Digitality and Political Theory

Mapping a Research Agenda in African Political Thought

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Claudia Favarato Researcher, University of Bayreuth, Germany Claudia.Favarato@uni-bayreuth.de

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Abstract

Digitality is increasingly central to individuals’ existence, which has political implications. The article maps the political implications of digitalisation, focusing on African political thought. The latter is marked by Afro-communitarianism ideas, which foster solidarity, relationality, and communalism as foundational values of the polity. However, African communitarianism has granted little attention to contemporary phenomena such as digitalisation. Also, political theory discussions on digitality have looked mainly at (neo)liberal contexts. How the digital age is reshaping the tenets of communitarian political theories represents an underdiscussed issue. This article outlines a research agenda on digitality and African political thought. New digitality-enabled relational modes change human and political interactions. The issue at stake is how these new modes challenge or strengthen the Afro-communitarian political outlook. This article recognises digital-humanism, political community, relations of power as central matters of inquiry. The analysis relies on bibliographic sources from African philosophy and comparative political theory.

The twenty-first century brought humanity into the digital age. The increased introduction and use of technologies connected to the digital sphere is part of a broader technological revolution, dubbed the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (4IR).1 The ramifications of these new technologies are pervasive in all societal sectors; scientific and technological advances bring about radical change to production forces while significantly altering social relations and the quality of life (Lamola 2021b). The growing presence of digital technologies in our daily lives impacts and alters the way individuals and groups relate to one another by providing a digital space for interaction.

Being a shaping force of modernity and a decisively contemporary sociopolitical dynamic, digitalisation impacts both the way the political is conceived and the relations of power constitutive of the political sphere. Notwithstanding, the reaction from political theory to digitality's articulations has been weak and there is a general scarcity of analysis. In the discipline, studies concerned with the interplay of the digital and the political are, at best, incipient. Next to the interest in the political sciences for phenomena inscribed in the category of digital politics, theoretical exposés, analysis, and interpretations of political reality from a normative, historical, or analytical perspective are lacking. In short, political theory is having a hard time keeping pace simultaneously with technological developments and social and political changes.

The shift to digital technologies has come at an unprecedented speed in sub-Saharan Africa. Between 2005 and 2019, the number of internet users increased by 1414 percent (Nemeckova 2021). In a continent hosting most of the world's population without access to electricity, ‘the ability to purchase “data” competes with that for buying bread’ (Lamola 2021b: 5). While African individuals scramble to acquire or maintain their online existence, and governments employ ‘internet shutdowns’ as forms of civic-political control,2 structured theoretical appraisals from political theory and sub-Saharan perspectives are still lacking in the debate.

The literature characterises African political thought as communitarian in essence. The African communitarian outlook enhances principles of solidarity, relationality, and communalism as foundational values of the polity. The discernment of African or Afro-communitarianism often cherishes the past or ‘tradition’ as the blueprint for the ‘African’ mode of being, neglecting to adequately consider contemporary phenomena such as digitalisation and its consequent political nuances in its models. The outlook of Afro-communitarianism today, its principles, values, and practices, reshaped and challenged by the digital space, remains to date an underexplored area. Moreover, the insight this analysis offers, adds to political theory's studies on digitalisation in communitarian outlooks. The implications of digitality on communitarian political theories have not yet been thoroughly explored. The issues at stake are how the greater reliance on digital technologies changes human and political interactions and how these new relational modes interplay with the Afro-communitarian political outlook. Old political models might not be sufficient to comprehend the sociopolitical realities of the digital times.

Therefore, a research agenda should grant emphasis on matters of digital-humanity, political community, and relations of power. I rely on a critical and interpretive analysis of bibliographic sources from African philosophy, political theory, and comparative political theory to map out the research agenda.

The structure of the article comprises five sections, including this introduction. Second, I seek to define the core matters of the research agenda: digitalisation, the digital space, and their interplay with political theory. As I will discuss, the inclusion of contemporary phenomena, such as digitalisation, is a necessary and unavoidable element of practical political philosophy and a necessary basis for empirical political theory. The following section briefly spells out African political thought's main tenets. In the fourth section, I outline the relevant elements that should constitute the research agenda on digitality and African political thought. The fifth and final section sums up the lines of inquiry on the topic.

Elements at Interplay: The Digital Space and Political Theory

The growth of the digital space is inscribed within the broader 4IR. To tech outsiders, the 4IR embraces an immense variety of phenomena, which requires some unpacking prior to analysis. According to Munamato Chemhuru (2021: 19), the 4IR ‘refers to the kind of human and technological development currently being witnessed in which information technology, networks, the internet of things, robotics, big data, superintelligence, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence are now almost in charge and changing the way human beings do things every day’. These technological and scientific advances ‘blur[s] the lines between the physical, digital, and biological sphere’ (Marwala 2020).

The impact, pace, extensiveness, and scope of this revolution are unprecedented in the human history of science and technology (Chemhuru 2021; Schwab 2016). These complexities make it a yet little-known phenomenon, as many implications on human and animal lives, as well as on the environment, have not yet unfolded. Moreover, 4IR technologies question the philosophical and ethical foundations of global societies and the future of humanity in a ‘techno-centric’ future.

Digital technologies are a constitutive part of the 4IR. These technologies are more and more present in humans’ daily life; these devices employ digital technology for human utility. They respond to the ‘original’ or ‘traditional’ rationale of technology and innovation, id est, making human life easier and more comfortable. Additionally, the application of digital technology in the political, economic, cultural, and social spheres has sparked new dynamics, along with the automation and digitisation of everyday life, which shape the condition of human life our generation is experiencing today.

Human lives are being transliterated to the digital sphere, for today's technological development intertwines the digital and physical existence: individuals live in the physical world and on displays of their digital devices. The smartphone boom and 4G internet connectivity projected humanity into ‘Society 4.0’, ruled by new patterns and telos of relationality. The digital has become a ‘cyber-physical social space’ (Lamola 2021c) in which individuals can (digitally) relate and communicate with one another. Along with technological devices, social networks enable ‘digital relational spaces’, virtual worlds which are characterised by their own ontology, rather than being a mere communicative medium (Boellstorff 2016; Laterza 2021).

In the technology-enabled space of digitality, the resignification of human life and relationality occurs. Digitality constitutes a virtual reality that not only exists alongside the analogue but also absorbs part of the digital reality. If virtuality is not a new phenomenon (Horsfield 2002; Levy 1998), digital virtuality ruptures with preceding virtual realities because it enables humans (or their digital double) to actively engage in the digital. Digitality is a sui generis virtuality because its interactional space empowers humans to lead a ‘digital life’.

Therefore, the digital relational space becomes the topos of the digital age. Digitality – a virtual reality in which all that occurs is displayed on the screen of a digital device – presents us with the possibility of actively relating through digital means, free from the spatial and temporal constraints that govern the physical world.3 Digital relationality grants renewed reliance to technology artefacts as a means of embodiment rather than as mediators among subjects. In other words, the digital space conveyed through the screens of digital devices presents us with renewed settings and rules for person-to-person interactions. Digitality questions the ontology of humanness and the modes of intersubjective relations. The increasing presence of digitality in human lives compels us to consider how humans and digital-humans construct interpersonal relations, and their impact on social dynamics, structures of power, and ethical postures.

Considerations of the social effects of technology and human (inter)relations have grown consistently during the last four decades, prompting a variety of theoretical approaches. For instance, trans- and posthumanist theories accorded linear continuity to the existential philosophy tradition of inquiry about the ontology of being. These theories investigate the boundaries of human nature as renewed by the blending with modern and digital technologies (Ferrando 2019; see Bostrom 2005). The implications of trans- and posthumanist ideas are manifold, for they disclose new potential political realities. The digital posthumans have the capability to engender a futuristic, utopic phase of political renovation (Raimondi 2020).

The philosophy of science and phenomenology have also shown great concern with technological and digital advancements. In phenomenology, the techno-oriented pivot affected the understanding of the human subject, resulting in postphenomenological philosophy. The latter builds upon the departing premises of Husserlian phenomenology, in addition to the forerunner formulations of Don Ihde. Postphenomenology gives primacy to materiality and pragmatism in the analysis of human interrelational experience in and with technology, and also through technological embodiment (Ihde 2008; Mendieta 2003; Ritter 2021). To put it as succinctly as possible, postphenomenology argues that the interrelationality (or interintentionality) among humans (the subject) and technology (the object) impacts how the subjects make sense of their experience and of the world. This understanding is driven by co-constituting forces binding subject and object, fundamentally altering the relation subject-world (Ihde 2008; Ritter 2021; Vindenes and Wasson 2021). Differently than posthumanism, though, postphenomenology maintains the equal standing of humans and technologies, granting primacy to neither.

As new understandings of human life take shape, the implications for political ideas emerge. The pervasiveness of digitalisation requires a critical appreciation of the space of technopolitics (Berg et al. 2022), the crawl space where the relation between the political and digital technologies are negotiated. The mutual influencing of digitality and politics is producing deep-impacting effects not only on political practices but also on concepts so dear and central to political theory, ranging from freedom, rule of law, sovereignty, to inequalities, control and oppression, individual autonomy, solidarity, and human rights. What is more, the digital is acting as a catalyst capable of enhancing analogue political phenomena. Post-truth politics (Pedersen and Brincker 2021) and politics-without-politics (Dean 2009) surge as nihilist symptoms of anti-politics, emphasising the malleability of an ideologies-deprived political sphere, detached from the political subjects.

Against this backdrop, the digital offers a possibility of renewal (Smith 2017) because the unprecedented means it operates with can respond to contemporary political demands. These include not only reconsidering structural elements, such as citizens, political parties, and political participation, but also possibilities of democracy. While many theoretical proposals for digital-inspired democratic theories are largely inspired by Rawls’ property-based model (Loi et al. 2020; Fischli 2022) others consider, possibly in a futuristic fashion, the imbrication with artificial intelligence (Koster 2022).

Despite recent interest in this relatively new area of study (Kneuer and Milner 2019), which is creating a ‘gigantic field of research’ (Berg et al. 2022: 252), political theory has been slow in recognising the political ramifications of digitalisation. Political theory's research on digitality suffers from two main traps: The first relates to a restrictive ontological understanding of the discipline. Such narrowing downplays the interchange between technical infrastructures and the political, and also tends to operate a reductionist conflation of the digital with the internet (Berg et al. 2020; Berg et al. 2022). This understanding left digitality as a matter of study for other disciplines, such as political science, sociology, or communication. The second trap relates to epistemic comprehensiveness. Contributions produced to date are primarily conceived from western-tailored political models, mainly liberal majoritarian party politics. Such normative narrowness does not satisfy today's demands to review and decentre the discipline, toward building a globally representative corpora of political thought. The digitalisation-induced changes in non-liberal, non-western4 political philosophical and theoretical outlooks are greatly underrepresented in the scholarship. Noting this, I do not aim to reproduce an existing fracture or to emphasise the distinguishability between western and non-western systems of thought. Instead, the core concern of this article is to enlarge the comprehensiveness and inclusivity of research on political thought and digitality toward the global thought traditions, rather than fostering the reproduction of monolithic analytical lenses.

Reconfiguring African Political Thought in the Digital Age

The research agenda here outlined engages with digitalisation in relation to sub-Saharan African political thought. On the one hand, the area of study constitutes an underexplored topic, since there does not yet exist a structured philosophical, epistemological, and cultural approach from an Afrocentric perspective to 4IR and digitality (Lamola 2021a). With no pretensions to fill such a void, the articulation of a theoretical prism to make sense of the current sociopolitical and historical occurrences is a challenge African (political) thought is not exempt from. While the research agenda presented here is limited to issues of political thought, comprehensive epistemological and methodological tools are needed to navigate the scientific, technological, and philosophical changes that are altering and shaping societies today.

On the other hand, the digital age interrogates some of the core tenets of African political thought, namely the notion of relationality. Among the variety of political theorisations concerned with sub-Saharan people, societies, cultures, and philosophies, each inspired by the continent's traditions and political ideologies (Chan 2021; Kasanda 2018; Mazrui 2000); the common ground rests in the communitarian outlook they share. Loosely defined, African communitarianism centres on relationality, communalism, solidarity, and reciprocity as foundational principles for the community. This view is not merely political but encompasses humanistic and social understandings as well.

African communitarian outlooks read individuals as inherently enlaced with the collective sphere. To be one in the community is taken as an axiomatic aspect of human essence, for one can differ from but cannot be indifferent to the plurality (Masolo 2010; Wiredu 1995). The existence of the (altogether human, social, and political) community is taken as a necessity in individuals’ existence, rather than as a contingency (Gyekye 1997); the relational, communo- or other-oriented trait of the individual is taken as a given (Metz 2012; Ikuenobe 2015; Hallen 2015; Masolo 2010).

Articulations of the African polity follow from the conceived communitarian human nature. Political theorisations emphasise a political order representative of the centrality of the relational sphere. Scholars advocate for political orders grounded on solidarity and identity (Metz 2012), intersubjectivity (Bongmba 2006), and consensus (Wiredu 1995). Tight-knit political communities, horizontal power-sharing structures, direct participation, inclusive or consensual deliberation, and dialogical decision-making practices are the core mechanisms of these polities (E. C. Eze 2000; M. O. Eze 2008; Matolino 2018b; 2019; Wiredu 1995).

Further, to date, African communitarian theories have failed to adequately address contemporary phenomena, ranging from multi-national or multi-ethnic states to globalisation, to digitalisation. Theorising on the implications between the digital space and African political thought can bring renewed insights to today's sub-Saharan African political realities. Digitalisation is reshaping human life at the personal, social, and national levels; the digital space has spawned unprecedented dynamics of power and politics. Old political models might not be sufficient to comprehend the sociopolitical realities of our times.

The contemporaneity of the phenomenon urges academia to keep up with the ongoing dynamics of the world. According to the African Development Bank Report (African Development Bank Group 2020), ‘Africa has yet to make the most of the digital revolution’. While national and international political bodies issued ‘digital agendas’ for the development of digitalisation programmes (e.g., the African Union's ‘Digital Africa programme’, reported in the 2020–2030 plan of action [African Union 2020]) there are no accompanying theoretical and philosophical reflections on ‘digital Africa’. Consideration of current phenomena and in-the-world occurrences is pivotal to social sciences, if they intend to maintain any capability to interpret the world of humans in their theoretical exposés.

Reading contemporary African political thought through relationality represents a way to shed light on the tenets of communitarianism today – an underexplored debate to date. African societies are rapidly changing, as are their underlying political foundations. Many dynamics are shaping today's African political thought and their interplay with the African communitarian outlook ought to be theoretically weighted in. Among these, digitality unsettles the equilibrium between the roots of ‘traditional’ communitarian Africa and contemporaneity, due to digitality's underlying political capital. Far from being neutral or merely utilitarian, technology is charged with political normativity and values, derivated from selected sociopolitical and economic configurations. It is widely recognised that globalised capitalist ideas underpin the digital space (Birhane 2020; Laterza 2021; McPhail 2014). Hence, digitalisation can potentially weaken or erode African cultures by ‘westernising’ or ‘globalising’ cultural, social, and political values through digital platforms. Consider, among others, the ramification of the inherently individualistic character perpetuated by social networks on African communitarian views of the individual (see Langmia and Lando 2020).

The antagonism between the digital sphere and the Afro-communitarian outlook is fuelled as a value-embedded digitality epitomises yet another element of exogeneity in African cultures. As John Lamola puts it, ‘[A]n historicist African perspective observes the 4IR as an avalanche of technology-driven human-technological transformations and sociological changes that are catalysed by globalisation, and the latter's promotion by a neoliberalist globalism’ (Lamola 2021b: 3). Digitality is charged with being an import to the sub-Saharan continent, which materialises instances of neo- or ‘e-colonialism’ (Birhane 2020; Langmia and Lando 2020; McPhail 2014). The dynamics of digital power are a little-known phenomenon that more often than not exceeds government and political control. Power in the digital era is steered by economic and capitalistic interests of a restricted élite (the ‘giants’ of the tech industry), turning into an instrument of ‘algorithmic colonialism’ (Birhane 2020).

It is indisputable that science, technology, innovation, and development are culturally and historically embedded phenomena (Lamola 2020, 2021a; Mavhunga 2017). Nonetheless, this ought not to be read as producing univocal consequential results. It is in the interrelationality among humans and devices that experience of the world and its meaning are generated, in a constantly negotiated equilibrium. To put it differently, digitality is shaped according to the use people make of it (Rademacher and Grant 2019). The digital space has the potential to become a means to strengthen African communitarian values. Researching digitality, African political thought and relationality can contribute to interpreting Afro-communitarianism today. The analysis not only contributes toward framing a political paradigm befitting contemporary sub-Saharan Africa, but it also enriches political theory understanding of communitarian political thought and digitalisation.

The Status Quaestionis on Digitality and African Political Thought

This section outlines the areas of research on digitality and African political thought. The posture guiding the research agenda begins from the understanding of digitalisation as a constitutive element of contemporary African sociopolitical realities and systems of thought. While the digital sphere is not a trait endogenous to African societies, digitality is engulfing sub-Saharan Africa and its peoples.

Admittedly, the proposed agenda grants centrality to philosophical, social, and political aspects to the detriment of material and economic components. This choice does not intend to set priorities or to emphasise any hierarchical analytical relevance. The values and normativity carried by digitalisation trigger long-lasting effects on socio-political system, which affects political practices and political economy. As digitalisation extends to almost all spheres of human life, digital representation and communication are rising as effective mediums overtaking the analogue (Nyabola 2018). These new political practices do not merely reproduce analogue politics in the digital. The structure undergirding digitality rests upon an atomistic, cybernetic environment composed of atomistic entities (Galloway 2014), controlled by private interests.

The private ownership of the digital space impacts consideration of the public good. A liberal-capitalist globalised agenda moves the (private) owners of the digital space (Birhane 2020). As this digital space controls and surveils (digital) individuals and their data (Laterza 2021), issues of freedoms, rights, and privacy are at stake. Moreover, to date the digital universe is dominated by western-produced technologies and platforms, which carry normative, political, and economic values. Despite the appearance of non-western platforms, apps, and technologies, to date the dominance of capitalist values is ineluctable.

If digitalisation is a capitalist phenomenon, the implications on the material, economic, and societal aspects are manifold. Nonetheless, the relevance and broadness of these debates exceeds the reach of the research agenda here and deserve a more detailed analysis in a dedicated study. The building blocks outlined in these pages do not claim exhaustivity on setting out topics to investigate; they propose one avenue of research which emphasises philosophical and political aspects.

In addition to the above, the theoretical map presented here does not seek to investigate the compatibility5, or lack thereof, between digitality and African communitarianism. This approach would foster the distinguishability between the two by emphasising their diverse origins. Moreover, it reinforces the idea of sub-Saharan Africa as a passive receptor of contemporary phenomena such as digitalisation and 4IR, perpetuating the image of Africa as a subject rather than a proactive actor. In contrast, the research map considers digitality as an inherent element of today's African realities, an inextricable part of the continent's social, cultural, and philosophical systems. Making sense of this renewed, post-modern outlook is the challenge facing human and social sciences.

I organised the research agenda by issue, moving from the micro to the macro. The matters composing the research agenda revolve around posthumanity in Afro-communitarian thought, digital relations of power, the political community between digitality and materiality, and the tenets of contemporary African communitarianism paradigms. The research issues are organised as subsections.

The Human and the Digital-Human

One of the central pillars of African communitarian thought is the notion of personhood. Theorisations on the human person occupy a broader debate in African philosophy, encompassing ontological, metaphysical, and normative approaches,6 and their articulations influence political thought. As a whole, the concept of personhood frames the relationship between the individual and the community, but also it yields influence over conceptualisations of human nature and African humanism. A theoretical reappreciation is in order, for the changes advanced by the digitalisation of human existence question the essence or ontology of being human, and the ramifications of digital humanness in African communitarian thought.

The intersection of humanness and digitality causes a reconceptualisation of human ontology. Technologies 4.0 move the digital sphere beyond a mere mimic of material reality or reproduction of images on a device's screen. Digitality constitutes a virtual reality featuring chrono-spatial heterogeneity and a cyberspace of physical quasi-presence (Levy 1998). The digital space blends biological and physical humans in technological digitality, paving the way for a techno-centred human ontology. John Lamola refers to this transformative ontological process as technogenesis, emphasising the de-anthropocentric character of the posthuman turn (Lamola 2020). This shift depicts humans and machines as more and more integrated, reverberating on the socio-cultural acceptance of humanness-altering techniques, along with the socio-genesis of forms of new consciousness that are even affecting how societal challenges are analysed (Lamola 2021c).

The current posthumanist theorisations (see Bostrom 2005, 2009; Ferrando 2019) reduce a vast philosophical debate to a western-dominated monologue, following the culmination of a philosophical trajectory accompanying techno-scientific developments in a historical progress as univocal as a clash of civilisations à la Fukuyama. Not only do these theories reiterate a universalising stance that assumes western post-modernity to apply to humanity as a whole, but they also reproduce the crisis of epistemology inherent in contemporary western gnosis (Lamola 2021b). The techno-centred, posthuman future of humanity ought not to be left to the hegemony of one philosophical tradition.

Keeping in mind the centrality of multifaceted philosophical readings on how digitality alters human ontology, the question for this research agenda is if African political and ethical thought offers any alternative to western-dominated posthumanism theories, and if so, which. Africans are being overtaken by digital technologie7, rushing sub-Saharan individual, social, and political realities into digitalisation and futuristic, transhumanistic statuses. What do African and Afro-communitarian conceptions of the human have to say on the transformative intertwining of digitality with the ontology of humanness?

Sub-Saharan political thought intertwines the notions of humanness with those of personhood; while the latter is closely dependent on issues of ethics and morality, human essence is read as a biologically given trait. Therefore, human nature is an underlying element inherent and prior to being a person. The dependency of the two notions has ramifications over the whole of African thought, and it determines the characters of African humanism, sub-Saharan human-centred ethics, and anthropocentric outlooks.

The essence of being human mingles with the positionality one assumes in the plurality. This means that a single, isolated individual is biologically human yet one is humane through how one relates to other humans. Richard Bell reads such African humanism as rooted in ‘traditional’ values, namely the respect for fellow kinsmen and one's sense of belonging to the broader (natural and cosmological) order of things. This mirrors in the communalism and lived dependencies marking one's existence (Bell 2002: 36). In a similar fashion, Kwame Gyekye sees African humanism as a basic socio-ethical practice, a philosophy that places human needs, interests, and dignity as elements of ultimate concern and fundamental importance. All aspects of the African endogenous mode of life, from thought to actions and institutions, are directed at reproducing this central concern with human welfare (Gyekye 1997). In short, a humanistic spirituality that pushes human ontology beyond oneself constitutes the essence of the cultures and philosophies of African civilisations (Lamola 2021c, referring to P.I. Seme's humanistic philosophy).

The greater role and (relative) autonomy that digitality and digital technologies are acquiring do not reconcile with African humanism, making the human an outdated or insufficient ontological category. As the digital-double develop an existence almost independent from its analogue human counterpart (Laterza 2021), issues of technological embodiment raise concerns on the ontological elements constituting digitality. In this frame, technology ceases to be a medium between poles (humans and the world) but becomes an axiomatic ontological co-constitutive component of the subject (the human or digital-human). Hence, digital technologies and humans are the interrelational elements co-catalysing the ontology of the digitality.

The emphasis on materiality and pragmatism proposed by postphenomenology grants sufficient lenses of analysis to interpret the techno-human experience of the world of digitality. Its intra-relational ontology (Ihde 2008) and the reference to technologically embodied interaction to constitute bodies in technology (Mendieta 2003) offers insights on the digital lifeworld composed of multiple, instable ontologies. In other words, the double and simultaneous focus on human and technologies grants postphenomenology the capability to clearly discern digital ontology beyond the human. A postphenomenological reading can offer African humanism a much needed ‘way forward’ in the shaping of a contemporary humanistic telos for ethics and social and political analysis.

The shifted ontological bases of digitality open many lines of inquiry. Firstly, more needs to be discerned over the possibility to ontologically accommodate the digital, techno-mediated humans in Afro-communitarian theorisations. Can the humane, anthropocentric tenets underpinning African humanism come to terms with the techno-centrism inherent in the future the 4IR is bringing closer and closer? Secondly, considering the specific distinction African thought draws between humanness and personhood, a reconsideration of the ‘digital-person’ is in order. In other words, the ontological changes affecting humanness transpose to the idea of being a person. Do digital technologies challenge the intrinsic ethical character of personhood, or does the digital sphere serve as an (alternative) space for the (traditional and analogue) ethos of relationality to flourish? Lastly, the research agenda ought not to omit investigating how existing African communitarian perspectives inform or add to theories on digital-humanity.

Individualistic Digitality Versus Communitarian African Outlook

The intrusion of digital technologies in human lives not only questions the ontology of being human but also challenges the modes through which these to-define-humans relate to one another. Techno-centric humanity is embedded in ‘Society 4.0’, today's societies where technologies such as 4G smartphones have changed the patterns and telos of relationality among humans (Lamola 2021c). The digital platforms provided by these increasingly present pieces of technology extend over the ontological but also the normative, political, and social dimensions of human existence. In other words, the futuristic digital humanness reconfigures the subjects and the frame of the intersubjective sphere.

The digitisation of human existence has articulations over the socio-relational sphere of individual life, or bíos politikos, in Aristotelian terminology. The politicon epitomises the sphere of human existence built upon relations among subjects, mediated by language, reason, and emotions. Rather than a chaotic entanglement, the political figures as a space ordered according to relations of power among subjects, constitutive of determinate configurations of the polity. The inextricability of the bíos politikos from human nature transposes the ontological quest sparked by digitalisation to the intersubjective sphere. The ontology of the intersubjective sphere is constituted by relational dynamics established among a plurality of singular entities (individuals), autonomous and complete as oneself.

According to African communitarian theories, the power dynamics constituting the relational sphere are centred on intersubjectivity (Bongmba 2006). The essentialness of the intersubjective space deeply intertwines the individual (human being or person) with one's relational counterparts – other individuals. Rather than being complementary to one's mode of being, Afro-communitarianism reads the intersubjective sphere as constitutive of the individual. Thus, scholars refer to the impossibility of being indifferent to the community (Wiredu 2001) and to relational autonomy (Ikuenobe 2015), among other defining aspects of human existence. These considerations do not straightforwardly emphasise a communo-centric ethos to the detriment of the individual, since the impossibility to be indifferent does not imply one cannot be different from or within the community (Masolo 2010; Wiredu 2001). In sum, the Afro-communitarian intersubjective space maintains individual singularity or one's ‘radical difference’ (Bongmba 2006) while asserting one's embeddedness to the relational network constitutive of the sociopolitical sphere.

Scholars largely relied on endogenous elements to frame the above relational design, ranging from ‘traditional’ to past inspired underpinnings. The idealisation of these ‘genuinely African’ traits in present-day communitarian formulations risks failing to grasp the dynamism of contemporary sub-Saharan societies, on the one hand, and the challenges presented by contemporary phenomena as digitalisation on the other. The digital space tears down spatial and temporal constraints, and it enables communication and interactions encompassing social, cultural, geographical barriers. Considering the modes of sociality and relationality enhanced by digitality, we are compelled to investigate whether the digital sphere can be a vehicle of ethical and normative values that shape and redefine patterns of intersubjective relations.

Sub-Saharan philosophers remind us of the necessity to formulate normative and ethical frameworks to guide not only the use of contemporary technologies but also the influence they exert on human existence (Chemhuru 2021; Lamola 2021a; Oduor 2021). In addition to that, appreciations of the digital relational sphere should consider African-specific patterns of intersubjective relations. Communitarianism understands that relationality is grounded on human-to-human relations, geared toward enhancing communal or intersubjective well-being. Is this ethos reconcilable with digitality?

On the one hand, the digitisation of human relations reproduces ‘westernised’ or ‘globalised’ patterns. This ascendence is possibly due to the fact that many of the popular digital communication platforms originated in western, liberalist societies; however, the inherent individualistic character of the digital sphere can be attributed to the receiver-creator role with which each participant is endowed. Every internet user's entitlement to creative power and flashing popularity engenders a heightened sense of singularity within the ‘cyber social space’. Therefore, digital technologies, through their communication means and relational modes, are engineering a change toward ‘westernised’ or ‘globalised’ normative conception of the individual (Camara 2020), inclined to individualism. The shift impacts how individuals relate to one another and erodes African relationality and intersubjectivity, challenging the Afro-communitarian ethos.

On the other hand, African communitarianism and the digital sphere act as mutually constitutive and influencing phenomena. Their interplay frames and configures the digital space: if digitality dictates its own rules for intersubjective relations, the use of digital technologies is nevertheless infused with patterns and telos of communitarian orientation. To put it differently, the question is not merely how mobile technologies are changing Africa but how Africa is changing mobile technologies (Mavhunga 2017: 6).

The appearance of apps and software engineered in Africa and responding more directly to the needs of sub-Saharan communities (Rademacher and Grant 2019) attests to the growing participation of Africans in the making of the digital sphere. Moreover, a communitarian-oriented use of the digital space does not respond solely to the design of the digital platforms. Imported apps, such as WhatsApp or Telegram, for instance, have served as a means to foster communal life, as they enable participation in community regardless of geographical distance. Therefore, digitalisation strengthens the communitarian outlook in African contemporary societies by transposing indigenous notions of communal partaking, exemplified by instances of solidarity and reciprocity, into the digital settings.

By and large, the contemporary outlook of African communitarianism remains an open question to further investigate. In the discernment of digital intersubjectivity and the ethos of technology-mediated relationality, we should keep in mind that the digital and the physical-analogue realities are distinct yet not apart. The way digital-humans or posthumans relate and socialise holds influence over the modes of relation and sociality among biological humans. The effect of the increasing intermingling of the two relational spheres – the digital and the physical – might work as an enhancing factor of communal relations. Hence, a key point in the research agenda is to assess whether communal relations that are humane-centred and driven by African humanistic ethics (which commands one's deeds being directed toward the enhancement of common good and human existence) can be maintained in the entanglement of digital-material relationality.

Power (A)Symmetries in the (Digital) Political Community

As the cyberspace turns into an almost-physical space for relationality and sociability, theoretical considerations could not elude the articulations of the digital over the political community. The dynamics, ethics, and values ordering the digital social-relational space occur unsystematically, or within organised groups, dubbed digital communities. The emergence of these virtual communities, alongside the geographical or physical ones, disputes ontological, normative, and ethical aspects of the ‘traditional’ political community, such as its members, boundaries, power dynamics, and modi operandi of political participation.

The hallmark of digital communities is their detachment from physical bonds and geographical boundaries. In the physical world, the creation of communities is based on physical and territorial proximity; communities are locational and bounded (Morgan and Okyere-Manu 2021). These elements fulfil aggregational functions, as they foster a sense of belonging and inclusion to the community; also, they foster distinguishability between physically discontinuous communities. Nonetheless, these structural elements are not the sine qua non constitutive of a community. In the digital community, the lack of physical or geographical bonds creates new forms of unity and solidarity (Nkohla-Ramunenyiwa 2020).

The structure and cohesion of the web-based community are provided by social, relational, and psychological elements, including regular interactions among members and shared interests (Morgan and Okyere-Manu 2021). It is this superstructure, which refers more closely to one's individuality, that fosters a sense of commonality between community members. It strengthens shared bonds and identities, along with a sense of affiliation, on the grounds of one's inner character, withholding from referring to circumstantial elements as physical proximity. In short, digital communities rely on interactional patterns as a constitutive basis.

According to Stephen Morgan and Beatrice Okyere-Manu (2021), the digital community's reliance on the social and psychological adherence of its members paves the way for the maintenance of communitarian ethical values within the virtual community. They argue that, in virtual communities, there exists a higher sense of shared identity and common ties for two reasons: the adherence to a digital community is voluntary and requested by the to-be community member; the adherence to the community's principles or aims is a pre-condition for requesting membership (Morgan and Okyere-Manu 2021). Hence, these bases hoist the sense of belonging and the degree of participation in the virtual community. In short, they act as catalysts toward fostering a sense of community stricto sensu, that is, a collective in which individuals contribute to the common good of the plurality and engage in showing support toward other community members (Morgan and Okyere-Manu 2021).

However, the modes or rationale for applying communitarian ethical values in the digital community remain unclear from the above-framed discussion. There are no clear indicators that digital relationality steered by higher shared interests and common identity would lead community members to adhere to communitarian rather than individualistic, utilitarian, or capitalist values. As they are geographically extended and culturally diverse, digital communities lack clear aims; cyber relationality is a social space ruled under its own terms and conditions (Nkohla-Ramunenyiwa 2020). This unclarity of aims ‘contrasts with African values of communitarianism’, that frame the community as a space of cooperation, intersubjectivity, interdependence, reciprocity, collective existence, collaboration, and solidarity (Nkohla-Ramunenyiwa 2020: 140).

Considerations of the ethical underpinning of digital communities constitute a central item of the research agenda, and ramifications extend over the political sphere. These implications touch on the ethical values ordering the virtual community, and their structural orientation (communalist or individualistic inclination), and on membership and participation to the political community. In a digital political community, the physical space can be limited or completely absent, therefore allowing for individuals from diverse geographical, as well as cultural, national, religious backgrounds to partake in the community's activities. In other words, digital platforms unlock new possibilities for interactions among spatially and temporally asynchronous individuals.

This variability enables new modes of political participation in the community, reshaping political practices at the local and national levels. Digitality fosters proximity regardless of geographical difference, reducing the urban-rural dichotomy. It can provide a bridging tool between governors and governed; it can promote involvement in political affairs through easily accessible means of participation, and it grants quick, many-to-many answers (see Nyabola 2018). Hence, the implications of digital political practices on modi operandi of the political community constitute an unavoidable item of the research agenda.

As digitality brings forward new possibilities for political participation, it challenges the ontological and relational elements of the political community. Firstly, the digital sphere draws new patterns to define the subjects included or excluded in the polity. Fresh lines for political subjecthood differentiation run upon the availability of digital access, language use, gender, and generational differences in accessing the digital space. For instance, while female internet users appear to be outnumbered by males, digital natives (individuals born in the digital age) master more easily the skills required to navigate the digital sphere (see Langmia and Lando 2020). Addressing contemporary patterns of exclusions from the (digital) polity require us to configure the use of and access to the digital, under the light of normative considerations (Oduor 2021). The expansion of internet accessibility, the replacement of ‘colonial’ (e.g., French, English, Portuguese), written languages with local and/or non-orthographical means of communication, represent means to address the deployment of digital technologies and to democratise the digital political community (Camara 2020).

Secondly, internet users act as active and conscious producers of digital content. Their actions reproduce or renew relational motives existing in the physical political community. Does the digital community engender new social and political asymmetries, or does it transpose pre-existing asymmetries that originated in the physical community? A special issue of concern, in this regard, is how the position of individuals excluded from the political life in the physical community is equated in the digital political community. African communitarianism has been roundly criticised for discriminating against those individuals who are incapable of reciprocating in the community8 (Horsthemke 2018; Manzini 2018). Whether digitality offers the possibility to be part of the polity for individuals who are unable to reciprocate in the material world because of geographical distance or physical disabilities, for instance, but can do so in the digital space, requires further investigation.

These considerations highlight the theoretical urgency to broaden this quest over the conceptualisation of political subjecthood, in direct connection to the notions of personhood and humanness so central to the Afro-communitarian conceptualisation of the political community. Finally, the shift to the digital sphere brings about new forms of personhood, relationality, communication, and relations, which in part displace previously existing configurations of the political community. A structurally framed approach to discern which elements digitality enables or displaces in the political community is an inherent part of the research agenda.

Digital Afro-Communitarianism Thought and Practice in Contemporaneity

The reconfiguration of the political community between the physical and the digital shapes the current African communitarian outlook and political paradigms. The intrusion of digitality in individual and community life sets off relevant changes that compel us to reappraise the political pillars of African communitarian political thought. Formulations of African political paradigms ought to weigh in on digitality as grounds from which to construct, interpret, and analyse contemporary sub-Saharan political thought.

With no intention to enter the merits of the extended debate about African political paradigms here, this brief section merely intends to spell out some central points of intersection between digitality and African political models. I deem political freedom, participation, representation, and ‘Africanised’ or communitarian democracy as building blocks for the research agenda.

Political freedom in the digital age is deeply connected to matters of accessibility to and knowledgeability of digital technologies. While generational differences between digital immigrants and natives will proportionally reduce over time, issues of accessibility should be tackled systematically. To date, the sub-Saharan is the least connected region of the world (GSMA Intelligence 2021a, 2021b); investments in the development of electrical and internet infrastructures are often negotiated between tech giants or foreign powers and African governments. These bargains challenge African sovereignty on the digital sphere (Atintande 2020), while they highlight the intrinsic connection between governments’ agendas and citizens’ freedom.

Digitalisation reshapes freedom from the international, state-related arena to the individual level of politics. As the importance of digitality as a means of political communication steadily increases, individuals tend to become ‘digizens’ (Mbembe 2018) rather than traditional citizens. Nonetheless, political power's sway over today's digital citizens carries more control than liberties. In recent years internet shutdowns, bans, taxation, or censorship of digital platforms have become ‘ordinary’ instruments to exercise power, regardless of political freedom safeguarding. While such control systems constitute a revisitation of traditional modes of authoritarian power, the increasing relevance of data and the internet of the bodies presents new and invasive instruments to exercise control over individuals, groups, and communities’ existence.

Freedom has long been a central and contested issue in African political thought, especially in connection to the overarching standing of the community over the single (Ahiauzu 2001; Gyekye 1997). The reconfiguration through the digital sphere enhances the need to reconsider political freedom in relation to the community, authoritarian control, fake news, and misinformation. Far from being an entirely negative instrument, digitality offers a platform with the potential to expand democratic political participation. By virtue of creating communication platforms that instantaneously and transversally connect many individuals, social media engenders networks of proximity in the political and civic spheres.

The reaches of digitalisation, 4IR, and digital technologies bridge the divide between the urban and rural. Digitality offers the opportunity to close the gap between governors and the governed. While digitality carries cultural and ethical values typical of a global and metropolitan mode of life, its changeability according to use should not be underestimated. Thus, attentive use inspired bottom-up logic of digital platforms can turn digital political communities into a means to repair the weak normative pull of the post-colonial state on its citizens, as well as tools to reframe questions of multi-ethnic or multi-national state (see Menkiti 2018).

Moreover, digitality alters political participation in civic and political society. It heightens political and civic engagement because digital means benefit from the communication speed and direct involvement of political subjects as content creators (Morgan and Okyere-Manu 2021). From flash-mobs to digitally organised social and civic movements, we are witnessing the potential of digitality in fostering a broad partaking in the res publica. By offering new modes of political participation, digitalisation and digital politics compel us to rethink how to conduct political affairs and decision-making processes, but also reframe issues of representation.

Political philosophers from the sub-Saharan (Eze 2008; Matolino 2018a; Wiredu 2007) grant a relevant role to the notion of representation, as it forms the grounds for discussing African models of democracy. According to Kwasi Wiredu, the African communitarian ethos demands a substantial form of representation: all parties’ interests and wills ought to be considered in the deliberative practices of a democratic system (Matolino 2018a; Wiredu 2007). In this regard, Wiredu is critical of party politics and the antagonistic model underpinning liberal and majoritarian democracy; instead, he argues for a non-agonistic polity ruled under the principles of ‘democracy by consensus’ (Wiredu 1995).

Wiredu's devised polity is void of political parties and is committed to voicing all interested parties in the political process by means of direct participation or through political associations9 (Wiredu 2007). As they operate on a many-to-many basis, social media, digital platforms, and digital political communities might serve Wiredu's notion of representation well. However, whereas digitality could offer a platform to implement a direct form of democracy, it does not get rid of institutionalised forms of representation, like political parties, nor does it banish political ideologies or loyalties. Also, the fulfilment of the demand for substantial representation does not necessarily satisfy the notion of consensual decision-making that Wiredu entails in such political model (Wiredu 1995, 2007). In other words, this theoretical exercise requires further considerations on the compatibility between digitality and consensual democracy.

Besides Wiredu's model of consensual democracy, African communitarian democracy takes on a variety of forms (Matolino 2019). Today's challenge for political theorists and philosophers lies in articulating paradigms that suit the current epoch, rather than reminiscing about past orders of democracy (Wamala 2004; see Matolino 2018a). Any such paradigm ought to depart from the reality of African societies, considering the shaping forces and dynamics of contemporaneity. Hence, digitality cannot be excluded from African communitarian political theories.

A re-appraisal of African communitarianism in contemporary fashion is in order. As exposed throughout the previous sections, today's communitarian outlook is undergoing many changes in the ontological, ethical, normative, and relational dimensions. Political thought represents a way of thinking about the political and political relations that occur between people constituting a community. Political thought can be systematically exposed by scholars, yet it is necessarily grounded on shared ways of thinking about the reality people live in. Therefore, political thought draws from the shaping forces and dynamics of the material world. Thus considered, digitality questions the grounding elements of African political thought, from personhood to the political community, representations and political subjecthood. Therefore, new versions of Afro-communitarianism, ‘digital Afro-communitarianism’, are needed to update the theoretical exposé of the political to current and contemporary realities.

Final Remarks

This article outlined a research agenda on digitality and African political thought. I emphasised that while the 4IR and digitalisation are global phenomena that are quickly influencing the world population, scholarly approaches have mainly applied western-informed lenses of analysis. As digitalisation advances at unprecedented speed in the sub-Saharan continent, I believe that a research agenda should consider the ontological and normative elements of current African communitarian outlooks. The reappraised ontology of digitality and its subjects (the ‘digital-humans’) serves as a basis for African political thought to assess questions about the intersubjective sphere, namely digital relationality, the digital political community, and the entanglement of the digital and physical-analogue spheres in ordering relations of power. Further research goals in the agenda revolve around formulating African political paradigms and theories drawing from contemporary, extant political thought, and exploring the foreseeable consequences of the digital as means of power for African states and governments. The several elements included in this research agenda are expected firstly to aid in the analysis and interpretation of African sociopolitical realities to date; secondly, to align with the de-centralising stance proposed by comparative political theory, and thirdly, to enlarge the canons of political theory and the discipline's studies on the interplay of digitality and political ideas.

Acknowledgements and Research Funding

I am grateful to Alena Rettovà, Albert Kasanda, and Vito Laterza for early comments on the manuscripts. This research was supported by funding from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, within the frame of a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship.

Notes

1

The ordinal numbering follows the historical sequence of technological leaps occurred in the Global North.

2

In the last years, internet shutdowns have become a recurrent instrument at the hand of governments to exert their power, especially in times of elections, social and civic unrest, or as a preventive measure against security threats. In sub-Saharan Africa, internet shutdowns spanned from Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Gabon, Zimbabwe, to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda, Guinea, Tanzania, Mali, Togo, and Cameroon (Hernández et al. 2021).

3

In his seminal book, Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, Pierre Levy argues that the digital reality creates a multiplicity and heterogeneity of times and places. This is possible because of the detachment between the chronological and the spatial the digital engenders. The separation enables the digital reality to maintain synchrony (temporal unity) while spreading through different spaces (thus lacking spatial unity); moreover, it allows temporal unity to break down into discontinuous parts without losing its continuity (Levy 1998: 29–31).

4

This characterisation does not represent a monolithic categorisation of western political thought as homogeneously liberal, nor is it intended to reduce the global diversity in political ideas to the category of ‘non-western’ or to what they are not. The curtailing distinction is employed in this section merely for the sake of convenience.

5

By compatibility I refer to those critiques arguing that the mainly western-conceived digital sphere is partially or completely unsuitable to sub-Saharan scenarios or to African communities, societal challenges, and life values (see Okyere-Manu 2021).

6

Configurations of personhood vary across communitarianism, according if one espouses the radical (Menkiti 1984, 2004), moderate (Eze 2018; Gyekye 1997) or limited (Matolino 2018b) version.

7

People in Africa are less digitally connected than in other continents; for instance, data reports attest that 3G and 4G connections coverage are available throughout eighty percent and fifty percent of sub-Saharan Africa, in contrast to ninety-four percent and eighty-seven percent globally (GSMA Intelligence 2021a, 2021b). Notwithstanding, internet penetration is growing steadily in sub-Saharan Africa and the relative increase in internet users outshines that in other continents (Nemeckova 2021).

8

The ability to take part in community's activities, to contribute to the common good, and to engage in the scheme of reciprocities with others constitute the backbone of the lived dependencies supporting Afro-communitarian communities (Gyekye 1997; Gyekye and Wiredu 1992; Metz 2012; Wiredu 2001). Critics argue that communitarian theories fail to accommodate individuals who lack in socially relevant capabilities, such as children, foetuses, people with disabilities, barren people, queers, or homosexuals (Horsthemke 2018; Manzini 2018). As they are unable or incapable to reciprocate, they are ipso facto excluded from the political community.

9

On Wiredu's differentiation of political parties, see Wiredu (1995), Matolino (2013, 2018a), and Eze (2000).

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  • Rademacher, U., and T. Grant. 2019. ‘Out of Africa. A New Perspective on Digitalisation in Africa’, TATuP – Zeitschrift Für Technikfolgenabschätzung in Theorie Und Praxis 28 (2): 4147.

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  • Raimondi, S. 2020. ‘An All-Too-Human Future? Revolution, Utopia and the Many Lives of Humanity’, Contemporary Political Theory 19 (l): 9199. doi.org/10.1057/s41296-018-00302-y

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  • Ritter, M. 2021. ‘Postphenomenological Method and Technological Things Themselves’, Human Studies 44 (4): 581593. doi.org/10.1007/s10746-021-09603-5.

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  • Schwab, K. 2016. The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

  • Smith, T. G. 2017. Politicizing Digital Space: Theory, the Internet, and Renewing Democracy. London: University of Westminster Press.

  • Vindenes, J., and B. Wasson. 2021. ‘A Postphenomenological Framework for Studying User Experience of Immersive Virtual Reality’, Frontiers in Virtual Reality 2 (April). doi.org/10.3389/frvir.2021.656423.

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  • Wamala, E. 2004. ‘Government by Consensus: An Analysis of a Traditional Form of Democracy’. In K. Wiredu, W. E. Abraham, A. Irele, and I. A. Menkiti, A Companion to African Philosophy. Oxford (UK): Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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  • Wiredu, K. 1995. ‘Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics: A Plea for Non-Party Polity’, The Centennial Review 39 (1): 5364.

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  • Wiredu, K. 2001. ‘Society and Democracy in Africa’. In T. Kiros, Explorations in African Political Thought: Identity, Community, Ethics. London: Routledge.

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  • Wiredu, K. 2007. ‘Democracy by Consensus: Some Conceptual Considerations’, Socialism and Democracy 21 (3): 155170. doi.org/10.1080/08854300701599882.

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Contributor Notes

Claudia Favarato is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Humboldt Foundation, based at the University of Bayreuth (Germany). She worked as an assistant lecturer at ISCSP of the University of Lisbon; she obtained a PhD in Political Science and an MS in African Studies from the same University. In addition to an MS in International Politics and Diplomacy (University of Padua), she worked as visiting researcher at SOAS (University of London). Her main research interests are in political theory and philosophy, particularly emphasising the notions of humanness, political relations, and political community in African and communitarian political thought. E-mail: Claudia.Favarato@uni-bayreuth.de

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Theoria

A Journal of Social and Political Theory

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wiredu, K. 2007. ‘Democracy by Consensus: Some Conceptual Considerations’, Socialism and Democracy 21 (3): 155170. doi.org/10.1080/08854300701599882.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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