Questioning the Euro tech narratives

There’s a been a lot (a lot!) of talk about Europe’s, and particularly Germany’s, take on digitization and tech innovation. Sometimes using the Industry 4.0 terminology (connected factories and the like), sometimes framed using European vs US startup success stories (“Where’s a German Google?”).

While a debate about tech innovation, adaption rates and access to the benefits of new technology is necessary – especially when it comes to providing a supporting political framework – I can’t help but notice a few narratives floating around that are quite wide-spread and seem to be dubious at best.

Narrative 1: Euro Techno Panic

Jeff Jarvis likes to speak of a Euro techno panic. I think the world of him, and I very much see his point. Yet, of course it’s still nonsense to some degree.

Yes, there’s a main stream media bias that’s quite techno panicky, and this is reflected by strong fractions in the political sphere. Particularly the large publishers (I’m looking at you, Axel Springer!), which I assume would be one of the main groups Jeff speaks to when he’s in the country, are horrible horribly anti-internet. Or rather, not anti-net per se, but they were a driving force behind good ol’ Leistungsschutzrecht (#LSR for short, or ancillary copyright), an abomination of a legal initiative to wring cash out of Google for indexing (and sending traffic to) newspaper websites. (Edit: For a good overview of just how horrible #LSR is, jump right back to Jeff Jarvis’ article on it, which covers this excellently.) It was an attempted land grab if anything: Let’s keep other potent players out of the country so we can continue our business uninterrupted. If you talk only to these folks and the more conservative politicians, then yes, I can see how you could get the impression of a ubiquitous Euro techno panic.

And this is the myth that’s been spreading particularly in the US.

However, pretty much everyone in the industry, everyone who works professionally with tech, does not share in that notion. We are annoyed by this presumed techno panic as much as anyone, if not more so. We also can very well get our work done just routing around it, because in the end we know how to find a way to work even when some silly mainstream media throw around half-baked criticism. If anything it keeps us on our toes, and might help us reflect more.

Which leads us to…

Narrative 2: Germany moves slowly, but deliberately

The second narrative is the one that’s been spreading inside Germany: That tech adaption here is slower, but somehow more deliberate, more reflected, and hence magically better.

In a recent article titled “Suche nach dem Morgen” (“The Search for Tomorrow”), Handelsblatt reported from Cebit about the state of affairs in digital Germany as debated (“never before have experts discussed the future of the German economy as intensely”) and presented (“and never before were so many studies presented about this topic”) at Cebit. Really? Never before? I call BS on that.

The authors go on to elaborate on what they call a “German way of the digital revolution” that isn’t “hectic” but “well-considered” or “deliberate”, following the slogan: “Progress is a snail, but even the snail arrives.”

This, to me, is somewhat baffling. What kind of argument is this?

I hasten to add that I don’t mean to single out the authors of this particular articles: They pick up a narrative that is widespread in Germany, especially among industry, analysts and politicians, namely that slow automatically means better & more deliberate. This, of course, is not just over-simplified, it’s also wrong. There’s no causality there. Rather, we see large players with a lot of skin in the game post-rationalizing their own actions and re-framing them as deliberate.

It’s well possible to move very slowly, and maybe even deliberately, and still be wrong or off track.

Narrative 3: Avoiding US practices and partners is the best way forward

Now let’s look just briefly at a third narrative that often lurks just beneath the surface in these debates. That US practices, companies and partners are an inherent risk, because they don’t respect European privacy and consumer protection rights.

This is a particularly interesting one since it touches on so many aspects. For one, yes, Europe has a very different approach to privacy, data protection and consumer rights. In some ways it’s just different (Persönlichkeitsrecht or personal rights trumps freedom of expression; instead of a purely economic copyright, the German analog Urheberrecht has certain inalienable so-called moral facets). In other cases European regulations are flat-out stricter, especially when it comes to how customer data might be used for commercial purposes.

Back to the Handelsblatt article, where Jeremy Rifkin is quoted with his well-phrased, but somewhat dubious claim that a “digital silk road” might offer opportunities, indicating that partnering with China might offer tremendous economic potential. While this is certainly true, how partnering with Chinese rather than US companies will lead to the before-mentioned slow, deliberate, privacy-conscious development that distinguishes, according to the authors, Germany from the US puzzles me. If anything, Chinese internet companies are moving faster and with less focus on privacy and consumer protection than their US counterparts.

All of these narratives are evocative – and wrong

What strikes me as somewhat dangerous is that these are all narratives that are very alluring, evocative – and ultimately wrong.

Yes, Germany is slower in terms of adopting certain aspects of digitization. Dangerously so if you look at broadband access, digital literacy, and the horrendous data retention rules that don’t seem to die in parliament.

Also, there’s a strong culture of privacy protection (from commercial interest), paired with an evenly strong culture of forfeiting privacy (when it comes to state interventions and security). This, however, is hardly deliberate. It’s just slow and weird in much the same sense (if a different flavor) that in Silicon Valley things move fast and weird.

So what’s next?

So where do we stand really, what are the strenghts and weaknesses, the opportunities and challenges?

This is what I’m still trying to work out for myself and to articulate coherently. As of now, my raw and unpolished thoughts are these:

  • Germany has the infrastructure, industry, educational institutions and financial resources to be a big participant in the next wave of tech innovation.
  • Germany’s media, politics and main stream have been (for years!) trumping each other in both claiming that Germany’s in a great position, but ultimately been promoting what Jeff Jarvis refers to as Euro techno panic, much to the chagrin of those of use in the industry and tech scene. We can (and do) work around these prejudices and obstacles, no problem (edit) but need to get better at preventing them.
  • What Germany (and large, but not all, parts of Europe) needs is a better political framework for innovation, namely in the shape of education (web literacy and the like), less aggressively stupid laws put in place by lobbyists (like liability for copyright infringements for anyone who operates a wifi hotspot) and infrastructure investments (broadband, anyone?).
  • Better personnel on the top political level around digitization: Germany’s ambassador for digitization Gesche Joost for example is excellent, but has little “hard power” in government. European commissioner for the digital economy and society Günther Oettinger, on the other hand, is at best a liability. (Just a few weeks ago, Oettinger compared the Net Neutrality movement to the Taliban. Any more questions?)
  • Update: As Jeff Jarvis points out, the German & European tech scene and industry needs to get much better at running a concerted campaign against silly, harmful laws like #LSR and others to come.

Apart from these, let us let the stereotypes be stereotypes and just get back to work. And instead of spreading the narratives above, let’s write some new ones. How about that?

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