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Overlapping Territory

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Yesterday’s discussion about internet fragmentation and digital sovereignty was fantastic. Francesca Musiani and Fernanda Rosa brought really interesting perspectives to the table – one from a European STS scholar, the other from a Latin American anthropologist – and Milton Mueller was an incisive and insightful commentator. (Go read some of their writings, they are all very good!) The event was livestreamed on Youtube and a recording will be made available shortly.

During my initial comments, I made the point that I’d much rather talk about digital territory than digital sovereignty. When countered that this carries the risk of imposing physical territorial boundaries onto the internet, my response was that digital territories are overlapping. When we act on the internet, we do it within the digital territories of one or multiple states (e.g. where servers are located, where data packets are routed), corporations (who run the infrastructure), and user communities (who congregate socially and use bounding behavior to manage their identities) at the same time.

The notion of overlapping territories is really important for my approach to cyberspace. I will acknowledge that this way of thinking territory is not obvious to everyone, especially to people think of territory in relation to the global order of sovereign states, where territoriality is exclusive. That’s why I was really gratified when Fernanda pointed me to, a global map of native lands, communities, and languages. While the effort to provide visibility and representation to native peoples is laudable in itself, I especially like how these territories are just naturally overlapping. Certainly, the boundaries of these territories are user-submitted and may therefore be inaccurate. They are also not the product of formal demarcation. But they represent a way of thinking territoriality in a non-exclusive way – boundaries become interfaces and contact zones rather than lines of division.

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