In Germany all the blogging, tweeting and iPad-swiping of 2010 has led to a cultural countermovement that’s likely to grow even stronger next year. Non-fiction authors like Christoph Koch, Alex Rühle and Frank Schirrmacher have written bestselling books about a mindset tech-enthusiasts might consider luddite. These popular writers claim that the internet and mobile phones are messing up our concentration, our productivity, our friendships – and probably even our brains.
Meanwhile trendy Berlin restaurants and clubs have implemented a strict no-tech policy. New private members’ club Soho House is a popular place to do business – but visitors and members are asked to turn off their mobile phones. Lebensmittel in Mitte, a busy lunch-time restaurant, doesn’t even allow laptops on the tables. This makes immediate sense after spending time at watering holes of the so-called “digital bohemia”, like Café Sankt Oberholz, where everybody has a MacBook in front of them but no one speaks – except for customers with headsets talking into their computers.
It seems that the supposedly modern “always on” way of living turns out to be increasingly perceived as socially awkward. Car maker Volkswagen’s upcoming marketing strategy for its new convertible Eos is based on the idea of busy onliners finally pulling the plug (and driving off – unconnected and happily – into the sunset).
These publishers, restaurateurs and marketers bet on a technophobic or at least sentimental trend many Germans seem to find appealing. According to a recent study, almost two-thirds of Germans do not use the internet in a confident and natural way. Just over a quarter are “digital outsiders” who only turn on their computers for the occasional fiddling with a word processor. Pollsters TNS Infratest think these numbers are too high. “In a knowledge and information society, this is no sustainable condition,” said Robert Wieland, managing director of Infratest.
Author Christoph Koch is no fundamentalist, though he lived without internet and mobile phone for six weeks in order to research his book Ich Bin Dann Mal Offline (roughly translated as “Bye bye, guys – I’m offline now”). He says that during the experiment he experienced symptoms akin to drug withdrawal but is now back using all forms of digital communication. “I believe that the positive effects of modern technology always prevail. But I think we can reduce the negative ones significantly by conscious use of our gadgets,” he tells Monocle. “Whether that means regular time-off from the computer or switching the smartphone for a simpler one without email – everyone must decide for himself.”
Koch recommends an internet sabbatical for everyone, explaining that it “gets more interesting the more you take those technologies for granted.” For the very young – the so-called “digital natives” – it represents a possibly radical lifestyle change because they haven’t known a life without the internet and mobile phones. “I’m a bit older,” he adds, “so for me it was like a trip back to my youth – including unannounced visits to friends and searching for stinking phone-boxes.”