10 kinds of people German 'Digitalisierung' versus American innovation

Whereas English-speakers have many words for technological progress, Germans have settled on one: Digitalisierung. Too bad.

The geeks at my alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts, used to wear, circa 1990, baggy black T-shirts that made a statement. The front said: “There are only 10 kinds of people in the world.” The back read: “Those who get binary and those who don’t."

Technically, “binary” is just a special case of “digital.” And that’s what “digital” means to most English speakers. It is an adjective that evokes the base-2 system, in which two electronic states correspond to 0 and 1, and from which the modern era of information technology derives. Propelled by Moore’s Law and limited only by human imagination, this “digital age” is still young.

Which is why Americans, or at least those in Silicon Valley, are forever reaching for newer, grander words to hint at possible destinations for our species: What started as simply “IT” or “tech” became “Virtual Reality,” “Cyberspace,” the “World Wide Web,” “Web 2.0,” the “New Economy,” the “Next Big Thing.” It is now branching out into Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and the Internet of Things. On and on it goes, until we reach “the Singularity,” when our technologies change what it means to be human.

Much is lost in translation whenever Anglo-Americans and Germans talk about technology.

Nomenclature is a different matter in Germany. Germans have heard of the words above, and occasionally use them, usually in English. But they have somehow converged in their public debates and their marketing on one single word that, to them, could mean any or all of its parts. That word is Digitalisierung. It could be translated as either “digitization” or “digitalization.” In practice, Germans use it the way Americans might talk generally about “tech” or “innovation.” Politicians, executives, intellectuals – anybody in Germany who wants to sound visionary without being specific reaches for Digitalisierung.

Much is lost in translation, therefore, whenever Anglo-Americans and Germans talk about technology. Lee Rainie, a pollster at the Pew Research Center in Washington, recently pondered this during a visit to Berlin. In America, he says, digitalization is “not a word that is the title of a conference, or a journal, it’s not a word that entrepreneurs use, it never comes up in news stories.”

In America, he recalls, the word “digitization” came and went about two decades ago, “when we were literally turning analog material into digital material.” Museums and libraries were scanning their books, and people were scanning the photos in their shoe boxes. To Americans digitization usually just means scanning. When the scanning was done, usage of the word declined.

But in Germany, usage of Digitalisierung has increased in the past decade, as one administration after another promises it, whatever it may be. The specific ideas usually turn out to be sensible but also limited and banal. Peter Altmaier, a member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet, has been talking a lot about Digitalisierung and appears to mean simply “e-government,” which was much written about a decade ago, and which countries from Estonia to Denmark have offered their citizens for years.

When German bosses use Digitalisierung they usually mean a factory upgrade. They might install 3D printers or use cloud-computing, for instance. They have coined a term for that, too: “Industrie 4.0.” In their imagination, Digitalisierung is little more than incremental improvements in manufacturing. One reason they talk about it so much may be that, according to studies, they are years out of date.

With their focus on hardware, Germans are oblivious to simpler changes hiding in plain sight.

Germany is an engineering culture, so Germans generally tend to think of Digitalisierung as a hardware phenomenon. In their schools it means getting the children iPads. When Americans – at Khan Academy, for example – talk about “edtech” or “e-learning,” they think about how, cognitively, human beings learn and ought to be taught, which is quite different.

With their focus on hardware, many Germans are oblivious or resistant to the simpler changes hiding in plain sight. Until recently I worked for a British company. Once a month, I collated and uploaded my expense receipts, which were mostly PDFs or, if paper, became PDFs with a wave of my iPhone. Now I am in a German company that proclaims Digitalisierung as a strategic goal. I print out my PDFs, sign forms in ink, and mail the papers in a pouch to another city for processing.

Hassle? Carbon footprint? Rain damage? No matter. Germans want a signature, the way they’re used to it. Never mind that a signature is only a way of confirming that you are who you say you are and consent, and that much of the Western world increasingly uses safer and more convenient methods than ink. Expats in Berlin regale one another with stories about paper chases and office visits – to authorities, landlords, schools, doctors – which would require but a click or a tap in their home countries.

Pew’s Mr. Rainie is a diplomatic and charitable man. In Digitalisierung he sees “the charm of using a word that is limited or unimaginative. There’s a virtue in having a word that stands for everything, for a universal set of changes spawned by the digitization of information.”

At the same time, he thinks that Germans, by relying too much on one vague word, limit their time horizon and thus their imagination. “Germans still think they can slow [progress] down and even halt it if it gets too dangerous. To Americans there is an inevitability.” Name is destiny, as the old saw goes. Perhaps Germans should embrace yet another buzzword: late-mover advantage.

Andreas Kluth is Editor-in-Chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]