Non-Fiction

Jahlia Solomon

Watching the live Mark Zuckerberg inquiry from my couch in Berlin was challenging.

 

It was difficult to stomach the precarious way Facebook account data has been stolen, farmed and churned into user profiles, for companies to force-feed information right back to us.

 

Even harder to bear was the struggle that many Berlin dwellers (and likely every person who has ever been online) knows well: flickering wifi bars. Not quite being able to remain connected to the internet. It kills me. After half an hour of frustration, trying to disconnect and reconnect to my modem, I decided to visit a cafe nearby instead. I was cut short by a waitress who told me that laptops were not allowed in my area, and that all the computer tables were taken. After trying two more cafes with similar policies, I gave up.

 

Walking home, I realised the slightly ironic situation I had found myself in. Here I was trying to understand how the most influential social networking platform was under the spotlight for it’s murky privacy policy, whilst living in a country whose commitment to privacy contributed, albeit indirectly, to my struggle in watching it in the first place.

 

There is a resistance to the internet in Berlin which could be attributed to the conservative values Germany holds. Germany’s online privacy policy is extremely stringent, possibly reflecting the long history of positive outcomes of government censorship. It feels to me like the valuing of privacy has rubbed off on the capitol, mostly in a subtle sense like wifi cafe regulations. There are also the more tangible examples like Facebook’s privacy policy being deemed illegal by Berlin’s District Court in January of this year. 

The case found that Facebook’s default data collection wasn’t comprehensive enough for users to give meaningful consent, and was deemed illegal under consumer law.

 

I am constantly surprised and confused by Berlin’s belief system surrounding technology.  At times, the city feels very forward thinking with startups like Soundcloud, Babel and N26 finding their feet here. At other times, the city feels adverse to technology being integrated into everyday life. With nobody using real Facebook names, and the three step snail mail verification for every person to receive a bank card, it’s almost as if the internet is an afterthought. The internet plays the role of a service in Berlin, it feels like the rest of the world sees it as a way of life.

 

In business, Germany has played by the rules, companies growing in small steps, becoming experts in ‘hyperspecialisation,’ leaving innovative technology to Silicon Valley. That said, the same values that have until now held Germany back, could forge a new path in mankind’s journey through the techno-sphere.

 

The internet is far from perfect in its current state. Situations like the Facebook scandal bring to light our failure to have a real think about what the internet could mean for our future. Is it time for us to rethink what we want virtual space to be? Author and academic, Alexander Pschera, claims that perhaps the internet will find a different purpose in the future and that German values could create new ways of viewing and interacting with it. He conceptualises a ‘new internet [that] could be slow and identity- driven and personal’. An online space that could ‘embed itself in the real lives that people lead,’ a perspective that is completely refreshing in this moment of anguish about what the future will bring.

 

I think of this ‘new internet’ as slower, more thought driven. An internet that isn’t concerned as much with speed, but with purpose and meaning. Does this new internet look like a lo-fi Internet of things where tangible, natural seeming objects seamlessly connect? Or, perhaps a network of plants that embody an identity of their own, morphing to grow new types of crops? Or in the spirit of Berlin’s festive culture, getting Berghain to Mars?

 

Germany has already shown it wants to be part of the next wave of technology, publishing ethical regulations regarding self driving cars. The guidelines won’t answer every question, but outline that in crisis situations where hitting a human is unavoidable, the car must do the least amount of harm. The idea being that the vehicles must be programmed to understand that all human life is equal.

 

The internet entered our lives faster than we could decide on what kind of role we wanted it to play. Our job now as a society is to design our way into the future. To look up from our laptops and create the kind of relationship we want to have with technology. Although Berlin isn’t quite there yet, perhaps the German way of thinking things out and connecting to our physical space is a much needed shift of thought to help bring technology into a more thoughtful space in our future.

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