How Science Fiction Plays With Citizenship

Very useful tour around how science-fiction writers have imagined "the citizen of the future". This is taken from the Citizens of Everywhere project at the University of Liverpool (some great features here). An excerpt:

Some authors are more overt about the ways in which the concept of citizenship can itself be redefined. In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead – the sequel to his famous Ender’s Game – he introduces the Hierarchy of Exclusion, a framework that determines how “foreign” other nations, planetary populations, and species are. The Hierarchy of Exclusion codifies the ways in which categories of “us” and “them” are decided, and as one of his (alien) characters comes to realise, “the tribe is whatever we believe it is”. 

Another recent example is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which underscores what happens when any particular racial or cultural imperative, whether a notion of “the human” or being born within a particular caste, comes to stand as a measure of citizenship. In her novel, she equates the struggle of a colony planet seeking independence from the empire with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) seeking to obtain its own legal identity. Both cases revolve around notions of citizenship, which Leckie rather cannily reframes in terms of “Significant Beings”.

Some authors are more overt about the ways in which the concept of citizenship can itself be redefined. In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead – the sequel to his famous Ender’s Game – he introduces the Hierarchy of Exclusion, a framework that determines how “foreign” other nations, planetary populations, and species are. The Hierarchy of Exclusion codifies the ways in which categories of “us” and “them” are decided, and as one of his (alien) characters comes to realise, “the tribe is whatever we believe it is”. 

Another recent example is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which underscores what happens when any particular racial or cultural imperative, whether a notion of “the human” or being born within a particular caste, comes to stand as a measure of citizenship. In her novel, she equates the struggle of a colony planet seeking independence from the empire with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) seeking to obtain its own legal identity. Both cases revolve around notions of citizenship, which Leckie rather cannily reframes in terms of “Significant Beings”.

Given Leckie’s narrative of AI rights, recent proposals for European legislation to reconsider the legal status of robots seem strangely relevant, even if truly autonomous machines do not exist yet. While much of the draft report is concerned with legal liability, section 32f looks to the future: 

The most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations. 

As The Independent reported, this implies that a robot could be legally a citizen. Yet in the same report, the committee advocates that designers include “opt-out mechanisms (kill switches)”. This creates a potential situation where an “electronic person” could be programmed with a kill switch – surely a somewhat self-contradictory gift of citizenship?