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Culture

A call for digital disobedience

Search engines that spy on us, secret services that steal our data: How much longer can we allow secret US surveillance programs to continue? DW spoke to writer Frank Schirrmacher and physicist Ranga Yogeshwar.

At the newly-created Cologne festival of philosophy which has been given the name phil.cologne, DW spoke to physicist and popular TV host Ranga Yogeshwar and essayist and co-publisher of Germany's national Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frank Schirrmacher, about Schirrmacher 's new book "Ego: The Game of Life," which argues that after the fall of communism, capitalism developed into an unlimited information market.

The result, says the book, is a gigantic computer network that knows more about us than we do. What Schirrmacher describes as "Big Data" - intelligence agencies and commercial enterprises - takes our data and creates a digital image, a virtual alter ego.

DW: Following publication of your book, you were called, among other things, a conspiracy theorist - and paranoid. Now, we sense it wasn't paranoia at all, but a realistic analysis.

Frank Schirrmacher: There is a difference as to whether you are describing paranoia or whether you in fact are paranoid yourself. I say, and I am not alone in this, the systems thrive on paranoia and on the question, what is a person planning, what is he hiding. The systems are paranoid. That is a description, not an attribute I ascribe to myself.

Book cover copyright: Verlag: Karl Blessing Verlag (18. Februar 2013)

Schirrmacher's book argues that Big Data is trying to find out everything it can about us.

Ranga Yogeshwar: I read Frank's book very carefully. Calling him a conspiracy theorist is quite cheap. The book was published long before PRISM became known. If we look at the book in the context of global spying, we would have to say the book is rather an understatement.

Science fiction or reality?

You feel reminded of Hollywood movies like "Matrix", where mankind is ruled by artificial intelligence. Is reality falling behind this fiction?

Yogeshwar: We're running to keep up with the movies. What is interesting is that we watch films in a certain state of mind. What we're not aware of is that our state of mind is on the brink of changing. The profound question "who am I?" is increasingly being influenced by the digital world.

Schirrmacher: The digital self has in many instances already replaced the real self. But the real self can not correct this because it does not understand how it has been produced. Do we know how we are read by Big Data companies, the NSA or whoever? What we need first and foremost is transparency. That is the first step. We need to know what they store about us.

Ranga Yogeshwar und Frank Schirrmacher Fotocredit Claudia Ast/ Ralf Juergens

Schirrmacher says the constitution should protect us, and he calls for 'digital disobedience'

Isn't self determination where information is concerned - that is, we decide what information is saved and stored - wishful thinking?

Schirrmacher: What people underestimate is the power of law. The German Basic Law and the German Constitutional Court made the inviolability of the personal sphere a question of human dignity. We can not simply give up and renounce part of this human dignity. This is a democracy. We have every right to demand to be informed once a year about what has been gathered, stored and read about us. That is possible. We need democratic control where secret services are concerned.

European alternatives to Facebook, Google and Wikipedia

In your book, you appeal to people not to go along with this, to perform an act of digital disobedience as it were, and not to be ruled by our digital selves. The first step you call for is the creation of European search engines and more data protection. Why are we better suited to manage digital information? What would we Europeans do better?

Schirrmacher: If we really feel that Europe should play a role in the world, then that can only be because we are different from Russia, China and the US. How are we different? In the wake of terrible experiences, we have developed cooperative models. I see the difficulty of creating European search engines or social networks, but we can organize them in such a manner that they are subject to control and not organized commercially. There are many possible structures. I can imagine that a world that becomes increasingly more digitalized might prefer a system that does not betray the individual. That is what it is all about: not betraying people.

Ranga Yogeshwar und Frank Schirrmacher auf der Philcologne in Köln, Juni 2013. zugeliefert von: Doro Zauner/Presse Philcologne Fotocredit Claudia Ast/ Ralf Juergens

The digital world encroaches upon our sense of who we are, says Yogeshwar

Yogeshwar: If a search engine like Google were based in Germany and I found out that Google passes on my private data, I would have the legal option of a temporary restraining order to stop the operation until something has changed. In the current situation, we are trapped because we can not access US laws and Americans protect themselves by making this very spying outside the US into a national security issue, so that they avoid access from the outside.

Take on responsibility

Schirrmacher: We are talking about new technologies. We are learning to live with them like people in the 19th century learned to live with machines. This is a democracy. I believe we will begin to wake up when people realize they are disadvantaged [by the data collected about them]. Journalism has a very important role in making such things public, where people find themselves at a disadvantage because they have become transparent. These stories must be told!

Yogeshwar: I believe Germany has a special role in this. Not so long ago, part of our country suffered under the East German secret service, the Stasi. We must understand that the amount of surveillance today is amounts to many times what the Stasi knew, and that access to information today is much quicker. It is owing to the historic responsibility we have in Germany that we must say: That is something we do not want.

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