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The world comes closer together as it falls apart

People living under unjust administrations hope for an open world and membership in the global club of humanity, infusing the wilting, erstwhile European notion of global citizenship with new aspirations and purpose.

lead On November 3 the Berliner Gazette‘s Friendly Fire conference asks: Who Claims Global Citizenship? Two prolific speakers will discuss this question: the journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, whose book "The Cosmopolites" has triggered a debate about the commodification of citizenship, and the media art pioneer Ingo Günther, whose project "Refugee Republic" envisions a global network of refugee shelters. The highlight of day two of the three-day conference, this public talk will reflect on global citizenship from the points of view of both the super-rich and the underprivileged. Here, Ingo Günther reflects on the notion of against the backdrop of his longterm hands on engagement with the subject.

World citizenship is not gained by applying for a world passport, despite the availability of several schemes issuing documents that draw their purported legitimacy from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. World citizenship entails an effort, it is work, it is an emotional and intellectual task. And it is a duty and an acceptance of responsibility, even if that is not always done consciously or voluntarily.

Historians, philosophers and anthropologists have long declared that humans have the capacity to be aware that we all share the same planet. They confronted us with the attendant responsibility, as well as seduced us with exotic “a man of the world” romanticisms. An understanding of our interdependency has led to the development of the building blocks of superregional and global institutions, however slow to act or clearly inefficient these may be. A sense of global citizenship is part of this, at least as a secondary identity.

A nineteenth-century paper pocket globe may be the clearest personal manifestation of this complacent awareness. The twentieth-century illuminated globe appears to be the expression of a well-intentioned, benevolently totalitarian and modernist mindset.

On this super-simplified version of the world reduced to a scale of 1: 40 million, the size of a human head, everyone seems able to agree (at least in aesthetic terms.) The world has been turned into an anthropomorphic and abstracted representation of globality that makes it easy to grasp and quick to engage. The world as a whole is barely conceivable without this kind of Cartesian and cartographic representation. As the author of a series of more than a thousand versions of illuminated globes of such dimensions, I try to present the status of our planet in macroscopic, manageable units.

One might consider the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment as an ideological prerequisite for colonialism, and to see links between internationalism and a form of solidarity that claims to want to save the world. Heartland theorist Halford John Mackinder, (British geographer, 1861–1947) inspired the geostrategic prospects of the Axis powers (and American post WW2 Cold War ideologues). As early as 1942, Allied strategists were demonstrating their war-winning worldview of a global air and sea network to the American public. The exhibition, “Airways to Peace” was presented at NYC’s MoMA—in the form of a walk-in globe.

My earliest “Worldprocessor” globes, dating back to the days of the pre-internet Cold War, were first intended as a critical compendium of globalisation, aiming to provide a global dimension as an additional context to local and national reporting. While they were not directly accusatory, they offered data and perspectives that would enable people to register injustices and abuses.

I did not expect that during the 1990s, within barely a decade, it became necessary to redraw most of my globes. But every five years thereafter, this was the case. Now, they must be revised annually. The world is changing that fast - even at the scale of 1:40 million.

If we are to believe western media, both mass and social, then the world is in a very poor state. Humanist ideals have failed (again), and the inefficient international institutions with their cosmopolitan notions and globalist agendas have in some cases even contributed to a future apocalypse. But global data do not confirm that narrative, and in fact (still) tell a very different story – a story of gradual, continuing progress.

The daily flow of news of catastrophes large and small obscures all the long-term successes that the world has seen over the past fifty years. It has to be noted that we are at the most successful phase of development of humanity’s history, not least thanks to humanistic and cosmopolitan goals.

For example: During the past fifty years the world economy has grown fivefold. Child mortality has sunk dramatically, life expectancy has increased on average from just above fifty years to over seventy years, birth rates have dropped from 5 to 2.4, and never have fewer people died in wars than today. People’s awareness of these truly spectacular successes seems to be drowned out by ubiquitous news of catastrophes, while a satisfying review of achievements requires a somewhat brutish macroscopic perspective, and a form of emotional detachment, which even politicians struggle with.  Acknowledging these positive changes would also undermine the self-image of those who pride themselves on their criticism of the status quo, fearing they would seem to be conformist yes-men. The problems associated with rapid growth are also individually tangible in the limits of our cultural habits, which no longer seem to fit. Growing rifts inside every civilization point to the failure of culture - its analog nature cannot keep up with the digitally driven change. The data tell a success story that cannot be reconciled with any individual ethics.

In 1992, Benjamin Barber described the technology-driven dynamics of a massive shift in human identity and demographics. On the one hand, ubiquitous personal media access creates a globalised individual (MacWorld), while at the same time the decentralising, anti-hierarchic nature of networks nurtures splinter groups (such as jihadists). The world comes closer together as it falls apart.

WorldprocessorGlobalisation may have brought many great advantages, but we see a peculiar sensitivity, especially in Europe and the United States, towards the undesired side-effects of this seismic shift and consequent warping of the socioeconomic landscape. The US and Europe have already passed peak-world citizenship.

Right now, when the globalised world needs informed and aware world-citizens more than ever, it seems that believers in the nation state are again on the rise, while cosmopolitans are exhausted and in retreat. We are under the impression that global citizenship is a decaying ideology that fails to meet the tests of reality. In many parts of the world, governments are still desperately trying to establish nation state structures by force, while in other regions the  concessions to  the older nation state’s sovereignty are met with populists’ counter movements.

In the developing world, sometimes called the Global South, things look different. Particularly in states with poorly developed democratic institutions, there are sizeable segments of the population that have to survive with more or less limited rights of citizenship. This includes refugees, ethnic minorities, nomads, stateless people, illegal immigrants, seasonal migrants, and others. Eight percent of the US population are not citizens, half of these are illegal residents. In Latvia twelve percent of the population, so called nepilsoņi, who lost their Soviet citizenship overnight more than twenty years ago are still non-citizens. Officially communist China has residency laws (Hukou = residency control), that do not prohibit migration to the cities outright but nonetheless create a de-facto second-class citizen who is excluded from social benefits. In Japan there are Korean non-citizens (a third of whom have North Korean citizenship but were almost all born in Japan) and there is also an outcast group known among the Burakumin, the lowest social ranked group, who are even termed hinin (非人), non-people.

It is much more likely that from these classes of non-citizens a new generation of world citizens will emerge rather than through the expansion of classical single-state citizenship. The present refugee situation and the comparably inhuman working conditions of migrant labourers will also contribute to a new type of world citizenship. Instead of withdrawing from their potential planetary identity and blaming globalisation for their misery, the majority of people living under unjust regimes hope for an open world and membership in the global club of humanity.

According to a wide-ranging recent study, the average citizen of this world is both an aspirational world citizen, and at the same time someone who adheres to their own native and religious sources of identity.

In fact a clear majority of non-OECD states’ populations see themselves more as world citizens than as citizens of their own country. Around 17 percent of the global population sees world citizenship as the decisive identity criterion – eclipsing their nationality.

While this trend toward more global citizenship has been declining (particularly in Germany and Russia since 2009), it is in the quickly growing urban zones of Africa and Asia where a cosmopolitan identity is expanding. In countries like Nigeria, China, Peru, and India we see the strongest desire for an internationalist identity. Conversely, nationality is also named as a decisive criterion of identity. Here wishful thinking, protest and realism may clash conceptually but illustrate the contradictory nature of identity concepts. The potential for and openness towards global citizenship is clearly on the rise in the non-western world, indicating a more hopeful scenario than that which is prompting OECD citizens to retreat to national nativism.

Since the 1990s, state-like projects have been arising all over the world, adaptive zones that wish to allow easy interaction with the system of planetary trade. These special economic zones (SEZs) also bear a still unredeemed potential as experimental fields for new forms of social contract, while they are supposed to also protect local citizens from too much otherness and alienation. Networking these extra-territorial global zones is conceivable, akin to the global networks of refugee camps - an idea I laid out in 1994 in my paper on the chances of a Refugee Republic.

The risky attempt to step beyond one's own cultural and instinctively drawn borders, to recognize and make good use of the added value inherent in the heterogeneity of people, notwithstanding all the inherent contradictions and conflicts, is still an ongoing project, the protagonists of which no longer come from Europe.

The indicators are thus not all that bad for the Global Citizen 3.0 in the next fifty years. All of this could develop critical mass in the very near future[1]

Refugee Republic passport


[1]… especially when humanity comes to define itself as “trans-human” as a result of rapid biotechnological enhanced evolutionary optimization.

Matias Jaramillo passport jacket design (1990 - 2006) provides a protective (both figuratively + real) and enhancing layer for any “pre-existing” nationality, preserving the original passport’s validity. With the author's permission, Ingo took this concept to create a passport cover for the Refugee Republic.

About the author

Ingo Günther grew up in Germany, studying Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at Frankfurt University (1977) and sculpture and media at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Early sculptural media works and journalistic projects were pursued in TV, print, and the art field. He played a pioneering and crucial role in the evaluation and interpretation of satellite data for internationally print media and TV news. From the 1990s he worked as artist, correspondent and author for German and Japanese news media. In 1989 he started the Worldprocessor project and founded the first independent TV station in Eastern Europe (Channel X, Leipzig). Research in Cambodian, Burmese and Laotian refugee camps inspired the Refugee Republic project (since 1992). After becoming a founding professor at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne in 1990, he was professor for media economics at Zurich University of the Arts and visiting professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts and most recently at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. Ingo Günther is a frequent contributor to Foresight magazine, Tokyo. He maintains an office in New York.

Read On

The talk will take place at ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics (Siemensstraße 27, Berlin-Moabit) on Friday, November 3 at 7:30 p.m. and it will be moderated by Harsha Walia, a Vancouver-based activist, who is co-initiator of No One Is Illegal Vancouver and the author of "Undoing Border Imperialism" (2013).

More On

The talk took place at ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics (Siemensstraße 27, Berlin-Moabit) on Friday, November 3 at 7:30 p.m., and was moderated by Harsha Walia, a Vancouver-based activist, who is co-initiator of No One Is Illegal Vancouver and the author of "Undoing Border Imperialism" (2013).


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