Critical Digital Sovereignties

Critical Digital Sovereingties

Since the Peace of Westphalia created the initial framework for an international order of nation-states in 1648, the notion of sovereignty has been central to the study of geopolitics. Sovereignty is a core concern of statehood, national security, and the world order. Though historically, fundamental concepts of geopolitics were forged in political theory and philosophy – think Carl Schmitt’s Land and Sea for instance – discussions of sovereignty have for decades been the province of social sciences, particularly comparative politics, international relations, and security studies. Interdisciplinary conversations in gender, sexuality, and postcolonial studies have propounded notions of “body sovereignty” to explore the impact of social power on the human body, but debates on “sovereignty at large” have remained within the confines of political theory and the constructivist niche in international relations. These debates have also tended to focus on Western contexts or to follow universalist approaches that offer scant account of specific geographical and historical contexts.

Recent technological developments have created an opening for context-sensitive humanistic inquiry to contribute to our understanding of the full complexity of sovereignty in the digital age. As China builds a Great Firewall, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandals shape the UK referendum over Brexit, and “deep fakes” and biometric identification systems spread worldwide, questions about “digital sovereignty” are garnering more attention. Of concern are issues of ethics, identity, authentication, and the role of technology in our lives–hot button issues that humanists are best equipped to tackle.

As humanists interested in global communication, we ask: What are the meanings, ethics, and experiences of digital sovereignties? What does digital sovereignty look like? And, what does it sound like? This publication is an initial contribution towards answering these questions, collectively, collaboratively, and across our disciplines. From the start, our work on digital sovereignty has been driven by two interlinked concerns: first, to deploy the full range of humanistic tools and approaches to examine the question of sovereignty in the digital age, and second, to do so in a way that mobilizes the digital not only as an object of study, but as a methodological instrument and analytical approach to humanistic research. In other words, our inquiry is both of the digital and with the digital.

This digital publication by CARGC Press is the result of two workshops on “digital sovereignty” held at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC) at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania during Fall 2019.  It is part of CARGC’s broader research into how the notion of sovereignty resonates with the range of human values, feelings, meanings, and experiences that characterize the digital age. On October 3, 2019, we held a day-long workshop in Philadelphia, “Data and Dominion: What is Digital Sovereignty?” We invited scholars from Europe, Africa, and the US to re-imagine sovereignty in and with the digital. Participants shared 2,500-word drafts papers ahead of the workshop. Topics ranged from biometric data rights in India, the symbolism of satellite dishes for the Islamic State, Grindr and military surveillance in China, alternative internet infrastructures in Indigenous communities in the US, Mexico, and the Gaza Strip. Participants also submitted images, videos, or sound files along with their papers. This helped foreground the aural and visual dimensions of how digital sovereignty is felt, experienced, circulated, and contested across various contexts. On November 25, 2019, we held a follow-up workshop on Scalar at CARGC led by Katie Rawson, Director of Learning and Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.  This publication is the result of these two workshops.

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