In my experience, an unforeseen day off work is often a cause for rejoicing. However, on Monday, my main feelings were of exasperation. Pleased with myself, having made an early start, I cycled across town in good time. Upon reaching the hallowed main campus of ÖU (Örebro University), I noticed there were few people around. Smugly, I assumed that I was ahead of the crowd of a Monday morning. However, upon reaching my building’s entrance, I discovered the door locked and a note explaining that a ‘threat’ had been made against the university. This threat, in consultation with the police, was considered serious enough for all of ÖU’s campuses to close1. The decision to close the university was communicated by email to staff and students late on Sunday evening and a message posted on the university website (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 The information I had missed.
My exasperation was born of several realisations. On a simple level, there were the realisations that my journey had been for naught and that my hoped-for productive day would be curtailed (my computer was the other side of the locked door). More abstractly, I realised that, once again, my choice not to own a smartphone meant I had missed information that basically all my colleagues and most of ÖU’s students had received and acted upon. In this case, the failure to access information had, in theory, placed me at a greater risk of becoming a victim of whatever the threat was.
The continued growing importance of ubiquitous online-connectivity is a fairly obvious trend in contemporary society. For better or worse, businesses and government departments are organising their activities on the assumption that customers and service-users are going to be accessing them through the internet, often while they’re out and about. Infrastructure now extends to both physical and digital domains; the so-called ‘smart city’ is increasingly a fact of life for many around the world2. In Sweden, I’m most often confronted by this when I try to use public transport in a new city: it’s often difficult and expensive to buy single tickets on busses (indeed, it’s usually impossible to do so with cash). The expectation is that passengers will download an ‘app’3 which will allow them to purchase tickets. Generally, the only alternative (if one wants a cheaper fare) is to purchase a travel card which one tops up at shops.
I often think of these changes in terms of citizenship. By ‘citizenship’ I am thinking in ‘Marshallian’ terms of “citizenship as social rights” (Isin and Turner 2007:5). Simplifying, citizenship is a rights-bearing status based on a person’s attributes and practices. To qualify for citizenship and to access the rights this entails, would-be citizens must match required criteria. Within certain academic traditions this is termed ‘normative’. In essence, to be a citizen implies that one embodies the norms that citizenship is predicated upon. These normative criteria vary in time and space and involve both formal and informal criteria. Implicit or explicit normative criteria have been recorded at the heart of numerous inequalities in diverse societies. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, in the UK, citizenship is generally predicated upon participation in paid employment. This manifests at an official level (how receipt of state benefits is partly dependent on one’s previous employment) and at an interpersonal level (stigma towards those receiving benefits). One consequence of this is that the contribution ‘carers’ (those who spend considerable time looking after sick friends or relatives without pay) make to society is often unrecognised and little support offered (Singleton and Fry 2015). In our paper, we concluded that carers are ‘partial citizens’, a category that has also been applied to several groups who fail to fulfil normative criteria of citizenship in different parts of the world (Parreñas 2001, Daley 2006).
It is thus possible to frame my failure to receive warning of the threat to ÖU in terms of partial citizenship. Citizenship in contemporary Swedish society entails a digital component: the full citizen is also increasingly a ‘smart citizen’, assumed to be near-constantly connected to digital media (alongside traditional local and national news sources). By contrast, those who are not connected are increasingly silenced, struck dumb. I believe that we ‘dumb citizens’ are often partial citizens – it is increasingly difficult to access services that no longer have a physical location and news is increasingly broadcast on digital platforms. I don’t expect much sympathy4, in my case, the phone I use and the media I access reflect personal choices5. I was however mildly perturbed that ÖU took very limited measures (a sign on the door) to ensure that those who are not smart citizens were informed of a possibly severe threat to their safety, leaving it to local and national news outlets6. I had just naively always assumed that a university-managed chain of communication existed outside of the internet for transmitting urgent information. This is but a small example of the digital divides separating the smart and dumb citizenries of our societies. These divides have repercussions for the level of risks different groups of people are exposed to. As the smart city grows, it’s perhaps worth thinking about who can and cannot become a citizen and who decides who is exposed to different risks. As for this dumb citizen, perhaps I need to just get a bit smarter and remember to turn the radio on.
- By Benedict Singleton
1 According to the local news, a 15-year-old woman made the threat and tried to retract it, she revealed this to her mother, who informed the police. Unfortunately, this information was not communicated in time to retract the decision to close ÖU.
2 I realise that I’m heavily simplifying the large amount of academic scholarship on smart cities (see White 2015) for a review.
3 Having never knowingly used one, I’m a little unsure of what an ‘app’ actually is.
4 Although this lack of sympathy is in itself interesting, if beyond the scope of this blog. I find it notable how often I am gently mocked by friends when I take my primitive phone out.
5 A choice born of a combination of disinterest in technology, apathy and dislike of the requirement for constant connectivity. I’m a luddite, basically.
6 This threat has also highlighted that ÖU assumes its employees check their work email/the ÖU website late Sunday evening/early Monday morning, or can comfortably understand Swedish language media.
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