One urgently needed response arises from a straightforward analysis of the crisis itself. Economic union, carried to its logical conclusion, requires monetary union. Monetary union, as the crisis of the Euro shows, cannot be sustained without fiscal union. Fiscal union requires, in turn, political union. But economic, fiscal and political union remain impossible, as Brexit demonstrates, without cultural union: European citizens will only agree to share more sovereignty with one another if they increasingly identify with one another—that is, if they recognise other cultures in their own and the roots of their own culture in others. If Europe is to overcome its current crises, shared cultural identities of this kind must be given far greater weight.
Paradoxically, an opposite prognosis yields a similar conclusion. If Europe fails to overcome its current crises – that is, if the economic, monetary, and political bonds which tie the European Union together continue to unravel – then a heightened sense of solidarity will be even more important in preventing Europe from returning into the fratricidal madness of the twentieth century. Either way, Europe urgently needs a stronger sense of collective identity.
The CommonPlace project must therefore not be regarded as a response merely to the difficulties confronting the European Union in its present configuration. Instead, it should be regarded as a long-term investment in reinforcing a deeper sense of solidarity which can help the European continent thrive whatever our future may hold. The participants in this project are not united by their specific views on whether a looser, multi-speed EU is preferable to a fully federalist European state. What unites them is the project enshrined in the EU’s motto, In varietate concordia: they aim to reveal the deeper harmonies underlying Europe’s rich regional diversity, and to foster this deeper unity into a force which helps to ensure that Europe does not repeat the destructive mistakes of the past but continues to nourish the best of its post-war accomplishments.
How then are collective identities constructed on such a large scale? The crucial point is that they are not natural, organic things: they are cultural constructs. To create a robust national identity, whole cultural industries—literary, artistic, architectural, historical—have traditionally been required, buttressed by cultural institutions such as national libraries, archives, galleries, museums, and school curricula. Indeed, national institutions of this kind were created precisely to help generate the national allegiance which now seems second nature.
Fortunately, these national traditions and institutions also contain within them the seeds from which a transnational layer of identity could germinate. The reason is simple: no European country developed in isolation from the others. None of the great movements which created Western culture were narrowly national in character; and many of the ideas, values, styles, and conventions at the centre of national traditions are in fact local variations on broader continental themes. Reinforcing a transnational layer of identity, therefore, does not require the creation of a whole new set of transnational institutions: instead, it requires the extraction of international material from national repositories of every kind and interlinking of the objects in these collections with one another.
For extracting this international material, interlinking it across data sets, developing fresh data-driven narratives, and broadcasting their significance, the shapers of Europe’s future collective identity possess technology incomparably more powerful than anything available in the historical age of script and print, when national identities were formed. Moreover, the European Union and its constituent countries have already expended hundreds of millions of Euros of funding on different aspects of the history of transcontinental cultural exchange. The core proposal of CommonPlace is to harness the latest digital technology to integrate unconnected research data into new constellations which can provide material for reinforcing urgently needed new levels of European identity.
This strategy will be implemented via a tri-partite process. (1) Data selection (see Content). After consulting widely within their national communities, a pan-European panel of scholars from different disciplines will select a range of data sets, from within and outside the project consortium, which collectively document the chronological, geographical and disciplinary dimensions of a deep cultural history shared in various ways across and beyond Europe (WG6). (2) Infrastructure building for data integration and analysis (see Technology). The scholarly partners will then collaborate with IT experts in developing tools and systems to standardize and interlink this data to create a rich knowledge graph of Europe’s shared cultural heritage (WP7). In addition to core infrastructure (WP1) and support systems (WP5), these systems will include user-friendly tools for mining texts (WP3), systems for disambiguating and interlinking data while monitoring and maintaining data quality (WP4), and an extensive toolkit for exploring the CommonPlace knowledge graph and presenting the resulting data narratives to a variety of audiences (WP2). (3) Communication and outreach. All participants in the project will then work with a communications team to prepare selected results for dissemination to broader publics with the assistance of four mediating communities of expertise: educators, broadcasters and journalists, policy-makers and tourism and heritage organisations (WP8 and see Impact).
CommonPlace is therefore not a research project in search of an impact narrative: it is rather an impact engine, designed to aggregate the findings of many research projects, funded at great cost over many decades at the national and European level, at the scale needed to address an urgent contemporary problem.
Because Europe is not a monolith, a monolithic data repository is not an appropriate structure for our infrastructure. Major national cultural heritage organisations will hesitate to surrender control of their data to a single, centralised repository, nor can such a repository serve the needs of local and national scholarly communities which must populate the repository, or the publics which can benefit from it. Instead, what is needed is a distributed infrastructure leaving local providers in charge of their own data while allowing users to access all the data on the system easily, openly, and efficiently.
CommonPlace is therefore a distributed network of interconnected nodes and hubs. A node is any web server configured to serve as a CommonPlace data provider. A hub is a CommonPlace node which also serves as an aggregator of data offered by other nodes. A hub selects the data in the network relevant to a problem, maps this data to data objects, and issues a CommonPlace DOI (digital object identifier) which links back to the originating node. This structure allows users of the system to access and enrich data anywhere on the system while, at the same time, allowing data providers to remain in control of their own systems and data. CommonPlace does not require any partner either to migrate existing systems to a new environment, or to transfer data to a centralised data monolith at home or abroad.
A vivid impression of the opportunities arising from CommonPlace can be provided by imagining the following scenarios:
Theme 1: Language. Imagine an interactive interface showing how the basic vocabulary for many core disciplines in most European languages derives from Greek; how an even larger learned vocabulary stems from Latin; how the Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages are knit together semantically; and perhaps even the dates at which individual words transfer from one language to another. Moral: Europeans can only think and speak by using words and concepts derived from and shared with other cultures.
Theme 2: Media. Imagine an interactive digital atlas displaying the advent and spread of universities and the international academic travel of teachers and students from the eleventh century onward; the spread of papermaking, printing, newspapers, learned journals and popular magazines; the composition of individual libraries from books printed across Europe; the international networks of learned and diplomatic correspondence and the postal networks designed to facilitate them; as well as railways, telegraphy, motorways, air travel and internet traffic. Moral: Europeans have been engaged in steadily intensifying communication for a thousand years.
Theme 3: Knowledge. As a consequence of these shared languages and heightened communication, Europe’s greatest intellectual accomplishments typically derive from transnational collaboration. Perhaps the most famous of these, the astronomical revolution, is a case in point: Copernicus (a Pole) working with ancient Greek materials recently upgraded in Spain and Austria generated a fresh conception, tested empirically by Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler (Danish and German astronomers working for an Austrian emperor in Prague), furnished with a new physics beginning with Galileo (in Pisa and Florence) and Constantijn Huygens (a Dutchman working in Paris), and synthesized by Isaac Newton (an Englishman). Moral: Many of Europe’s greatest achievements are continental rather than merely national in origin.
Theme 4: Belief. Europe’s most enduring system of international exchange is ecclesiastical. The spread of Christian missions, the dissemination of religious orders, the administrative structure of parishes, bishoprics and archbishoprics, the learned institutions—scriptoria, monastic schools, universities—which evolved from these; the divisions of Greek, Roman, and Protestant churches; the coexistence and conflict between Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in the European space: all of these international stories can be rendered comprehensible via CommonPlace tools and data. Moral: many of the most profound assumptions and distinctive aspirations underlying European culture were established a thousand years and more ago at a very deep cultural level which most Europeans have in common.
Theme 5: Culture. Imagine a mobile app which could trace the origin of every artist represented in a national gallery, could show how its collections have been assembled from across Europe, and could thereby place national styles in their international contexts. Imagine the elements of classical and gothic architecture analysed and treated in similar fashion. Imagine an audio-visual system which could trace the historical lineage and geographical origin of every element of the language of musical notation, of the instruments of the modern orchestra, of the major styles of musical composition. Imagine the capacity to explore data on the international movement of painters, sculptors, master masons, architects, musicians, composers, dance and theatre companies, translations and adaptations of major works of European literature, and even the ongoing performance of masterpieces of European music across the concert halls of the continent. Imagine a similar treatment of modern popular culture: sport, fashion, food, music, or television. Moral: visual and aural evidence of our common European culture is all around us, if only we become capable of recognising it for what it is.
Theme 6: Power. Imagine the capacity to explore the dense genealogical web linking European ruling houses from the Middle Ages to the present day, the constantly shifting network of allegiances between them, and the exchange of culture between courts transacted by noble brides transporting artefacts and traditions from one part of Europe to another. Moral: competition between rulers and states is complemented by constant cultural exchange.
Theme 7: Events. Imagine the presentation of major events affecting huge swathes of Europe in one period or another: the movements of populations in prehistory mapped by modern genetics, the physical remains of the cultures and technologies they carried with them, the waxing and waning of the Roman Empire, the spread of the Black Death, the advent of the ‘little ice age’ of the seventeenth century, the sweeping changes of the Napoleonic era, industrialization, Romanticism, nationalism, the two World Wars, the Warsaw Pact and the Cold War, and the process of European unification itself. Moral: even at the level of ‘events’ which preoccupies much traditional national historiography, Europeans share many fundamentally important experiences.
By depositing the evidence of such multi-dimensional exchange not only in materials for formal educational study but in places where Europe’s citizens will stumble upon it unexpectedly—in heritage institutions, touristic materials, journalism and the media—CommonPlace intends to disseminate these transnational perspectives so broadly that they become an integral part of European daily experience and thereby an integral part of how they view themselves.