Artwork by Lex Trickett

The Algorithmic Self as Citizen in a Post-Nation World

A new kind of citizenship is emerging —it’s not assigned at birth i.e. right of the soil known as jus soli, nor is it assigned through nationality of the birth parents i.e. right of the blood known as jus sanguinis. Algorithmic citizenship is a new form of citizenship that does not depend on where we live or where we are born. It is based on the data we produce on the internet and is determined by our browsing history. (Yurcheva: 2018)

An algorithm is an unambiguous specification for solving problems or performing tasks; e.g. a calculation, data processing or automated reasoning, and is expressed with an amount of space and time in a defined (computer) language.

We often think of the internet as invisible and therefore everywhere and nowhere, but the internet is in fact physical—its architecture housed in submarine communications cables across the ocean—an arrangement of intersecting and intersectional horizontal and vertical lines resulting in what we call the internet. All websites are hosted in a specific geographical location. Algorithmic citizenship links us to these locations by harnessing the algorithm’s power to build models of behaviour based on analysis of our digital footprint. Through this process, our allegiance is placed to the laws of a particular country. Individuals are constantly configured and reconfigured into intelligible patterns and categories based on mathematical and statistical points from traces of daily digital interactions. Data is the frame of reference and people are mere aggregates of their digital movements.

Each of us has a digital identity comprising of gender, race, age and class. This digital identity can be unconnected to our physical selves and serve in the creation of our algorithmic selves. As a black woman living in Johannesburg, your digital identity could be a white Danish male, purely based on your affinity towards browsing Danish television drama series and a love of minimalist design. The politics of identity are shifting, old stereotypes are collapsing and new ones are forming in their place. Every site visited is counted as evidence of affiliation to a particular geography.

The idea of citizenship is important for many reasons: having citizenship means that you have specific rights. What The New Yorker Reporter Hannah Arendt expressed as “citizenship is the right to have rights”. In South Africa, for instance, the Bill of Rights is considered the cornerstone of democracy. The Bill of Rights enshrines the rights of all the people in the country while affirming the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom:

  • Every citizen has the right to enter, to remain in and to reside anywhere in, the Republic
  • Every citizen has the right to choose their trade, occupation or profession freely
  • The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis
  • Subsections (6) and (7) (Chapter 2 of the Bill of Rights) do not apply to persons who are not South African citizens and who are detained in consequence of an international armed conflict.

So what happens when search engine algorithms decide on and assign citizenship? Well, this type of citizenship potentially points to a shift in power. Power shifts from the state (as seen through the Bill of Rights above) to web analytic companies that collect and use data. This notion of shifting powers is also evident in other trends through computer-mediated technologies which are facilitating new ways of working, creating, sharing and existing; blockchain, machine learning and artificial intelligence – all of these are shifting the way in which we think of the essential being and its interactions with other essential beings (and machines) within  a society. Some of the more obvious effects of this new form of citizenship include

  1. a) targeted marketing,
  2. b) tailoring of information and knowledge to influence decision making (Facebook Privacy Scandal) and
  3. c) privacy laws were government and its agencies can collect data and surveil citizens.

….if one is recognised with less than 50% probability of being an American citizen, it allows NASA to surveil them” (British artist James Bridle).

Algorithmic Citizenship is a new form of citizenship, one where your citizenship, and therefore both your allegiances and your rights, are constantly being questioned, calculated, and rewritten. Like other computerised processes, it can happen at the speed of light, and it can happen over and over again, constantly revising and recalculating. It can split a single citizenship into an infinite number of sub-citizenships, and count and weight them over time to produce combinations of affiliations to different states. (citizen-ex.com).

Algorithmic Citizenship raises many questions regarding freedom and politics; is this potentially a new form of colonisation where individuals are stripped of their ability to participate in social and political life, where algorithms can predict and anticipate behaviours thereby negating the need to involve said individual because “the computer already knows and the algorithm decides”?  Is this the potential death of politics?

This discourse of citizenship is made more poignant by the global refugee crisis where millions of people are rendered stateless due to collapsing states, war, environmental and economic disasters. In 2018, former UK prime minister Theresa May, famously declared “if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. Although this statement sounds archaic and limiting, there are very real consequences of being stateless. The condition of statelessness affects one’s ability to claim their right to human dignity —accessing education, health and the ability to earn a living.

In many ways, this era could be considered the post-nation era particularly because of globalisation, but we are also experiencing a strong attachment to right wing nationalism as seen through Brexit, the most recent Indian elections, the Trump presidency and persistent and widespread xenophobic attacks in South Africa. It can make sense then to think of algorithmic citizenship as a form of emancipation where the post-nation rhetoric is embraced and fully realised. It is also possible that this algorithmic reality that claims to save us will only complicate these issues.

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