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Looking at others – yes. Being looked at – no!

Online communication expert Benjamin Buhl has very clear views about his compatriots’ reluctant approach to digital progress – and Google Street View.

For a long time, Germany has been a country of innovations. Progess and technology ‘Made in Germany’ made a worldwide statement of quality and innovation. However, something has changed the German attitude towards technology. People have begun to question, to criticise and most importantly to generally reject it. Maybe because new developments increasingly happened in the software and not hardware segments, i.e. innovation increasingly concerned things that make life easier and more convenient but are non-tangible.

Add to this a phenomenon we’ve known for a long time – envy. Everything that is not coming from myself needs to be rejected, at least partly. Otherwise, this would mean that someone else is better than I. And there’s also ‘the effect of the big unknown’. Gigantic corporations from the USA whose leaders are not really known. Companies such as Google.

Hence and not surprisingly the summer of 2008 saw quite a heated discussion in Germany about Google’s Street View project: “How can it be that some Americans drive through our streets with their photo cars and spy on us! There are laws to protect our privacy, our belongings and anyway.” Yes, anyway.

Fact is that Germans had already discovered other nations via Street View before the service went live in Germany. And they had done that more than anyone else worldwide. So, looking at others is allowed and has its advantages. However, if my own house wall happens to be seen by someone, that’s different. Because this is attacking my private sphere.

The irony of all this is that hardly anyone is aware of the fact that Street View was partly planned in Google Germany’s Munich development centre. But maybe no-one wanted to hear that, since things were not like they used to be anymore, ie no more small inventor who makes a discovery in his workshop that helps everyone and that everyone can be proud of. In this case, it’s a faceless company. And many cannot understand what they do and how and why they do it.

Without the internet the debate would probably have gone against Google. However, big parts of the digital community were in favour of Street View and its advantages. The community of Oberstaufen in the Bavarian Allgäu region, for example, realised those advantages early on. This small tourist destination had jumped on the Social Media bandwagon early on and knew about its opportunities. When the Street View discussion was at its height, they used it for a clever PR stunt: they symbolically invited Google with a big cake saying ‘Google StreetView – Welcome in Oberstaufen’ written on top. The digital community loved it, and everyone talked about Oberstaufen in Germany as part of the Street View discussion.

Google liked this display of ‘Bavarian charm’ as well and on 2 November 2010 Oberstaufen was the first German town to be put live on Google Street View, before Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and 17 other big cities. And on that day, Google actually showed its face in Germany: the company’s German spokesperson and its German head of development put themselves in front of the camera for interviews and answered questions from the population in Oberstaufen, just like normal people. They even honoured the occasion in Lederhosen.

More than a year later the situation in Germany has only marginally changed. Oberstaufen and Germany’s 20 biggest cities are on Street View, no more, no less. The service is tolerated but not expanded. And it’s probably only being tolerated since house owners can object to their property being on Street View. Their pixelated houses look a bit as if parts of Germany had been bombed. The American journalist Jeff Jarvis even said that via Street View Germany looked like it did shortly after World War II.

I wouldn’t go that far. However, I’d hope in these digital times that in future Germany will once again promote and support the spirit of ideas and development that has always been a part of the Made in Germany brand.

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