In the last couple of centuries, Europe signaled to the world a paradigmatic shift from theocracy and monarchy to liberalism and individualism. Europe replaced the old rite of the object, God, with a celebration of the subject, the individual. The new ethics was all about “do what feels good!”, the new economics was about “the customer is always right!”, and in education it became most important to learn how to think or to “think for yourself!”, instead of studying what to think.
Now there is, however, a new paradigm, in which big statistical data becomes a far more important compass than the individual. When we require information, we google the answer instead of probing into dark corners in our memory. When we visit our family, “how are you?” is no longer a very important question to determine our wellbeing. Instead, laboratory tests and genetic maps are much more central. Angelina Jolie just may have felt great on the morning she underwent a preventative double mastectomy, simply because she carried a gene mutation linked to breast and ovarian cancers, which only meant a statistical likelihood to evolve with her. Similarly, when we try to find a friend’s address, we do so using GPS technology, and avoid our often-treacherous intuition. When we are lonely, we log on to social media and seek “people we may know”. Some of us also search for the love of their life through sophisticated algorithms on dating websites.
The term that historian Dr. Yuval Noah Harari coined for this new paradigm is the “data religion”. Its top commandments are “like”, “share” and “invite all friends”. The trend may be evolving in Silicon Valley or at some Harvard dormitory room, but it spreads fast everywhere, just like the scientific revolution began in 16th century Europe but quickly reached all corners of the earth. The new religion subjugates more and more aspects of our lives to data and formulas of probability.
Much like any other revolution in human history, this one too has advantages and shortcomings, as well as its winners and losers. While some individuals are getting hurt socially and economically from their loss of privacy, society on average is benefitting from it. Global producer and consumer demand for Paypal and eBay is just as strong the social attraction in Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter. Overall, thanks to the World Wide Web we save time by sharing material resources and information more effectively and more transparently. In this era, we pay for a better life with the death of privacy.
Germany had a leading role in the individual-centric era, which began in 1543 in Nuremberg with Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. This might end in 2014 in Berlin, where Germans celebrate the fall of one wall but are rushing to build a new one. Googlephobia, as The Economist called it on September, included a ban on the wonder ride-sharing service, Uber by a court last summer. This decision echoes what I see on my personal newsfeed on Facebook: “Tho Mas” camouflages my friend Thomas Beck and Jns Kch is a disguise for “Jonas Koch”.
All of this reflects a deep suspicion towards social media and a general hysteria about privacy that permeates at the elite economic and political level too. For example, Axel Springer’s CEO, Mathias Döpfner, equated a comment by Mark Zuckerberg with the totalitarianism of the Stasi. Last May, Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel wrote an article that warned Google is threatening “the future of democracy… and therefore also about the freedom, emancipation, participation and self-determination of 500 million people in Europe”. Further to the left, noble prize laureate Günter Grass led a petition last year of 562 authors in the name of privacy and against NSA’s digital monitoring. Finally, last week German representatives lobbied in Brussels for the dismantling of Google.
Is the death of privacy really so bad? Furthermore, in today’s world citizens are not the only ones who give up on privacy – the Internet makes their governments more transparent and accountable too. Contrary to past eras, the arms of the state are merely a user in a flat virtual biosphere. Every NSA has its Edward Snowden or Julian Assange to conduct counter surveillance. Every Döpfner, Gabriel and Grass has his Heinrich Müller or Joe the Plumber to rise up with equally great ideas. The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman said almost ten years ago, but the Germans don’t quite seem to get it.
German elite may feel it is following Roosevelt and Churchill by trying to bring down Google, but they forget one important detail: there was not one drop of blood that was spilt in order to make people shop online or search Wikipedia, and no finger was twisted to make others create a Gmail account. People do that because it pays off. After all, there is no demographic problem on Facebook.
When the world turned to individualism, those who clung to the old order were doomed to centuries of lagging behind. It took China, Russia, Iran and other past empires almost half a millennium to catch up with the scientific revolution, and they still remain at odds with its essential liberal components.
Dear Germany, it is now your old road that is rapidly aging. As a senior aide to Chancellor Merkel said to the New Yorker magazine this weekend: “There’s no German Facebook, no German Amazon… There is this German tendency, which you can see in Berlin: we’re so affluent that we assume we always will be, even though we don’t know where it will come from. Completely complacent.”
Dear Germany, please get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand. The times they are a-changing, and it would make more sense for you to figure out how to join the 21st century and form a Silicon Valley of your own, instead of trying to undermine the cyberspace which we all love.