Space race for the people
“Europe needs a Space Programme. But instead of racing to outer space, as seems fashionable among global powers and private zillionaires, Europe’s Space Programme should be earth bound and race to reach the people of Europe. Creating a functioning European public space will not only fire up all sorts of technological innovation but most importantly strengthen a European sense of belonging, a European society of sharing and enable a 21 Century Renaissance,” writes our director André Wilkens in his contribution to The Next Renaissance.
We are living through pandemic times. As well as Covid-19, there is a climate pandemic, a pandemic of inequality, a pandemic of polarisation. These individual pandemics are interconnected and together they are creating unpredictable dynamics. There is no way back to a normality which had already become increasingly self-destructive.
Human history has shown that crises can also be times of opportunity, creativity, and invention. The 14-16 centuries were times of brutal power struggle, never ending wars, black death and misery. But they also unleashed a movement of radical transformation, discovery, and beauty, the first European Renaissance. Can our times unleash a similar creative boost? Can our times give birth to a 21 Century Renaissance? Future generations will be able to tell. Our job is to make it happen.
Here is one element which I consider vital for the next European Renaissance to succeed.
Our public and civic spaces are shrinking, are more restricted, more segregated, more commercial and covered in advertising. When governments turn autocratic, public spaces are especially vulnerable to mass surveillance abuse and manipulation.
The European public space is nascent. Where it exists, art and culture have been its forerunners. Look at the range of European orchestras, festivals, exhibitions, pop culture and architecture, Eurovision and the Champions League.
National filter bubbles
What do I mean by public space, anyway? Isn’t this just another abstract European buzzword? Well, yes and no. Yes, we should not waste time on hot air that distracts from real issues. And no, because we often fail to find common European answers to common European problems because we don’t have an effective space and mechanism for working things out. Or, maybe the Brussels bubble does, but the European public doesn’t, and that’s no longer good enough.
Our awareness of what’s going on around us is still largely determined by our national context and reality. We are still trapped in national filter bubbles. We adopt a national perspective on European issues such as pandemic responses, migration, the Euro, data security, energy, climate crisis, unemployment and tax evasion, seeing them in terms of national actors and national interests. What would the solution to the European debt crisis have looked like if we had dealt with it through a truly European lens? Or would the Germans have called for a European approach to refugee policy not only when refugees arrived in Germany but already years earlier when Greece and Italy struggled to cope with rising numbers of boat people? Could Victor Orban’s wacky conspiracy theories have gained so much traction if the Hungarian people had been part of a truly European public space and independent European media space?
A structural problem
Digital technology is making this challenge even greater. The internet could be a space for global enlightenment, but instead it risks becoming an anti-enlightenment echo chamber. The digital filter bubble is narrowing our horizons to our own social media environment and likes. Those who understand to play the filter bubble game best, win attention, market share and elections.
The digital European public space has been colonised by non-European private platforms with little regard for democratic values and privacy standards. They have profited massively, and still do, from the systematic exploitation of European data, without paying their fair share for European content and for extracting billions and billions of Euros from European users while freeriding the European digital space. A genuine European public space is of little interest to the click-economy apart from data mining and maximising advertising revenue.
At the same time the business model of quality journalism is eroding. This is becoming a systemic risk for Europe and a threat to democracy at large.
In addition, in some EU countries even the national public space is coming under pressure: If media pluralism and independence are disappearing in places like Poland and Hungary, this has a direct effect on the whole way in which the EU operates and sets standards, or not.
Hence it is not surprising that we lack a shared understanding of problems and opportunities, let alone on finding genuine European solutions. In the long run, our European community, our European Democracy will flourish only if supported and controlled by a functioning European public space rather than fragmented national ones.
We need a European Space Programme, a public space programme that connects people, is meaningful, safe, open for creative opportunities and inclusive. We need to invest in a European public space that offers a framework for togetherness, for exchange, for real European communication, for us all and not just for a select few. This task cannot be left to the invisible hand of the market, or be surrendered to operators like Meta/Facebook, Starbucks or Alibaba. This is about identity, democracy, and the future of the European model.
The European Space Programme must guarantee freedom of speech and maintain diversity without becoming mired in bureaucracy. It must not become a propaganda tool for the European Union in any way and be subject to clear and credible governance.
This Space programme should support all formats which create a European public space, digital and analogue, as well as innovative combinations of the two. This includes European media, European social media platforms, games, but also festivals and events like Eurovision, Awards, library networks and all kinds of other things we can scarcely dream of today.
The multilingual advantage
The killer app will be a solution to the language challenge. The EU has 24 official languages and a whole lot of semi-official ones. This makes it naturally more difficult to create a public space than in a community with only one language. Europe should take on this challenge proactively by exploiting the rapid development of digital translation technology. Serious investment in a multilingual public space will have spill over effects into other areas of our societies, and could be a key element of Europe’s innovation policy.
Show me the money
Space programmes cost money. We should be prepared to spend a multitude on a functioning, fair and inclusive public space on earth rather that we spent on reaching outer space. Apart from sufficient funding, a successful initiative for a European public space will require a balanced mix of good governance, appealing formats, effective distribution channels, cutting edge language technology and fair regulation. What sounds quite straight forward, will indeed mean squaring the circle, or put more optimistically, will be one of Europe’s most exciting and innovative ventures for the next decades, indeed a European Space Programme.
Much of the money needed could come from fees on big digital platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. This fee on platform providers will be part of financing the European public space and enable the currently dominant digital platforms that are already profiting from a borderless Europe to contribute to a functioning and healthy European public space. Protecting people’s personal data, and minimising the amount of advertising they are exposed to, can and should be a competitive advantage and a must of the European public space.
Creating a European Public Space is a big task. But there is a lot at stake: identity, democracy, freedom and the future of the European model. Over the past years, we have had many opportunities to see what can happen when civic public spaces are neglected and taken over by post-factual filter bubbles. That is why we need to invest in a European Space Programme to power up the Next European Renaissance.