Technophobia in the Land of Engineers?

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It’s essentially common knowledge that widespread skepticism of technology holds court in Germany. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as ‘technophobia’ in the land of engineers, or, as Newsweek teased some time ago, German ‘techno-angst’. When it comes to technology, Germans are suspicious: They don’t feel the need to get started with new technologies, as they prefer to stick with things they know and which they consequently don’t have to fear. A German term has even been created to refer to people with this sort of mindset: ‘ Bedenkenträger,’ or ‘worrier.’

tangle of electric wires

I have been hearing about ‘German technophobia’ for decades: Articles, commentary, lectures, and all manner of discussions have cited it thousands of times. It’s always been present in one form or another. We’ve always lived in a land of neo-Luddites, while other countries have had their fun with fantastic new developments such as the PC, Internet, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and Pokémon.

Hold on, though. Is that really how people in Germany think? Would a country full of neo-Luddites and technophobes really export world-record volumes of technological products year in, year out? A report from the Handelsblatt business newspaper’s February edition proudly announced ‘A fourthrecord-breaking year for German exports. Germany exports goods valued at nearly €1,300 billion.’ Moreover, the four-time world export champion didn’t sell €1,300 billion’s worth of potatoes or hazelnuts – the bulk of the exported goods consisted of premium industrial products. These technical products are apparently of such a high quality that they’re valued all over the world – that €1,300 billion didn’t come out of thin air, after all. So a country that allegedly places a low value on technology produces top-notch technical products? And we’re meant to believe that these products are developed in a country full of technophobes? That doesn’t compute.

Export statistics are one way of assessing the situation, and personal experience is another. I visit a lot of companies, particularly small and medium-sized ones. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never come across technophobes there – quite the opposite, in fact. The level of technical expertise on display at their facilities is impressive, and as far as initiatives such as Industry 4.0 are concerned, these SMEs in particular are leading the pack in terms of implementing digitalization. German SMEs are far from technophobic.

As regards phenomena beyond the workplace, things look similar: For instance, the general German public got used to streaming services very quickly, and nobody campaigned to preserve video rental stores in Germany. On the country’s public transport networks, 80 percent of passengers are now so wrapped up in their smartphones that, for example, they forget to get off at their stop. That doesn’t sound like technophobia to me. Germans use cutting-edge digital technology to meet their needs, and have been doing so for a decade. The overwhelming majority of people also use technology without fear or suspicion. It seems like the prevailing stereotype of neo-Luddism doesn’t hold much weight.

There isn’t any general technophobia in Germany, although the press often claims that this is the case.

There’s also research in place to bolster my point. A few years ago, the University of Stuttgart carried out a study to determine the extent to which Germans are open to technology. I wasn’t surprised by the results: “There isn’t any general technophobia in Germany, although the press often claims that this is the case. Germans are instead rather welcoming of technology, particularly in regard to consumer technology and technology at the workplace.” According to this study, in Germany, technophobia is felt to a lesser extent than it is in most other European countries, despite numerous claims to the contrary. Last year, Bitkom carried out a representative survey that specifically asked about Germans’ mindsets regarding digital technologies. The survey found that: “79 percent of survey-takers indicated that they have a fundamentally positive opinion of digital technologies.”

I’m convinced that alleged German technophobia is just a false stereotype, one that won’t become more accurate through decades of repetition. This accusation often amounts to nothing more than a convenient excuse that inventors and manufacturers make for technological solutions that don’t actually work so well for their intended audience. When we provide people with technology with clear benefits for them, their work, and their day-to-day lives, then they aren’t skeptical – smartphones are a prime example here. I’m convinced that if we do our job well, people will be on our side.

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