Statelessness, Technology, and the Growing Gap Between Individuals and Reality (Working Excerpt)


Article 1(1) of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines statelessness as a person “who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law” (United Nations 1954:3). Hannah Arendt describes two significant harms stateless individuals must contend with. The first relates to the legal or political nature of the deprivation where individuals become rightless as a consequence of not belonging to an internationally recognized political community (Hayden 2008:254; Parekh 2014:650). The second harm emerges from ontological gaps which reduce stateless persons to “bare life” abandoned by the common realm of humanity (Parekh 2014:646). 

Politically, Arendt argues that being without the protection of domestic laws, it became impossible for other jurisdictions to engage with an individual as a legal subject (Parekh 2014:650). In other words, without national rights conferred by citizenship and the political institutions and communities which guarantee those rights, no international body would be willing to protect them (Arendt 1985:292; Parekh 2014:650). Although progress has been made since 1948 in addressing the legal deprivations described by Arendt, current legal protections have been described by some scholars as “at best precarious and at worst non-existent” (ibid).

Ontologically, Arendt describes three dimensions to statelessness: “the loss of identify and reduction to bare life; the expulsion from common humanity and an inability to speak and act meaningfully; and lastly, the loss of agency understood not as subjective disposition, but an ability to have your “words and actions be recognized as meaningful and politically relevant” (Parekh 2014:651). The loss of identity for Arendt entails the deprivation of one’s former identity and its replacement depriving an individual of a “clearly established, officially recognized identity” such as that of a doctor or teacher (Arendt 1985:287). Although stateless people lose their former identity, a new one takes its place where the individual is instead defined by their exclusion. That is to say, their identity is defined through their exclusion where their relationship with others is characterized by their dependence and vulnerability towards those fulfilling their material needs (Hayden 2008:263). (Parekh 2014:654)

For Arendt, ontological deprivation is significant not because it becomes impossible for stateless individuals to speak but because the intersubjective nature of both speech and action necessitates the presence and recognition of others (Hayden 2008:256-7). The impossibility Arendt speaks of, the gap between the ability to speak and being recognized, has only grown since the publication of her works as a result of the informatization of our social environments (Floridi 2014:43). Although technologies have long occupied a space between humans and the natural world, an unprecedented delegation of responsibilities from individuals to the products of technological development has grown while rendering increasingly opaque the gap which exists between speaking and being recognized by others.

Technologies occupying the space between humans and the natural world can be classified into three distinct groups of first, second, and third-order technologies. First-order technologies represent those which an individual uses to interact directly with the natural world like a person using an axe to fell a tree. A second-order technology binds the user of a particular technology to another technology. For example, a hammer used to drive a nail into a piece of wood links the user to the hammer, to a separate technology which in our example is a nail and finally to the piece of wood. Third-order technologies relate technologies to one another without a person being involved. In this scenario, technology has become the user of technology, displacing humans. (Floridi 2014:25-30)

Removing individuals from this process renders technology and its inner workings opaque to all but those involved in its creation and upkeep (Carr 2014:164). However, the increasingly complex technologies working towards reproducing intelligent human behavior push humans further to the peripheries as our environments are tailored to suit complex artificially intelligent  systems (Floridi 2014:143). Becoming progressively dependent on complex third-order technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) reshapes social and environmental relations which both expand and obscure the gaps between the speaker and recognition (Zuboff 2019:446). Extending this process sees members of a common political group drift further apart contributing to the dissolution of the social bonds which were once a source of strength for the group. The dissolution of a political community reduces its members to “bare bodies” as described by Arendt, who lack the political clout to meaningfully defend and promote their interests. 

The interests of governments, corporations, and social groups can further distance individuals from the world they engage with. In the case of governments, ensuring its citizens have at their disposal a comprehensive and secure set of ICTs enabling meaningful participation within domestic social, economic, and political spheres is a prerequisite for participation in broader global communities (Shandler and Canetti 2019:82). As the necessity and importance of transnational relationships become more important in mitigating global risks, individuals without political membership will find themselves driven towards the ontological gaps described by Arendt (Beck 1992:36). Without the ability to speak and be recognized, it becomes more difficult if not impossible to navigate an increasingly complex web of domestic and international interests pushing them inexorably towards statelessness. 

The borders which once bound nations to are being redrawn. The multiplication of transnational relationships and the globalized risks they hope to address necessitate a cooperative cosmopolitan response (Beck 1992:47; Tambo and Adama 2017:133). Arendt describes the tension existing between domestic and emerging global risks stating the process which replaced the family and its property with class membership and national territory will ultimately see class membership and national territory supplanted by humanity and the whole of earth (Arendt 1998:257). In other words, individuals will be challenged simultaneously satisfy the demands placed on them as citizens of a country and as citizens of the world. Fulfilling simultaneously these two competing demands without the benefit of ICTs  appears unlikely (Arendt 1998:257). Without the support of a recognized political community and the ICT infrastructure enabling their participation as global citizens, stateless persons find themselves without rights, disavowed from ‘mankind as a whole’ where their identity is defined by their exclusion and not their substance (Parekh 2014:650). (ibid:654)

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