Germany, the digital problem child
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The socio-technological change chases the German politicians.
Headwinds from society, media and economy during the past month after the elections and the coalition talks left Angela Merkel and her administration repeatedly somewhat helpless. Her statement after the election in fall 2017: “I cannot see what we have to do differently now” unveiled a certain helplessness and wrong-headedness towards the recent situation and the changes. However, Angela Merkel is an intelligent, deliberately acting strategist and it doesn’t come without a reason that she named Dorothee Bär as “State Minister for Digitalisation”, along Andreas Scheuer as the “Minister for Traffic and Digital Infrastructure”. It was her sign towards the people in Germany and the economy conveying the message “I have understood”.
Critical reactions from the people in concern
Those who talk to StartUps, enterprises in change processes, educational institutes and the management of middle-sized companies will become aware of many critical voices against this nomination. They said somewhat polemically “it doesn’t make somebody capable becoming the State Minister for Digitalisation based on the participation on a behavioural study of politicians using Twitter”. More substantially, they make this clear: the government and particularly Mrs. Bär have no clue what’s at stake with digitalisation. Mrs. Bär’s rant about flying taxis simply unveils her urge to convey competence by segregating buzzwords – with limited success, as the mostly negative reactions in social media clearly depict.
The Digitalisation – as it’s understood by the German government – is something defined and tangible such as the installation of the nationwide fibre optic network, furnishing the schools with tablet PCs and the cross-lining of the nation’s production sites under Industry 4.0. Some of it has already been done since a long time by more advanced European countries therefore it makes sense to finally compensate for this shortfall. However, trying to catch up with the State of Arts never is a creative and future-oriented act – it’s the fight against being left behind.
On top of it the term “Digitalisation” as promoted by the German government falls short of reality since the development is much more like a “socio-technological change” than anything else, and it happens at an increasing speed. The Digitalisation is just a technological facet of it, but the crucial one. The socio-technological change, more importantly, influences and already has influenced nearly all areas of society in an all-embracing manner. The often used term “disruptive” describes it figuratively: the socio-technological change truly disrupts structures on many levels and areas of society, technology, economy and politics. However, such complex circumstances cannot be solved by fibre optics and flying taxis. All people interviewed by the CNT Alliance expect much more to come from the government.
Until today, changes and most prominently technical changes happened from top to bottom. First, new technologies and new products were introduced and used in the professional, military and industrial world. Simplified and therefore less expensive variants later find their way into society. Often mentioned example is the non-stick coating for cookware, first introduced by the military as seals for atomic bombs (and not for space flights as often mentioned) and later in all the kitchens of the world. Such a change from top to bottom can easily be controlled and perfectly be used for economic benefits.
Today, changes and even more so technological changes happen the other way around, from the bottom to the top. Consumer get their hands on – often half-baked – products of a new technology and later they emerge into the professional world. And it’s not just technology, but also applications, services and information. Voice command, for instance, had a rough and poor start in cars until they’ve entered the living rooms. Particularly the kids command the Alexas, Siris, Googles and Cortanas of this world with such confidence causing many child psychologist desperately rising the finger for warning. Voice command in the industry – e.g. to control an assisting robot – exists in the labs only for now, with the dedicated vocabulary and actions for professional use being implemented during the upcoming month. Or the patient first consults the internet in order to see the doctor with a prefabricated diagnose and the preferred therapy – while the networked practices and artificial intelligence-supported doctors remaining utopia. This example unveils the problem like a showcase: it indeed democratises the relation to the doctor but health is a complex issue which cannot be handled by just a few clicks – at least for the time being.
Fast, extensive and challenging
The recent socio-technological change stands out for its speed. It took 38 years until 50 Million people possessed a radio receiver, it took only 22 years until the same number possessed a television set. It took seven years until 50 Million people had access to the internet and merely two years for the same number owning a Facebook account. The latter being technology-based but taking more profound effect on human beings and society than anything else before.
Today, the speed of the market introduction of a new development is crucial no matter whether it’s a product, a service, hardware or software. The effect on and within society is dramatic. 20 years ago, people gathered at a defined time in the local restaurant, bar or pub in order to get and stay in contact with friends. This has changed entirely. Particularly young people stay frequently in contact with their friends. In contrast to the opinion of some “experts” these young people enjoy more social contacts and thanks to Facebook and similar a larger circle of friends with whom they enjoy more often and much longer interactions, and enjoy more activities at many different places than ever before. The problems coming with this are obvious, cyber bullying being only one of many, but it is a severe one. Even elderly people and particularly grandparents use social media to intensify and maintain the previous rare contacts with their grad children.
The fibre optics network is an excellent example of speed – or more likely the lack of it. The hesitant acting by the German government as well as the telecom industry in the case of the digitalisation caused the country to lag behind. The question whether such a “to be installed” fibre optics network still is the right solution for today must be asked. A finely dispersed fibre optics network is a rather old fashioned and expensive concept becoming quickly obsolete. Germany overslept more than 10 years and this hurts now.
The discussion about the fibre optics network truly is one-dimensional, its necessity is taken as granted. But why? Today, more mobile than stationary devices are connected to the internet worldwide. Yes of course, enterprises and data hubs need a powerful fibre optics connection and it makes sense to connect them right now. However, by looking into the upcoming years there’s no the need for a finely distributed fibre optics network with lines going to every single building. But there’s a need for an all country mobile network. It seems the socio-technological change seems to overtake the German government – again. New services use the smartphone as their centrepiece such as watching TV through the smartphone using the “transfer” function to display the content on a large TV set. Such services usually commence using wireless LAN but eventually will emerge using mobile communications network technologies: In Switzerland, the customers of Swisscom can watch TV using their mobile devices and mobile network for many years made possible by their mobile flat rates.
In Germany, however, the telecom companies charge prohibitive rates in comparison to their neighbouring countries, e.g. France. The provided services, in contrast, are so poor making even such ageing concepts like TV on smartphone inaccessible to most German customers. Besides the telecom companies and their excessive profit maximisation the German government has to take some blame too: they ask for outraging high fees for the upcoming 5G licences reducing room and intention of the telecom companies for the installation of a true all country mobile network. These intrigue-like actions cause delays and at the end everybody is a loser. But there’s no time for such games since Seizo Onoe, CTO of NTT DoCoMo, announced the new 6G network most likely will be introduced in the year 2030 in Japan already. The speed of change increases and cannot be slowed down – but the German government seems to ignore the facts.
Conflict of objectives in the socio-technological change
Well, no matter whether the German government and the companies want it or not the socio-technological change happens and it happens fast. One of the biggest mistakes by the involved parties lies in the concentration onto the Digitalisation and sometimes preserving and/or replacing jobs under scrutiny. But this is short sighted, very short sighted.
On first sight it seems like the Digitalisation is killing jobs, an observation the philosopher and publicist Richard David Precht denounces in clear words. Though every change until today created a lot of new work. The recent change too has erased jobs but created a lot more work. Work, which has not been foreseeable at the beginning. New services and products emerge out of the combination of technologies and functions creating new work, for instance.
Whether this new work eventually will lead into new jobs is much uncertain. Therefore it is highly important to distinguish “work” from “job”. This differentiation between real physical work respectively duty (which can be executed by man and/or machine) and the job is highly important since this differentiation is difficult for most politicians as we discovered. A job respectively a position is just a legal construct, a contract or agreement between the employer and the employee. Whereas work and duty are tangible the job position is just a declaration of intent. The nature of contracts is defined and fixed, the mutual trust builds on it creating the base for safety and prosperity.
In future we’ll see more and more work and duties not leading into a job position. Or inevitable duties are not respected by the job (the contract). For such work we need to find some sort of compensation. The most prominent example being the Wikipedia Foundation employing about 300 people but the majority of the work and duties are executed by the 70'000+ active voluntary freelancers. It does work with Wikipedia since it is a voluntary duty for the global society. However, journalists encounter a similar problem despite their situation being much different. They’re facing uncertainties since their published work is highly estimated and read but rarely compensated. There are others like the countless employers offering (vaguely described) jobs and demanding duties much beyond the contractual agreement or impossible to execute within the regular working hours. This is quite normal in health care and education but spreads into the management as well as to truck drivers. Handling E-Mails during free time, the chronically as well as intentional understaffing of day-care centres, and the unloading of the truck during the legal breaks are further examples. There are a few jobs only asking for the exact the work and duty as agreed in the contract
These fixed contracts are opposed by an increasingly dynamic world of work and duties. The complexity doesn’t emerge out of the subject only. The diverse perception in the society and the fast development of the society and their age groups adds to the complexity. Coming back to the E-Mail Problem mentioned above: some employees didn’t want to read E-Mails in their free time, they felt overstrained. The labour unions focused on that subject and implemented a regulation – with much arguable success. In the global world with its time differences and shifted weekend days as well as the required reaction time causes those major problems with the urgent need for the access to their E-Mails. Furthermore, young employees perceive it as normal and as a relief being able to access information and react immediately – in work and private life. For a simple reason: young employees are striving for a dynamic overall balance in life while elderly employees still are insisting on a strictly divided work/life balance.
A complex challenge
This dynamism meets an economic system not being ready at all for the ongoing socio-technological change. It seems obvious that the economic system should follow the quick change. But there are no ambitions by any of exponents visible to push-start the change in the economic system. Not even the labour union, who should be eagerly interested in these issues, start to act. They as well seem not to be interested in the massive social change emerging out of the technological change.
Asking for solutions is highly eligible. It is equally important to understand society will not be able to understand and accept the solutions to be implemented as well as the profound changes coming with it. It is time for cautious adaptions which will not only be accepted but even welcomed with interest at the best. But since decades the German government first and foremost is a government of economy based on an all determining economic policy willingly fading out most complementary areas. Retaliation arrived with high intensity – for example in the health sector. The utterly failed policy lead to an empty market for nursing staff – a finding the hospitals and institutions urgently reminded back in 2017. However, they did not succeed to get a reaction by the government. And the health minister Jens Spahn communicates his acidly arrogant and dispraising outpours about subjects in other departments despite the massive workload waiting in his health ministry.
Most evidently, the issues work/duty, job position, time and salary need to be tackled in higher depth. In the near future, the spent time for a work/duty can no longer be used as a benchmark. Machines increasingly will take over work and duties (predominantly those requiring lots of time and those for high quantity outputs), therefore the government, economic sciences and economy have focus on quality. As the reverse conclusion we increasingly will have work and duties requiring and including creative, social and non-robotizable tasks. And such tasks will increase due to the new technologies and potentials. This might sound a bit intangible. But nobody expected 20 years respectively 80 years ago social manager for enterprises and late night show TV presenter becoming real work and even a proper job. Another phenomenon of the socio-technological change is reshoring. It is the opposite of offshoring respectively outsourcing and describes formally outsourced work being brought back in the country (company) of origin. This goes along with industry 4.0 and IoT. The recurrence of sophisticated work in quantity will be more demanding and willonly be successful if the associated work of quality is secured.
What about those who perfectly work with their hands and outside? Those who cannot get along with an office chair in front of a table and a computer since they are manual performer? Demand for well-educated craftsmen will never vanish. No matter whether a clogged toilet, a new house, shrubberies in the park and others more, many variants of craftsmanship with all its work and duties will not become robotized even in the medium term. A well-paid machine operator in the industry certainly does not want to reconstruct an old building. However, as soon as the payment for the new work and duty reaches the level of his previous job, things will become interesting for many people.
Making this possible talks quickly find their direction towards all the variants of the “basic income”, Richard David Precht as well votes for it. The CNT Alliance perceives the “unconditional basic income” and much more the “social basic income” as critical. Not because of cost, there is enough money around. To begin with: introducing a basic income would be the vast opposite of a cautious adaption. And the German citizen today like to take all the benefits but is very shy on wasting a single thought for giving anything in any form back to society. On top of it, social envy is much distinctive within the German society and based on our investigation the majority of the German population would classify those obtaining such a basic income as “inferior” and “work-shy”, therefore stigmatizing them. If these segregated, stigmatized people would live in purpose-build welfare buildings, new forms of ghettos would come into existence – the perfect fertile soil for radicalization and terrorism, from right as well as from the left as well as religiously motivated. The Banlieues in France, their structures of violence in combination with the French government being incapable taking back control are a clear warning sign.
Secondly, the social income in fact is a perfidious sham package with introducing another low income sector. During the past years Germany was the only European Country having introduced a new low income sector with its €450-jobs, to the benefit of the economy – while all neighbouring countries are (or will be) in process to eliminate society-harming low income jobs. The recent problems with the unemployment support and welfare system Hartz IV – particularly for women in low income jobs – should be warning enough to develop the idea of a basic income much further. It has to be more intelligent than the recent proposal at hand.
Change of paradigm
We’re facing not more, not less than this, on many different levels. The economic sciences haven’t been very helpful since they lost lots of trust with many of their exponents issuing multiple utterly false forecasts and a repeatedly wrong choice of focal points. The later, the more they’re confronted with facts they no longer can tackle with the concepts out of their old books. However, particularly the economic scientists should put down some refreshing ideas, should become active and step ahead with innovations.
Does this phenomenon hit Germany only? Not at all. The problems in Italy – which we visited in May 2018 – lie a bit different but are even more severe. Their (digital) infrastructure is somewhat further developed but still is lacking much and its development has stalled recently. Italy is much thwarted by the low income sector. The lack of skilled personnel is a huge problem in combination with the low income situation forcing well educated people to flee to neighbouring countries. Italy will lose its remaining competitiveness because of the Digitalisation, all problems have piled up an alarmingly high amount of tension within society and the still not established government doesn’t convey much competence even just to understand all these problems. Great Britain, right now suffering its way through the Brexit, has done a good job in many areas of the Digitalisation such as the network. But the integration of digital technologies hasn’t been developed much and the future is much unclear due to the Brexit. The complexity of the challenges overwhelms most European governments, economy, labour unions and sciences. Despite the need for and the ability within the EU to introduce collaborative and interdisciplinary thinking and acting on all the different levels there’s not even the preparation for it visible.
Some observations point towards possibly emerging “grassroot movements”, movements emerging from the bottom to the top just like the socio-technological change itself. A (world) society taking its fate in its own hands – even if such a movement simply is to remind the responsible people of their duties. And they should become active now because only one thing truly is fatal: doing nothing and hoping for the old concepts continue to work.
They will not.