Critical Digital Sovereignties

Digital Sovereignty as Resource Politics

by Zane Griffin Talley Cooper

Digital sovereignty is a condition that operates on top of, not apart from, traditional forms of sovereignty: a particular articulation of historical, colonial, geopolitical, and geological infrastructures. The expansion of transnational digital networks has complicated longstanding ideas of national sovereignty. Nonetheless, networks such as Facebook, remain intensely interdependent on long-established resource flows, material relations, and the international logistics structures of supply chain capitalism for the maintenance and supply of their expansive infrastructures. Building and maintaining digital sovereignty requires a deep relationship to geology and extraction, and the geopolitics under-girding this extraction. Furthermore, this relationship should not be treated in the general, but rather as a set of historical conditions that emerge in specific contexts. To understand digital sovereignty and how it behaves, we must therefore attend more carefully to material relations and they are produced locally and idiosyncratically in the service of larger ideas of what the digital can and should be. Through these relations, and by foregrounding material relations and the politics of extraction in the maintenance of digital sovereignty, we can begin to imagine and build more just and equitable digital futures.

In this paper, I will begin to sketch a material ontology of digital sovereignty that attempts to unpack what exactly digital sovereignty is, and how it is assembled and maintained. These questions can be addressed in numerous ways. Here, I want to focus on three key areas of inquiry. Using these three conceptual signposts, I argue that digital sovereignty is an articulation, a projection of structural material relations:
  1. Temporality of digital sovereignty: At what point do material processes and assemblages become enrolled in digital sovereignty, and at what point do they exit?
  2. Mobility of digital sovereignty: How are logistical resource flows implicated in forms of digital sovereignty?
  3. Maintenance of digital sovereignty: On what parts, labor, and energy sources is digital sovereignty dependent in order to function as sovereign?


Digital sovereignty as an idea feigns both immediacy and permanence, an instantaneous and simultaneously timeless architecture. The supposed dual annihilation of space and time through an infrastructure of light-speed tele-presence (Virilio, 1998) is an operational smokescreen. Sovereignty is a condition of the interior. A sovereign can only rule that which it is "capable of internalizing" (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 360), but additionally, a digital sovereign can only rule that which it is capable of eternalizing. Sovereignty implies space. Furthermore, it implies space that is constituted and held together through violence (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 279-280). Digital sovereignty also implies a sort of eternal presence, held together through the ideology of the update (which itself is a form of niche-segregated violence). Chun (2016) provides a guiding equation to help us understand the temporal politics of digital sovereignty: "Habit + Crisis = Update." She argues that the digital transforms habitual practices into addictions, which are fueled by socio-technical crises that work to ensure endless processes of updating---updating not to progress or get somewhere, but to "remain the same" and maintain one's socio-technical baseline. The update provides the illusion of futurity while enforcing an eternal presence. What came before the update does not matter, and we are encouraged to forget it entirely, because it is of no material consequence for the eternal present. Habitual updating reifies notions of digital sovereignty, drawing boundaries around both the space and time of identity.

While the ideology of the update seeks to situate subjects into an eternal, anxious present, how is the update itself temporally situated? How and of what is the update composed? What material conditions must be satisfied and subsequently leveraged in order to conjure the update into being? To build a material ontology of the update, we first have to ask what, where, and when fundamentally, and materially is the update? If the update ends with the user, where does it begin? And, what sorts of things are involved in that beginning? Does it begin in a data center? In many data centers? Or, is it before that? Should we trace the logistical history and political economy of the hard drives back to China and Singapore, or maybe go even further; back to the magnet manufacturing factories, or the rare earth mineral mines in the industrial wastelands of Inner Mongolia? Is this where and when digital sovereignty begins? How can we know?

Bratton (2015) argues that we are entering a new paradigm wherein all is being organized around the function of what he calls, "planetary-scale computing" - that a seemingly semiautonomous Stack of earth, software, and users, is hollowing out the Earth and terraforming it to its liking. For Bratton, data is the principal active agent, as well as the ultimate articulation of an Earth-sized cyber-ecology. He sees the new structures born through this Stack as death knells for traditional Westphalian forms of sovereignty. Conversely, I argue that we should consider data as deeply embedded in traditional forms of sovereignty. The sort of digital sovereignty implied by Bratton's Stack emerges not in contestation, but through these traditional forms, through colonial path dependencies of logistics and extraction. The Stack mines these histories in order to enforce its sovereignty through processes of internalization and eternalization. You are your profile, and your profile is eternal.

Let us operate under the axiom that data neither pre-exists, nor exists in isolation as discrete units. Data is always cooked (Gitelman & Jackson, 2013). They arise out of that cooking not as points, but as complex assemblages (Kitchin & Lauriault, 2014). These "data assemblages" contain multitudes, including (but not limited to) political bodies, infrastructures, material practices, forms of knowledge, finance, and supply chains. All work in complex collaboration to produce, on the surface, what we finally glean as data. However, these assemblages are tenuous, their components and shapes constantly shifting. Supply chains grow, evolve, and move in response to political and market forces, inflicting, and then subsequently blackboxing and niche-segregating intense amounts of violence and exploitation which structures of power are not obliged to acknowledge (Tsing, 2009; Cowen, 2014; Posner, 2018). All this violence is embedded within very real and material histories, presents, and futures of exploitation and extraction. In fact, it depends on them.

When a thing or process becomes part of a data assemblage is difficult to pin down. Partly this is because data assemblages may not be data assemblages at all, but rather more agentive, authoritative, and totalizing kinds of assemblages. However, material conditions do not serve the Stack - the Stack serves them. As Bratton (2015) claims, resources like the 3TG minerals extracted from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo through networks of violence and child labor, do indeed feed the supply chains for digital living (pp. 82-83), but the demand for these minerals from the electronics industries makes up a relatively small portion of the total (Vogel & Raeymaekers, 2016; Lepawsky, 2018). A majority of these minerals are funneled into defense technologies and other heavy industrial uses. The material arrangements maintaining ideologies of digital sovereignty exist within and because of the political economic path dependencies inscribed by demand for oil, energy, and war. Media have long had intimately entangled relationships with technologies of violence. Histories of mediated perception in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries flow through histories of war and oil (Virilio, 1989; Kittler, 1999; Bozak, 2012; Cubitt, 2014). We need to understand digital sovereignty as emergent from and dependent on these histories. They function in concert not in contestation with the nation-state, its desires and ambitions. As such, digital sovereignty emerges as an articulation of extant structures and processes, which it largely serves.

Extractive sovereignties underwrite digital sovereignties. And, extractive sovereignties emerge through often violent negotiations between people, ecologies, governments, and transnational corporations. Rights to resource extraction are often drafted as exceptions to established protections of nature and society within a given sovereign state (Gómez-Barris, 2017). States inscribe a "sovereign bifurcation," lightly and heavily regulated different operational spaces for different reasons (Easterling, 2016, p. 49). These bifurcations create special zones of operation (referred to as Special Economic Zones, Export Processing Zones, Free Zones, etc.) that muddle the distinctions both inside and outside of the state. A concept employed for centuries, the zone is a tool used by sovereign states to liberate parts of themselves from the pesky constraints of state law and civil rights (Easterling, 2016). Zones can take the form of shipping ports, manufacturing regions (like Shenzhen in China), smart city experiments like Songdo (and even Quayside in Toronto), but extractive regions also often operate as zones. For example, a new rare earth mineral mine that recently began production in Burundi, feeds demand in Europe for defense technology, electric vehicle batteries, and digital living. A product of rentier capitalism, this mine exists in negotiation with the state, but it is not necessarily part of the state: it is entirely controlled by foreign capital, and maintains its own security forces. Similarly, Gómez-Barris (2017) describes how extractive zones in Ecuador are manifested through legal technologies that specify mines as states of exception. Mines are miasmas of complementary and competing sovereignties.

Extractive zones are crucial nodes that help define the edges of logistics spaces; spaces that produce and maintain mobilities, while also governing rights to movement based on relationships to structures of capital and resources (Cowen, 2014). Logistics spaces are the in-between states of exception created, supported, and maintained through political-economic collaboration between competing and complementary state and corporate sovereignties. Their violent banalities are manifested through the cybernetic ideology of the container (Klose, 2015). Deregulation is not the absence of the state, but merely a different relationship between the corporation and the state.

In the 1980s, neoliberal deregulation across the globe fundamentally transformed the shape and character of the electronics industry and its associated mobilities. Beginning with microchip and hard disk manufacturers, production shifted from the United States to China, Singapore, and South Asia (McKendrick et al., 2000). The mass migration of the electronics industry in the mid-1980s was a response to historically and geographically specific conditions. The geographical distribution of electronics today largely resembles what it did in the early 1990s, principally because of complex path dependencies that produce affordances for operation.

Exploitative labor, allowances for ecological devastation, and freedom of movement for commodities are necessary precursors for digital sovereignty. The digital, however, is not necessarily a precursor for these conditions. While it actively contributes to the continuation of these conditions, the digital is only one articulation of a vast infrastructure of extraction, capital, labor, and nature. In order to build a material ontology of digital sovereignty, we must properly locate its presence within a much larger situation of action (Clarke, 2005). Digital sovereignty maintained through the update. The update is itself held together through networks of extraction, logistics, labor, energy, and ecology. The update feigns eternity through ideologies of futurity, but its processes are utterly dependent on histories and structures of capital that could care less about it. The Stack is less like an integrated system, and more like a Jenga tower, teetering on top of a few precarious blocks of resource and logistical arrangements. With this in mind, we should begin building an alternative model for resistance to the encroachment of repressive practices of digital sovereignty. Conceiving the digital not as dominant or independent, but fundamentally dependent, opens up possibilities of different relationships to digital life through the politics of natural resources. Structures - like the digital surveillance state - can be challenged through actions as simple as communities forbidding access to water, or to regional electric grids (Hogan, 2015). Digital sovereignty can be re-imagined from the ground up as a productive, relational collaboration between people, nature, and resources - as soon as we stop imbuing it with so much undue power.

Works Cited:
Bozak, N. (2012). The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.
Bratton, B. H. (2015). The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Chun, W. H. K. (2016). Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Clarke, A. E. (2005). Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory After the Postmodern Turn. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
Cowen, D. (2014). The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Cubitt, S. (2014). The Practice of Light: A Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Print to Pixel. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Easterling, K. (2014). Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London: Verso.
Gómez-Barris, M. (2017). The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hogan, M. (2015). "Data Flows and Water Woes: The Utah Data Center." Big Data & Society, 2(2),
Kitchin, R., & Lauriault, T. P. (2014). Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and their Work, The Programmable City Working Paper 2
Kittler, F. A. (1999). Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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