Sunday, May 1, 2016

My Digital Revolution

This is not my title but the title of the first German-American Dialogue Baden-Wuerttemberg Red Baron went to last week. I personally experienced my digital development more as an evolution rather than as a revolution. I started with punched cards in 1966, lived through the beginning of e-mails and the World Wide Web at CERN, and relied rather early on silicon memory instead of brain cells for my appointments and tasks using pocket computers and smartphones.

In the framework of its "American Days" the Carl-Schurz-Haus and its dynamic director Friederike Schulte had organized the German-American Dialogue at  Freiburg's United World College, UWC Robert Bosch.


Gray-haired Red Baron with FMG President Toni Schlegel listening (©Carl-Schurz-Haus)
The opening lecture by John Gerosa, sales director of Google Germany, "Google Story and Digital Trends" set the pace with three interesting slides.


Yes, Google makes information universally accessible. A good example is the scanning of out-of-copyright books from Munich's University Library (Munich is the headquarters of Google Germany). I already thanked Google in a previous blog since the books written by Hecker, Struve, Mördes, Morel, and company giving their view of the Badische Revolution are now available online and helped me to round out my web site about the years 1848/49. Thanks again, Google.


However, the next slide from John Geroso's presentation shows the whole misery of the digital age. The family no longer watches television as a family but members are using or playing with various electronic devices separately. The family is only connected via the internet. Let's face it: We live in an online world and sooner or later in Virtual Reality.

How generous. It is always Google's problem.
For me the panel discussion on Identity and living together in the digital age started badly when at the beginning the word "angst" was invoked. Indeed, nobody can say how far the digital world will take us. We are more and more nerve-rackingly multitasking sometimes even dangerously when driving and phoning, texting, or just simultaneously looking at one of our devices. One panel member talked about the industrialization of our brains, other members brought in "socialist" ideas and their Christian God.

Families have started to introduce rules when members may be online or must be offline with parents frequently cheating. Because we communicate with virtual instead face-to-face partners the tone of conversation gets rougher for it's easier to make insults online. How will the young generation transport digital mobbing into their upcoming family and professional lives?

Due to the lack of time the discussion had to be limited to three questions from the audience but I could get my remark in. However, before the moderator handed me the microphone he asked me - apparently doubting my competence when looking at my gray hair - whether I am on Facebook. I snappishly answered: Yes, but I use it my way and continued that angst with respect to a digitized world is born out of ignorance. The young generation has no problem with following the digital development. Nevertheless they still may lack the maturity to use their digital possibilities competently. The UWC psychologist answered that she got one message across to the pupils: Many Likes do not strengthen your self-confidence. On that point I think that her selected international elite clientele is not representative of the rest of the present young generation. I feel that society has yet to come to grips with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and the rest.

The second panel Rethinking Business was somehow disjointed because panel members tended to talk about their particular interests, rarely listening to each other. John Geroso immediately contradicted the chairman's introductory remark that Only the No.1 counts: Google does not feel like No.1 but rather thinks that competition will spur development or as we say in German: Konkurrenz hebt das Geschäft.

It seems that you cannot simply transform an analog enterprise into a digital one. You'd better start from scratch. Existing firms must get agile, some try to circumvent the problem by incorporating startups into their firms. Future enterprises will have no managers but ruling teams.

There was agreement that not everything that can be done in the digital world necessarily has to be done although I have not yet seen an enterprise that does not use an opportunity to make money. The young generation criticized the exploitation of natural resources on which other panel members did not comment. When the specialist in robotics was asked whether robots can do all human activities he answered yes except they have no feelings. He then admitted that one of his robots had complained, messaging: I can simulate feelings.

During the long afternoon some of the impacts of the digital revolution were addressed and some were even discussed but we are far from knowing the impact the digital world will have on future society. While it took two generations to get accustomed to the hard-wired telephone, analogue television, or the automobile it now takes only about 10 years before a "new" technology is already obsolete. It is this pace of development that leaves us little time to digest.

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