Rafael Capurro


Keynote "Citizenship in the Digital Age" at the Information Ethics Roundtable 2014: organized by the School of Library & Information Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton (Alberta), April 24-26, 2014. In: Toni Samek and Lynette Schultz (eds.): Information Ethics, Globalization and Citizenship. Essays on Ideas to Praxis.. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2017, 11-30.
See the review by
Geoffrey Rockwell. See also the papers published in the Journal of Information Ethics (Spring 2016).


Who are we as citizens in the digital age? This question concerns what is being called netizens or digital citizens, i.e., persons involved in all kinds of activities utilizing the internet, particularly social media, for private or public purposes. But what does citizenship in this context mean? Who is addressed when we (who?) ask this question? Is it the citizen of democratic states? The concept of citizenship has changed throughout the ages but it seems to be intrinsically related to the physical world. What is the difference between being a citizen in the physical world and in the cyberworld? Cyberworld means “an (electromagnetic) medium for the movement of digital beings (bit-strings) in which we human beings participate and through which we also steer, either directly, or indirectly through automatically executable digital code." (Eldred 2012) 

    It is not just a technical medium – and as such it belongs also to the physical world – but as far as we are related to it, it is a way of our being-in-the-world, i.e. it is an existential phenomenon concerning who and not only what we are as human beings. This brave new cyberworld includes phenomena such as social media, hacktivism, cybersex, online gaming, Bitcoin finance, Ebay, Skyping etc.   A new civilization emerges that needs a fresh intercultural dialogue that should not be steered, as the word cyber suggests, by old or new global players, but allowing more information and communication freedom and letting people to control themselves. This letting thinking free is at the core of a future intercultural information ethics that takes seriously the messages coming from others in a heteronomic digital environment. How far can we (who?) go beyond the institutional, legal and moral paradigms that steer our present physical world? It seems that we (who?) need a new kind of thinking for a future being-in-the-(digital)-world.

    The question: ‘Who are we as citizens in the digital age?’ addresses the following issues: firstly, ‘Who are we as citizens in the cyberworld? Secondly, is the concept of citizenship – which one? – translatable from the physical world to the cyberworld?  Are we as citizens of the cyberworld only concerned as far as we interact digitally within it with other human (and non-human?) agents? What is the relationship between citizenship in the physical world and in the cyberworld? Thirdly, what is the meaning of the concept of global citizenship or cosmopolitanism before and after the rise of the cyberworld?

    The aim of this paper is to answer these questions starting with a brief overview on Greek and Roman concepts of cosmopolitanism. The second part is devoted to the concept of world citizenship in Kant as an example of a modern concept of citizenship that still pervades our thinking and political reality particularly in Western countries. The last part deals with the global citizenship in the digital age.

On Greek and Roman Concepts of Cosmopolitanism

The cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (ca. 404-323 BC), once asked where he came from, answered: "[I am] a citizen of the world (kosmopolites)" (Diogenes, 1853, Section 6 para. 33). he was apparently the first Wetern philosopher to have understood himself uding this neologism. Although nothing from his writing remained, Diogenes is well known for challenging established behavioral codes with his teaching and his lifestyle. He was the son of a money-changer and, as Diogenes Laertius reports, he was banished with his father for seemingly adulterating public money. He probably misunderstood the oracle of Delos who told him that he might change the political customs (politikón nómisma). The word nomisma also means coin. As custom since the time of Cleisthenes (ca. 570 BC), one's identity was based on the place in which one was born. The Romans called jus soli this notion of citizenship, in contrast to jus sanguinis of right of blood, based on the family or tribeone belonged to. Diogenes breaks with Cleisthenes' concept of citizenship and creates a new term whereby the concept of city (pólis is related to the universe (kósmos) . The kósmos is the true original pólis as the birthplace of everybody. The laws (nomos) and customs (ethos) of the pólis are secondary with regard tothe laws of the kósmos. This  does not necessarily mean that he is advocating for some kind of world polis-state. It would be, at least, the opposite of his lifestyle. He understands himself as a cosmos being instead of being subject to a political order.

On Kantian World Citizenship

Kant develops the ideas on this matter in the opusculum "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch" ("Zum ewigen Frieden: ein philosophischer Entwurf"). According to Kant (n.d.b), perpetual peace can only be achieved if the following "articles" are realized: firstly, if the civil constitution of all states is a republican one; secondly, if the "law of nations" (Section 2 para. 7) is founded on a federation of free states; and thirdly, if "the law of world citizenship" is "limited to conditions of universal hospitality" (Section 2 para. 15). Kant is aware that the situation in his time is far away from this goal.

Citizenship in the Digital Age

Habermas criticized Kant's dual system of world citizenship vs. nation states from the perspective of two hundred years (Habermas, 1995). With regard to communicational citizenship, Kant, according to Habermas, could not foresee the "structural change" of a transparent public sphere of literary educated, rational, bourgeois citizens ("bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit") into a public sphere "dominated by semantically degenerated, full of images and virtual realities of electronic mass media."If Kant could not foresee mass media, Habermas was not able to see the impact of the Internet and the structural change of the public sphere that was already happening as he wrote this essay.


Being-in-the-cyberworld is no less fagile that being-in-the-world, sharing a common earth and being responsible for each other. What is at stake with regard to the issue of privacy in the digital age is no more and no less than the question of freedom at a local and global level (Capurro et al. 2013). Following Aristotle's dictum "being said in many ways", the concept of citizenship is general and of global and digital citizenship in particular is no less ambiguous. Cosmopolitanism as world citizenszip has been a "combat term" ("Kampfbegriff") for different schools of thought (Zons, 2000), with ambivalent connotations until today. The reason for this ambivalence lies in the tension between the historical situation and physical embodiment of human existence on the one hand, and its openness to the common world sharing a common earth on the other hand. This ambivalence emerges in the cyberworld with new forms of polarization between new authentic forms of being-together across, and beyond, physical boundaries and their cuostomary, legal fixations and inauthentic ones where human freedom almost disapperas, being instrumentalized for political or economic interests. The result is not always som kind of fragile freedom in the cyberworld but different kinds of cyber warfare.

Some digital citizens might follow Diogenes, others will prefer Chrysippus: both provide fresh insights into the task of keeping alive the tension between the physical and the digital world. A phenomenology of messages and messengers as awareness of the hidden positive and negative dimensions of being-in-the-(cyber)-world opens paths of thinking for present and coming message societies where global and local citizenships are intertwined and the abyssal dimensions of freedom and liberty do nt become invisible under the digital veil. Eventually, we do not live in two separate worlds. this distinction would be misunderstood as a new kind of platonism. We live in one common world shaped more and mor, by digital technology.

Last update: June 12, 2017


Copyright © 2016 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author..

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