictual period of transition and leave cloud communities to the future utopian society that may become accessible once interconnectedness is truly global. If it ever does.