Bits and Atoms: Limited Statehood and Digital Technology

Steven Livingston, a Professor of Media and Public Affairs and International Affairs at George Washington University, discusses his upcoming book Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood. Livingston will be giving a lunchtime talk about Bits and Atoms on Monday December 9, 2013 at 1:00pm in Annenberg Room 500.

Much of the development, governance and more general international affairs literatures speak of failed or fragile states when describing a breakdown of governance capacity.[1] In Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood Gregor Walter-Drop of the Freie UniversitätBerlin and I use a different formulation.  We provide a more nuanced conceptual foundation for thinking about the nature of statehood and how digital technologies might serve to ameliorate the effects of what we call limited statehood.

Following Max Weber, statehood is characterized by a monopoly on the means of violence, the ability to make and impose binding rules, and by the effective provisioning of public goods.  An area of limited statehood is defined by the absence of some or all of these qualities. As Thomas Risse and his colleagues have argued, limited statehood has at least three manifestations.  It can be territorial, limited to a particular geographical space within the larger context of the sovereign borders of an otherwise consolidated state.  The urban slums of Nairobi, Lagos, or Rio are territorial areas of limited statehood, confined spaces where basic public goods – clear water, sanitation, security, and infrastructure such as roads and sidewalks — are missing.  Limited statehood can also be sectoral, limited to specific policy areas where the governance capacity of the state falls short.  And it can be temporal, where an otherwise fully consolidated state suffers a temporary loss of governance capacity.

Disasters in this respect constitute a governance stress test, measuring the governance capacity of state institutions.  When Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines in November, destroying everything in its path, the Philippines government was overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge found in restoring order and providing for basic public services.  In much the same way, the Japanese government was overwhelmed by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The tsunami added to the burden when it caused level 7+ meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans fits this category “in the sense that U.S. authorities were unable to enforce decisions and to uphold the monopoly over the means of violence for a short period of time.”[2]  These examples make clear that even fully consolidated states such as Japan and the United States can experience periods of limited statehood.

Understood in this way, about two-thirds of the world’s population lives in or is exposed in some way to an area of limited statehood.[3] Yet limited statehood, so understood, does not translate into the absence of governance capacity. Governance, both historically and contemporarily, has been provided by nonstate structures or other governance modalities.  There are at least three governance modalities. There is governance by government, the state-centric governance modality found where states are consolidated; governance with government involves cooperative networks of public and private partnerships; and governance without government, where nonstate actors and community groups are self-regulating and provide for public goods.[4]

This latter category is of particular interest to the contributors to Bits and Atoms.  Where states are limited or altogether absent, can digitally enabled collective action serve as a part of an alternative governance modality?  By taking advantage of the lower communication costs associated with nearly ubiquitous mobile telephony, even in most urban and even rural locations in Africa and South Asia, NGOs and community groups are able to organize collective responses to shared needs.  Rather than through hierarchical organizational structures (such as states), digitally enabled collective action uses various information and communication technologies in the pursuit of collective goods. Bits and Atoms considers the role of digital technology in governance by limited states and by alternative governance modalities.  Gregory Asmolov, for example, looks at the way an open source digital map (Russia Help Map) was used by affected publics in their self-organized response to the 2010 wildfires.  While the Russian state served up palliative half-measures in response to its inability to mount an effective response to the fires, citizens mobilized and coordinated their efforts using the Russia Help Map platform.  Primož Kovačič and Jamie Lundine of Spatial Collective, a social enterprise working with technology in the provision of collective goods in Mathare, a Nairobi slum, look to slum community mobilization around technological platforms.  Inspired in part by Amartya Sen’s arguments about the importance of accountability for good governance, Joseph Siegle of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies examines how nonstate actors leverage information and communication technologies to hold states more accountable.  And Patrick Meier, Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute, describes the power of crowdsourcing on mobile platforms as a means of coordination in areas of limited statehood, whether they are defined in territorial terms, such as in slums, or temporally, such as in a disaster zone. In each of these cases, digital technology plays a role in facilitating collective action initiatives that fill some of the gap created by a form of limited statehood.

[1] Robert I. Rotberg, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
[2] Thomas Risse (ed.), Governance Without a State?: Politics and Policies in Areas of Limited Statehood. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012). p. 5.
[3] Risse, p. 6.
[4] Risse, p. 9

Leave a Reply