Internet Culture in Germany “Get cracking, instead of despairing” – Five Statements

Graffiti in Büsum

Is there such a thing as a Net culture in Germany and, if so, what are its attributes? What role might it play for the Internet of the future? Five commentaries.

We often hear that it is typically German to be all gloom and doom about the Internet. It has often been said that the Germans are overcritical and opposed to innovation when dealing with a technology that has in fact brought us so many advantages – advantages that other countries, above all the USA, recognised so quickly and knew how to exploit. But is it really true? If the answer is yes, then can we really be blamed for adopting a more reflective approach in view of all the risks inherent in this brave, new digital world that we have in the meantime become aware of? What, if anything, might a typically German Internet culture be and what utopias can it be connected with? These are the questions that have been mulled over by Stefan Plöchinger, Editor-in-Chief at Süddeutsche.de, Alexander Markowetz, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Bonn, Alexander Pschera, author and director of the Maisberger PR Agency, Dorothee Bär, Parliamentary State Secretary under the Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure and the Internet activist padeluun. 

Stefan Plöchinger, Editor-in-Chief at Süddeutsche.de

Stefan Plöchinger Stefan Plöchinger | © DPA Apparently sausages are typically German. Punctuality and autobahns, too, not to mention all kinds of things that we like to reproach ourselves for such as narrow-mindedness or pessimism.

In line with this logic it is, for example, a typical German thing for us Germans to be pessimistic about the Internet. It would in turn also be typically German, if we Germans accused ourselves of not having a real Net culture, because we are such doom merchants when it comes to the Internet. It would presumably even be typically German, if we were to accuse the opponents of the Internet doom merchants of being too pessimistic themselves.

I have been asked why, in the wake of the NSA affair, the Germans have not become even more politicised when it comes to Internet freedoms. Why the people are more interested in reading about the German Automobile Association ADAC than about the Snowden scandal. Or whether all this bemoaning is typically German, whether the Germans have a poorer Net culture than the progressive USA – or indeed whether a German Net culture, or even a European one, would be better? A whole lot of questions all at once, I have, however, managed to fuse them into one overall question: How good or bad is the German strain of Net culture, if it in fact actually exists at all?

My answer is that I would much rather prefer to respond to the individual questions. Almost all Americans became indifferent to the revelations about the NSA much faster than the Germans, which is why Barack Obama was unfortunately able to adopt a relaxed approach so quickly. For a while the ADAC scandal was newer, fresher, more exciting than the Snowden scandal that had been going on for such a long time, so much so that readers were possibly delighted by the distraction. It might well be the case, under certain circumstances, maybe, probably, or even not the case, that it is typically German for Germans to castigate themselves with questions about the fundamental nature of things on the Net or elsewhere, instead of freeing their minds and living a carefree life.

As an employee of a digitalised publishing house I have not only had experience with doom merchants who predict the demise of the press due to the Internet, but also with the accusation that conservative journalism is plagued by a typically German rejection of progress; in short, with self-referential debates similar to that of a “typically German Net culture“. They still manage to impact superbly on the third meta-level, because they are so pleasantly remote from life that one can still have a really good argument about the basics. Unfortunately the reality is infinitely more complicated, so to speak mega-complex, instead of mega-levelled.

This is why I would like to readdress the question – why should we ponder the question of what a typically German Net culture is? What at all is the meaning of Net culture in this debate, what makes it different from non-Net culture? Does German culture still exist today – is it so distinct or are we a multi-generational multi-culture right in the middle of Europe and the world? And is there really any concrete benefit from discussing these things publicly, when the first things we want to know about, after all, are NSA and Snowden?

I have also been asked whether I associate a utopia with the Internet and what role a German Net culture might play in it. My answer to this is that the thing I love about the Internet is the uncomplicated, for example, being able to do new things as a journalist, but also the in-your-face experimenting in the battle against government monitoring  – without getting bogged down, brooding over modern variations of sausages, punctuality, autobahns, narrow-mindedness and gloom and doom. If anything on the Net is to become typically German, then let it be the “get cracking, instead of despairing” approach.
 

Stefan Plöchinger, born in 1976, is Digital Editor-in-Chief at the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and member of the main editorial office. He previously worked for Spiegel Online, the Financial Times Deutschland and the Abendzeitung as executive editor, editor-in-chief and political editor.

Alexander Markowetz, Assistant Professor for Computer Science at the University of Bonn

Alexander Markowetz Alexander Markowetz | © Alexander Markowetz There is a specifically German approach to issues related to Net culture and net politics. When Big-Data technologies are being discussed in Germany, then above all in the form of threat scenarios. Outside Germany people like to refer to this as the “German Angst”. In contrast to this, however, the US-American discourse is substantially more opportunity-oriented. At times, however, it even seems to be a little starry-eyed and exaggeratedly optimistic.

In order to understand the various positions the early stages of the discourse have to be borne in mind. On the one hand “fatalistic believers” propound that technology spreads democracy and makes us all better people. This position is as trite as it is naive; it can easily lead to people envisaging highly dangerous scenarios. On the other hand, “nostalgic reactionaries” see only the problems and no opportunities.

The state of affairs is reminiscent of the 19th century, when people were arguing about the opportunities and limits of industrialisation. On the one hand, industrialists propagated the unlimited deployment of technology, under unspeakable working conditions. On the other, luddites tried to simply ban industrialisation.

In retrospect the discourses of the 19th century seem trite and naive. The current state of the discourse on digital technologies is not much further. I do not mean that negatively. We are only at the very beginning of a long, complex discourse, in which humanity has to find out what, for example, it wants to use Big-Data for, and what it does not want to use it for. In the meantime mankind has learned what the technologies of the industrialisation era should be used for (fantastic products for the masses) and what not for (positional warfare, genocide, destruction of the environment). This process of convergence, however, took a hundred years.

Data-intensive technologies are not inherently evil. In 19th century London they were able to stop a cholera epidemic from spreading by pinpointing the deaths on a map of the city, and identifying three focuses of infection at water sources. The field of medicine has been working for two thousand years on a vision of the “transparent human being”, in order to help him. It has also been collecting highly critical data for exactly the same length of time. They serve the patient’s well-being and are protected by the Hippocratic Oath. So, as we see, dealing with critical data is actually not so new as we thought. The only thing is that, at the moment, we are opening up new areas of application much faster than we can evaluate them socially.

The actual problem and the real reason behind the current resentment that we are, above all, experiencing here in Germany, is, in fact, quite a different one - it is the way Big-Data is above all being deployed at the moment. Personal data are being collected mostly by private companies, which then use the data to generate capital. And it is absolutely justified and urgently necessary to be sceptical about this in so-to-speak true German style. In this context a renaissance of the classic business model springs to mind - the user avails himself of a service and pays for it. Full stop! The forwarding of data to a third party is ruled out, preventing any undesired long-term consequences. The situation remains secure and clear. The German Internet industry would do well to maintain its reflective position and to prepare suitable products to offer.
 

Alexander Markowetz, born in 1976, is an Assistant Professor for Computer Science at the University of Bonn. His focus is, among other things, on the psychosocial consequences of digitalisation. Within the framework of a study entitled Menthal he is examining the use of mobile telephones.

Alexander Pschera, Director of the Maisberger Agency, Author and Blogger

Alexander Pschera Alexander Pschera | © Alexander Pschera Whenever the focus is on the way technology is to be integrated in our society, we Germans often get bogged down by our own thoroughness. “First think very deeply about it, then think about it again, and then (maybe) apply what you have thought,” seems to be the Golden Rule. Never-ending fussing and tinkering, along with obsessive security awareness have earned Germany the reputation of procrastinating on innovation.

And not completely without justification. The way the Germans deal with the Net is a good example of this. Only a few German companies have succeeded in adapting their corporate culture and business model to the realities of the digital world. For a long time the Net was not taken very seriously, then it suddenly turned into an apocalyptic threat. The publishing houses missed the boat, so to speak, with Google, and the large retailer chains, above all, Media-Saturn, with Amazon. There is also no real Net culture in Germany; if, at all, it is a subculture, consisting of nice little food blogs, practical Youtube cycling tutorials and the blogger and author, Sascha Lobo and the Berliner re:publica. The country’s elite has a critical attitude towards the Net. The masses use it with out thinking.

The Net has now reached the point when it urgently needs to decide to go down a third road - a road that will lead it between the nerds and the procrastinators and into the heart our society. Otherwise we run the danger of the Internet dividing our society. It is not easy to envisage the form this third road is to take. The normative power of the Net itself is huge. It clouds our vision of options and hypotheses. It is, however, nevertheless there. When it comes to establishing this third road, German virtues may well come in handy. They could enable us to make an institution out of what up to now has been more or less uncontrolled, prolific growth.

So far the Net has been left to its own devices. The development of the Net has been determined by the idea of self-organisation. Just what the American pioneer spirit had been waiting for. Any collateral damage like the NSA affair and the increasingly scary activities that Google gets up to are accepted as integral elements of the system. In this respect the medium term is expected to bring little change. For this Internet generation the benefits and privileges have already been distributed. The setting up of a national infrastructure à la #schlandnet embodied more the character of a touching experiment. “Security made in Germany” may well represent a respectable showing for some people, but not really anything more.

The German virtue of delaying technological innovation could also force the Net to come of age in a different respect. It could make a Slow Net out of the Fast Net that is only focused on guzzling, digesting and excretion - a regional one that embraces an identity, a network to spend time in, one of perfection, one of thoroughness, and one of absorption. The Slow Net has nothing to do with connection speed, but more with the quality of what it can be used for. The digital world has to slow down. It has to find the time to embed itself in the real lives that people lead. And this is where we Germans can help. The Net after all is not what it is, but what we make out of it.
 

Alexander Pschera is the Director of the Maisberger Agency in Munich, he is also an author and a blogger. He regularly contributes articles to the monthly periodical Cicero and to Deutschlandradio Kultur. Numerous essays by him on the digital world have been published, in 2014 his Das Internet der Tiere. Der neue Dialog zwischen Mensch und Natur was published by the Verlag Matthes & Seitz publishing house in Berlin.

Dorothee Bär, member of German Federal Parliament

Dorothee Bär Dorothee Bär | © CSU If one were to coin a phrase to describe a German or a European Net culture, the words responsibility and autonomy would automatically spring to mind. I believe that these two aspects might well be the key with which we can close and lock the Pandora’s Box that so many people feel is wide open at the moment and might well open up a path for us towards a digital society that would be beneficial to us all.

Digitalisation does not simply just continue what it once started, it poses fundamental questions of principle and confronts us with signposts without any destinations. We do not know where the journey is going to take us, but we have to be clear about which direction the journey should be moving in and we, as a community, have to decide what we are going to take with us on this journey and what we are going to leave behind.


In this case we are not just dealing with the further development of technology, not just with the opportunities that may arise for Germany as a location factor, not just with the question of research and science; it is all about the foundations of what holds us together as a society. It is about a notion of culture, values and codices that are in line with the digital age in a world that has changed and yet still assure us of what is important and what has to remain important.

Legal and moral issues blend together and the Internet’s perception of freedom collides with the security standards of the old analogue world. Laws mostly come about in the form of a package of values. And even if the values remain the same, the form of the package has to change in such a way that it does not become a hindrance, but more a support. In concrete terms this means that laws have to be adapted to the reality of life, without losing or betraying anything of their substance – often a balancing act.

The mandate of laws is to protect people in situations when self-responsibility becomes ineffective – for example, when either one’s own government or that of another country spies on people without any reason. Laws have to protect citizens without depriving them at the same time of the possibilities and opportunities that make their lives easier. Companies have to have the possibility of not only conceiving innovations, but also of devising and developing them to strengthen their business position. In return we demand that these companies maintain an  awareness of responsibility towards their customers and users.

We have to rethink terms like data economy and replace them with more realistic terms, such as data management. It is not a question of not processing any data or as little data as possible, but a question of doing it in such a way that the process is carried out transparently and responsibly. Media skills, modern legislation and an awareness of digital responsibility at all levels of our society are the main ingredients that should be embraced by the concept of a German, a European or even a global Internet culture.
 

Dorothee Bär is a member of the German Federal Parliament and Parliamentary State Secretary under the Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. She is also  Chairperson of the Internet Council of the Christian Social Union (CSU) party and the “virtual association” CSUnet.

padeluun, Artist and Net Activist

padeluun padeluun | © Veit Mette I believe that we do in fact have a very independent German Net culture – a long time before the Internet had established itself as a technology network there were already several serious mailbox systems in operation in Germany. Many of these networks, even the Z-Netz in which I was involved, were used to exchange ideas on socio-political issues and to channel political commitment. There then came the early setting up of the Chaos Computer Club hacker network. When compared with similar initiatives, like the ones that also sprang up in the USA, the scene was homogeneous, frequented by computer nerds from good, middle-class families. In the case of the Chaos Computer Club, however, things were in fact quite different. Right from the start there had been a broad spectrum of opinions and biographies. The co-founder, Wau Holland, was not only a hacker, but also a regular data philosopher who contributed to the idea of data networking not being thought of as a purely technological phenomenon.

This enabled the German Net culture scene to very quickly develop an awareness for what this so-called data networking was actually all about – namely not just about the data, but primarily about how they should be dealt with and the effects that this would have on people who communicate with each other in this way. In no time at all the need came about to share this attitude with others, for example, at the big trade fairs like the CeBit, where back in 1990 there were already sponsored stands dealing with various issues of Net politics.

It also became clear very quickly – and I think this is particularly relevant to the discourse at the moment – that digital networking is an extremely complex phenomenon that soon puts people under a lot of strain, as there are no figures or values based on experience in the past. It is after all hard to grasp what kind of value often seemingly harmless data might have if they are connected in a particular way. It is hard to grasp that this data can be used for all kinds of purposes, sometimes even to one’s own personal detriment. And that the personal data is affected even of those people who totally reject the Net.

Nevertheless I believe that we can learn to deal with this situation in such a way that would not necessarily end up in dystopia. I assume that at some time more and more people will realise just how important it actually is to exchange intimacies and keep secrets. I am optimistic that the exchange of digital data in the near future is going to be done only in encrypted form; another reason for my optimism is the fact that we are dealing with a huge market potential that, above all, German companies will exploit. And, even more important, the fact that, despite the serious breach of trust at the moment, we still have the possibility to establish systems that we can in fact really trust. And we can do all this without having to despairingly force ourselves, often even against our own will, to become data ascetics.
 

The artist who has been performing under the name of padeluun since 1976 is a founding member of the non-party, civil rights association, Digitalcourage e.V., and one of the organisers and jury members of the German Big Brother Awards. He was furthermore a member of the Commission of Enquiry on the Internet and the Digital Society that was called into being by the 17th German Bundestag.