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Editor: J. Britt Holbrook
Date: 2015
Ethics, Science, Technology, and Engineering: A Global Resource
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 368


Citizenship is the status of being a legally recognized member of a country, state, city, or other political unit. This typically entitles one to apply for a passport, to vote, and to obtain governmental services such as old-age pensions. Citizenship also entails public responsibilities, including jury duty and in some countries, such as Israel, mandatory service in the military. Yet this seemingly straightforward term turns out to raise profound ethical challenges for science and technology.

Beginning to Think about Citizenship

Idealized visions of democracy depict citizens as attentive to public issues and influentially involved even between elections. Actually, a majority of the public knows little about most issues. Nevertheless, there is a small attentive public, and they do join environmental organizations, communicate with government officials, work as volunteers, and otherwise assume responsibility for public affairs. Political activists and their supporters helped get phthalates and lead removed from baby toys, garnered increased funding for medical research and treatment for HIV/AIDS, and pushed through European restrictions on genetically modified foods. These examples of influence are exceptions, however: The prevailing “rule” is that citizens may vote (or not), and then they pretty much bow out of governmental decision making.

Government officials, of course, care about what citizens think in democracies because there always is an eye on the next election. The implications are different from what is ordinarily supposed, however, for officeholders pay attention to likely supporters, not to “the public”: Republicans are not interested in liberal Democrats, and the German Green Party is only for ardent environmentalists. When one party has a sufficient majority to govern, citizens who oppose that party may be ignored; yet when negotiation is required to build a working majority, stalemate is as likely as effective compromise.

This inevitable shortcoming is magnified when citizens help “teach” elected officials not to solve public problems. For example, energy analysts argue for raising taxes on high-carbon fuels such as coal and gasoline in order to cut energy use; the funds also would pay for climate warming research and mitigation. Most other problem solving likewise requires new funding or other controversial actions. So legislators who want to win reelection tend to avoid antagonizing supporters, often making pleasing speeches instead of making tough choices. The electoral incentive, which is at the heart of most conceptions of democratic citizenship, thus turns out to have certain perverse effects.

There also has been a marked weakening in what it means to be a citizen. Elks Clubs, labor unions, bowling leagues, churches, local political party organizations, and other public activities once garnered heavy participation, but many people have pulled back to focus on work, home, and a handful of friendships. Numerous factors have contributed to this trend, but near the top of the list are new technologies encouraging individuation—including air-conditioning, cell phones and electronic entertainment, shopping malls, and low-density suburbs. A general sense of life being pressured has become widespread, and time seems in short supply thanks to a burgeoning diversity of technologically enabled opportunities overwhelming the finite number of waking hours.

Technologies also have helped undermine the value of citizen action. Most political campaigns now use television advertising more than face-to-face communication. Environmental organizations, Doctors Without Borders, and myriad others rely on sophisticated direct mailings to target potential donors by zip code. The cost of robocalling has plummeted. And organizations can reach members and potential members via websites and social media. Hence, professionally run advocacy and lobbying has largely displaced ordinary people from direct involvement in substantial chunks of public life.

Citizenship Inequalities

In the city-state of ancient Athens, where Western democracy originated, citizenship was strictly limited. Females, slaves, foreign inhabitants, and persons not descended from Athenians were excluded. Being a member of the demos, who participated directly in public debates and governmental choices, thus was reserved for a minority of the adult population. When democracy was reinvented on the scale of the nation-state in the United States and western Europe, only property-owning white males had full rights to citizenship. Even in the twentyfirst century, women remain underrepresented in political life. There is ongoing discrimination in parts of the Arab world and in other areas where cosmopolitanism and democracy are new, weak, or nonexistent. But men predominate as officeholders even in countries regarded as enlightened and democratic, such as the United States, Japan, and many European nations.

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Ethnic minorities and members of lower socioeconomic classes likewise remain disadvantaged politically, with many shunted into types of education and careers that do not teach public speaking, writing, web-based research, or other civic participation skills. Negative race and gender images undermine many African American women’s empowerment as citizens, and their unique political issues tend to be marginalized (Harris-Perry 2011 ). Yet black families have suffered disproportionately from the job opportunities lost in the decline of US manufacturing—more than 6 million having evaporated thus far in the twenty-first century—partly as a result of automation and other productivity gains, in addition to offshoring enabled by containerized shipping and global telecommunications. As Theodore Roosevelt put it in a 1910 speech (after the end of his US presidency), “No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living”—and allowing technological change to disadvantage have-nots arguably is among the premier ethical deficits of the current era.

Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition Immigrants become American citizens during a naturalization ceremony, New York City, 2013. In participatory democracies, citizens can influence the direction of policy through free and open forms of public inquiry, advocacy, deliberation, and dissent. JOHN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES.

Meanwhile, the affluent and well educated participate at high rates, donate money to candidates, express opinions, and exercise influence (Schlozman, Verba, and Brady 2012 ). Intangible factors redouble their advantages: to be an effective citizen, one needs a sense of personal efficacy, a belief that actions can make a difference. Those who have not had positive early experiences are less likely to believe they can be effective in the future. Overall, then, despite formal guarantees of equal citizenship, marked inequalities remain in actual practice.

New Citizenship Problematics

Citizenship in the twenty-first century is being challenged, most obviously, by the erosion of national sovereignty resulting from globalization. With what governmental unit ought one to identify—the city of Paris, the nation of France, the European Union, or humanity most generally? Advocates for “cosmopolitan democracy” envision a form of citizenship not based on national identity or geographic location, recognizing the “dignity of all individuals, irrespective of their place of birth” (Warf 2012 , 272). Such transnational citizenship seems increasingly sensible, yet institutions enabling it are close to nonexistent. That mismatch is especially problematic around technological innovation, which occurs primarily in affluent nations— meaning that the majority of humanity who reside elsewhere in some respects are subjects rather than citizens of contemporary civilization.

But they are not alone in that. Even citizens of a technological powerhouse such as Germany have little say over technoscience, such as how rapidly to develop synthetic life, lethal autonomous robots, or life extension for the affluent. Research scientists and engineers pursue whatever discoveries and technical potentials they can; business executives decide which new products to develop and commercialize; other businesses, governments, and consumers purchase (or not) the innovations. There rarely is public deliberation or decision making over the pace or direction of particular technological trajectories, the entire set of innovations, or the processes by which decisions are being made.

Citizens are further marginalized in the workplace. Most businesses operate hierarchically, with authority flowing toward upper management. Middle managers and employees typically exert little influence over whether technological innovations are used to make jobs more interesting or to displace and down-skill those affected. Nor do workers debate whether to reduce the toxicity of the company’s products, whether to adopt energy-saving production methods, or what hours the business will be open. Successful demonstrations of workplace democracy in Spain, in the former Yugoslavia, and to a lesser extent in Scandinavia have not been widely emulated. Employees thus deprived of participatory experiences on the job may learn a more general lesson: do not expect to be full citizens whose opinions are valued and influential.

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To the extent that ordinary people do participate in economic-technological choices, it is largely via consumer purchasing, sometimes called “market voting.” For example, consumers have purchased products using some 80,000 chemicals, of which perhaps 1 percent have been fully tested toxicologically. Buyers thereby unintentionally “voted” to distribute endocrine-disrupting compounds throughout the biosphere, as when wind currents carry toxics released from microwave popcorn bags to be ingested by polar bears in the Arctic. Likewise, new US homes grew from 800 to nearly 2,300 square feet in the last half of the twentieth century, affecting energy usage, environmental despoliation, and even the level of envy. Chemists developed the synthetic chemicals and developers built McMansions in the suburbs, but neither could have done so without willing buyers. More generally, a high-consumption lifestyle is gradually spreading worldwide, thanks to Hollywood-generated images of the good life coupled with enthusiastic new purchasers.

Consumer-citizens thus are definitely influential, but their choices typically are ill informed with regard to broader public consequences. For all the shortcomings of traditional democracies, the electoral-governmental realm at least has competing parties, campaigns, interest groups, media coverage, and other forms of public inquiry, advocacy, deliberation, and dissent. Consumer-citizens enjoy none of these advantages, rarely hearing informed, conflicting views about the public consequences of the products they are considering for purchase.

Differences in Citizenship

What it means to be a citizen obviously varies significantly among political systems, with Denmark and North Korea at opposite ends of the spectrum; and the meaning varies as well within a single political system. Because legislation requires compromise, people with moderate views get their way much more often than do those whose opinions are outside the mainstream, a non trivial fact disguised by terms such as the public. Likewise, usually advantaged are members of dominant ethnic/religious groups, and supporters of business tend to prevail over those who favor workers, consumers, and the unemployed.

Children and teenagers barely register in political life, even though they are the future. Political identities develop during adolescence (Flanagan 2013 ), and becoming an active citizen is improbable without the opportunity and stimulus to practice requisite skills. Yet in technological societies young people have been sidelined from productive work and tracked into educational institutions where they have little say in decisions about the curriculum, teacher evaluations, the metrics by which students are evaluated, or any other important issues. Outside school, they of course do learn to be consumers.

Exercising even less influence are the unborn. Both politics and economics focus on near-term issues that affect the living, while slighting the longer term. This seems entirely natural. On reflection, however, barring worldwide catastrophe, it is apparent that the number of people who will live in the future vastly exceeds those alive in the present. In a sense, therefore, the majority of humanity is deprived of an opportunity to help choose technologies and otherwise craft their world. Developing ways to represent future citizens is possibly one of the most important tasks facing political thinkers.

Another difficulty confronting citizenship is that technical knowledge is increasingly required for informed discussion. When a US congressional committee considered tax credits to help professional cleaners switch away from the dangerous solvent perchloroethylene, not a single citizen or public interest group wrote, phoned, or visited—because hardly anyone understood the problem of toxic air pollution. Technologists do not themselves control governments, of course, but the nature of the issues they have helped construct necessarily complexifies matters and thereby effectively restricts participation.

An especially subtle way this occurs is that technoscientists and their allies in business have half-wittingly accelerated innovation to a pace that government regulators, interest groups, and the attentive public cannot match. Roboticists, developers of esoteric weapons, biomedical researchers, nanotechnologists, and others are small cogs in a juggernaut fundamentally altering everyday life. If representative processes do not apply to technologists— most of whom are upper-middle-class males from the European Union, Japan, and the United States—and if there is insufficient time or space for deliberation, what meaning can contemporary citizenship have?

Implications and Future Prospects

Of the obstacles and challenges to meaningful technological citizenship, one of the most overlooked is the simple fact that technoscientists typically proceed without obtaining humanity’s informed consent. If humanity is to gain better control over the pace and direction of technological innovation, it probably is essential to develop some form of Internet democracy to counteract the momentum of established trajectories. This would constitute a huge intellectual and practical challenge, and the Internet thus far has been as much a resource for governments to conduct surveillance and intimidate as it has been a resource for citizen activism (Castells 2012 ). Therefore, extensive political research and experimentation would be required to develop appropriate new mechanisms for holding technoscientific-economic actors more accountable. A prerequisite is for citizens individually and collectively to choose between the following: (1) continuing the implicit delegation of technological pace and direction to a small subset or (2) enabling tens or hundreds of millions to gain requisite knowledge, join in or observe debates, and otherwise move toward broader and more thoughtful technological choice.

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Unfortunately for such aspirations, less than 1 percent of the world’s research and development outlays are now spent on social, political, and other institutional innovation. Indeed, the word innovation tends to be reserved for technoscientific phenomena. Still, there are encouraging signs: some European political parties have begun requiring that women occupy 50 percent of elected offices; the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and other international governance mechanisms have enjoyed some success; and Hungary has established a parliamentary commissioner for future generations, with considerable authority to probe, analyze, and report on, and even to directly intervene in, administrative and legal procedures (World Future Council 2010 ).

Altogether, then, a balanced view must acknowledge a strange mix of democratic achievements, constructive potentials on the horizon, and formidable obstacles to more ethically defensible technological governance. For now, prospects for revitalizing and extending citizenship appear “ambiguous in an epoch where shopping seems to have become a more persuasive marker of freedom than voting, and where what we do alone in the mall counts more importantly in shaping our destiny than what we do together in the public square” (Barber 2007 , 37). Nevertheless, it is at least conceivable that “No innovation without representation” could become the twenty-firstcentury equivalent of American colonists’ cries against taxation without representation.


Barber, Benjamin R. 2007. Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. New York: Norton.

Bellamy, Richard, and Madeleine Kennedy-Macfoy, eds. 2014. Citizenship. New York: Routledge.

Castells, Manuel. 2012. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cohen, Elizabeth F. 2009. Semi-citizenship in Democratic Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Flanagan, Constance A. 2013. Teenage Citizens: The Political Theories of the Young. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Harris-Perry, Melissa V. 2011. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady. 2012. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Warf, Barney. 2012. “Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and Geographical Imaginations.” Geographical Review 102 (3): 271–292.

World Future Council. (2010). Guarding Our Future: How to Include Future Generations in Policy Making.

Edward J. Woodhouse
Karin Patzke

Revised by Woodhouse and Patzke

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3727600139