Jan-Hendrik Passoth on Interoperability for Digital Public Space. This is the seventh part of our series of interviews with experts on how to get to public-civic spaces and the role of interoperability in getting there.... read more
Digital or Smart?
In the report of Copenhagen Economics that introduces the concept of DSM, the adjective "digital" is seemingly used in the term DSM in a very neutral way, to describe a market related to broadly understood ICT technologies:
"Digital technology and ICT are so-called general purpose technologies which affect most areas of the economy, driving up general productivity levels and fostering innovation a cross a wide spectrum of activities. Therefore digital technology and ICT are major sources of growth and consumer benefits."
In other words, DSM has to do with "anything that starts with an e-". By referring to the concpet of general purpose technologies, the DSM concept thus applies to a very broad concept of a market, funded on the use of a technology defined purely by its technical characteristics.
The Communication of the EC on the "Digital Agenda for Europe" similarly does not see the need to define the term digital, defined simply as related to the "enabling role that the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)". It also takes for granted that the "transformational power of ICT is clear".
It is this assumption that we need to consider, and possibly question. Are there other, related terms, that could define our proposal in a way that does not take the role and affordances of technologies for granted?
Interestingly, the concurrently published strategic document "Europe 2020" uses a different approach that more strongly secures the policy vision in certain values, instead of a promise of a technology. These values are: smartness, sustainability and inclusion.
The adjective "smart" is particularly interesting for us. The document defines smart growth as "developing an economy based on knowledge and innovation". There is a strong line of critique of this term (see for example: Adam Greenfield, "Radical technologies"; Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria, "Rethinking the Smart City"). Yet it seems a step forward in relation to the falsely neutral term "digital".
Digital policy has a tradition of thinking about the digital as a simple modernising movement, with effects that are obvious, clear and easily measured. One that is at best quantified, as more bandwidth, more processing power, more data. . Yet we see today that the effects of employing digital technologies are not so simple. The digital has a transformative power that can align with varied values. It is therefore important to understand digitisation and the digital as a complex process that should be value-driven and user-oriented. The values at heart of digital transformation should be clearly expressed - possibly, through use of different adjectives than just "the digital".
Having said that, while semiotic analysis of shifts in EU terminology is tempting, it should not form the core of our argument. This terminology has clearly been shifting over years, and the changes seem to be a natural part of the EU's policymaking process. We either need to better understand the internal mechanisms behind these shifts, or not overestimate their signifiance.
One possible approach, in order to better understand these internal mechanisms, would be to use Freedom of Information rules to obtain further documents and information about the origins of the concept of DSM.
European AI and Data Community
What would be the core concept of the European Community, if it was to be created today, and not in 1951? It would certainly not be based around a common market for coal and steel. Instead, it would aim to create a common European market for data - today's crucial raw material. Possibly, it would also aim to strengthen, through regional cooperation, Europe's position in the Artificial Intelligence race.
In today's times of climate crisis, this pedigree of the European Union, as a mechanism for regional cooperation with regard to fossil fuels, is almost obscene.
Europe as a shared communication space
If the founding fathers of Europe were to build a project of European cooperation today, maybe they would search for a different vector of political and social cohesion than market forces? Today, communication networks create a Europe-wide space of interactions that was non-existent 70 years ago. A new European project could thus focus not on a shared, single market, but a shared single space of interaction and communication.
Yet if we are to map such spaces today, we would find them not among publicly funded European proejcts. Commercially owned internet platforms are today the real space of European communication. These platforms (although none of them are just European in scope) or the only examples of shared, unified, EU-wide communication spaces. This is in stark contrast to the circulations of communication and content shaped by traditional, creative industries. These circulations remain strongly tied to national, or linguistic divisions - this of course varies between content types, with press being a form that is still largely national (let us note the lack of a pan-European press title), while in the sphere of music there are multiple examples of what could be defined as cultural cross-border flows (for example, the case of Swedish pop or Turkish telenovelas).
This suggests that a vision of digital Europe might in fact be a vision of properly regulated commercial platforms (Presuming that any vision of a European, public infrastructure that fulfills same goals is not realistic).
The advantage of such approach would be its alignment with the developing focus of European digital policy on platform regulation: as seen in the new copyright proposals, debates about intermediary liability, but also broader debates about digital public sphere, fake news and disinformation or the sharing economy.
A strategic vision of online platforms (commercial or public) as European public or civic space needs to be grounded in a strong theoretical concept. This concept needs to relate the current reality of online platforms with a vision of public space and civic interaction at European level. It also needs to ask in what way such space can be European.
As we address the issue of online platforms as shared European communication spaces, we need to acknowledge the fundamentally divided, Balkanized, shattered character of this communication. it is not certain to me, whether we in principle can define this space as a commons. James Birdle writes in "The New Dark Age" that "We are all looking at the same sky and seeing radically different things" and makes a strong case of paranoid thought being the norm in today's public debate. If that is the case, there is no civic commons in Europe - there are only algorithms providing unified control and governance over a deeply fragmented and conflicted communications landscape.
What does this mean for our project and our product?
- We need to unpack the term digital as not neutral and not obvious. We need to define the values that we believe should drive digitisation and the digital Europe.
- Following issues that I mention above could be translated into pillars of our framework:
- Shared digital, online, public space: addressing both positive aspects (platform cooperativism, for instance) and negative ones (disinformation, etc.)
- Platform regulation
- Data flows in Europe as more than raw digital material for the market.
- We need to decide whether our approach is anti-market, complimentary with the DSM vision, or some hybrid vision of an alternative market (along the lines proposed by Mazzucato and IIP).