This week was the last lecture of my course on “The Future of Government” at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. I had planned to wrap up the course by talking about the “virtual state” – the possibility of nationhood, states, and governments as we know them detaching from territorial connections and becoming something new, incorporeal, even virtual. As I told students at the beginning of the term, I’m surprised by how much what I viewed as far off in the future when I first taught the course last year has hit the headlines and become reality in 2014. And sure enough, just before I left my office to present the afternoon’s lecture, this article landed in my email from the The Atlantic about Estonia issuing the first “e-resident” card.
Author Uri Friedman quotes Siim Sikkut, an information and communications technology advisor in the Estonian government, as disputing “that the e-residency scheme could disrupt the nation-state system as we know it.”
E-residency “is not meant to be a meaningful innovation in the sense of revolutionizing citizenship,” he noted. “We are solving a practical problem for people, allowing them to conduct business and carry out their lives more efficiently (meaning: digitally).”
I think this is a serious understatement. Right now, “e-residency” is conceived by Estonia as simply a way to market the country as the most e-advanced in the world and attract some business activity there by those abroad who appreciate the easy access that this new electronic system provides not just to the hyper-wired Estonian economy and government structures but also to all of Europe. But this pushes the envelope of state definition in several important ways.
First, this is very much a “branding” effort by Estonia – much like a commercial venture’s. And what the country is trying to do is to offer a service so much better than its “competitors’” that people choose to get their government from Estonia – just like a business. Finally, while some other cutting-edge governments before like Delaware and Nevada have adopted similar competitive strategies (as I discussed in this Atlantic piece), Estonia’s is the first actually to go “virtual” in the virtual world – totally abandoning any physical presence whatsoever (after all, what stays in Vegas actually has to have happened there first). Eventually, people will be choosing government from the best provider, regardless of location, and governments will be competing like – in fact will basically be – businesses.