Volume 95, No. 4, Summer 2023
By Nanjala Nyabola [PDF]

For this article in Swahili

The idea of a “sovereign identity crisis in the digital age” contains many contested ideas—sovereignty, identity, and even the digital age. Yet it is evident that some form of crisis uniting all of these themes is underway. There are several challenges to the presumed holder of sovereign power—the state—in the form of protest, conflict, and population movements, many of which are coordinated on and amplified by digital technologies. The demands on multilateral systems to resolve interstate contestation around digital technologies, including through taxation, manufacturing, nationalization, and more are pervasive. All forms of identity are made through the application of digital identity systems, including citizenship, gender, and ethnicity. There is certainly a great deal of transformation underway, and the task is to define the crisis in such a way that illuminates a meaningful program of action and forward momentum for humanity.

The fundamental promise of the digital age was that improvements to transportation and communication could bring individuals and societies closer together. Instead, the twenty-first century represents a heighted moment of fragmentation that is at tension with the equally evident signs of progress across all levels of social organization. People, societies, and systems are connected more than ever, but many are experiencing a fragmented digital space. For instance, the vast majority of people in the world experience the internet in translation and abstraction. This is because the internet assumes its average user is an English-speaking, well-educated man with so much political power in the offline world that the circumscription of their digital rights online is only a minor violation of their general rights context. The assumption is evident in the sheer volume of digital technology that is exclusively available in English, the ways in which the rights of women are routinely undermined online, and the failure by major technology companies to prioritize a rights-forward approach to building technology. Couldry and Mejias argue that extractivism is at the core of the current model of technological innovation and development, and that it legitimizes claims of digital colonialism. The point of colonialism, after all, was to turn certain parts of the world, and the people who lived or were from there, into sites for the extraction of raw materials for the benefit of other parts of the world. It is not just about the appropriation of data but the external appropriation of data “on terms that are partly or wholly beyond the control of the person to whom the data relates.”

As such, this Essay argues that the most suitable theoretical framework for engaging with the sovereign identity crisis without compounding the alienation that the digital age already engenders in broad swathes of the world is a decolonial one. Looking beyond the flattened ideas of sovereignty that inadequately acknowledge the disparities of power between various data subjects in various societies, the Essay examines a site at which power disparities are at their widest and starkest—the border. It argues that carceral border politics are a manifestation of expanding sovereign power over particularly vulnerable populations, but also sets the state practicing them on a collision course with entrenched ideas of statehood and international cooperation. In this way, by using the border as both an example and the key site for understanding the sovereign identity crisis, this Essay argues that a decolonial approach to understanding digital technology is necessary to address the ongoing and impending harms triggered by the crisis.