The Rise of Virtual Citizenship

James Bridle in The Atlantic: “In Cyprus, Estonia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere, passports can now be bought and sold….“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means,” the British prime minister, Theresa May, declared in October 2016. Not long after, at his first postelection rally, Donald Trump asserted, “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.” And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has increased his national-conservative party’s popularity with statements like “all the terrorists are basically migrants” and “the best migrant is the migrant who does not come.”

Citizenship and its varying legal definition has become one of the key battlegrounds of the 21st century, as nations attempt to stake out their power in a G-Zero, globalized world, one increasingly defined by transnational, borderless trade and liquid, virtual finance. In a climate of pervasive nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, and ever-building resentment toward those who move, it’s tempting to think that doing so would become more difficult. But alongside the rise of populist, identitarian movements across the globe, identity itself is being virtualized, too. It no longer needs to be tied to place or nation to function in the global marketplace.

Hannah Arendt called citizenship “the right to have rights.” Like any other right, it can be bestowed and withheld by those in power, but in its newer forms it can also be bought, traded, and rewritten. Virtual citizenship is a commodity that can be acquired through the purchase of real estate or financial investments, subscribed to via an online service, or assembled by peer-to-peer digital networks. And as these options become available, they’re also used, like so many technologies, to exclude those who don’t fit in.

In a world that increasingly operates online, geography and physical infrastructure still remain crucial to control and management. Undersea fiber-optic cables trace the legacy of imperial trading routes. Google and Facebook erect data centers in Scandinavia and the Pacific Northwest, close to cheap hydroelectric power and natural cooling. The trade in citizenship itself often manifests locally as architecture. From luxury apartments in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean to data centers in Europe and refugee settlements in the Middle East, a scattered geography of buildings brings a different reality into focus: one in which political decisions and national laws transform physical space into virtual territory…(More)”.