Artificial intelligence and nationalism

  • Goode, Paul (PI)

Project: Other

Project Details


More than any technology since perhaps the Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence promises economic, social, and political disruption on an unprecedented scale. Some forecasts predict as much as 50% of jobs in the United States could be rendered obsolete by the expansion of AI. The mining of populations for the mass troves of data required to train AIs represents not only an unprecedented expansion of societal surveillance by states and global corporations but a simultaneous exacerbation of global inequalities. The political repercussions of the sudden growth of AI are only beginning to be felt, manifesting in the AI-powered campaigns to influence voting in the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US presidential election in 2016. Mistrust of politicians and dissatisfaction with government led one in three people in the UK and Germany (and 43% in the Netherlands) to prefer that artificial intelligence somewhat or totally made important decisions about running the country (Rubio and Lastra 2019: 10).

It is therefore surprising that scholars of nationalism have paid relatively little attention to artificial intelligence. Just as striking is the fact that little of the existing literature on AI is concerned with the implications for social identities and national cultures. Part of the reason for this gap may simply be that social scientists tend to focus on human populations and agency, while discussions of AI are perceived as science fiction, speculative futures, or techno-evangelism. Yet such concerns have not prevented sociologists from considering the moral and ethical challenges arising from the widespread deployment of AI (Hauer 2018; Misselhorn 2018). Likewise, they have not prevented economists from theorizing and even formalizing models of the risk of moral hazard arising from the use of AIs in health care (Mullainathan and Obermeyer 2017) or addressing the ethical obligations of developers in authoring algorithms that affect decisions ranging from employment to loan eligibility to political advertising (Martin 2018).

Perhaps the reason why scholars of nationalism have paid little attention to AI is simply that they forgot the principle insight of modernist approaches: that nationalism produced nations and not the reverse. Nationalism in other words is not solely the product of human agency but a phenomenon emerging at the intersection of cultural, political, and economic structures. Those analysing the emergence of nationalism were forced to explain the emergence of nations where previously there were none, at a particular time, in a particular part of the world, and then to account for its spread as the presumed unit of social organization and the basis of legitimacy for modern states. In today’s world, in which the idea of the nation is ubiquitous, it is a truism to say that nationalism changes with the times. Disruptive technologies can empower the powerless, influence the movements of populations and ideas across borders in ways that change how the nation is imagined in daily life, and even facilitate revolution. Political and social organizations owing their existence to the idea of the nation respond with anxiety to changing demographics. International principles binding legitimacy and sovereignty to the idea of the nation can change along with notions of security, community, and even civilization. The persistence of the idea of the nation is testament to its stickiness—the nation is constantly re-invented rather than dis-invented. And when faced with the extent of social, economic, and political disruption already being caused by the growth of AI, it is essential that scholars consider its implications for the re-invention of nations and nationalism.

This project represents a first cut at considering the implications of AI for nationalism. It is intended to prod the study of nationalism towards a more forward-looking agenda, and might therefore be viewed as a heuristic exercise that aims to stimulate new hypotheses about the relationship between AI and nationalism.
Effective start/end date1/03/19 → …


  • artificial intelligence
  • nationalism

RCUK Research Areas

  • Political Science
  • Science And Technology Studies


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