Logged in? How our daily lives have changed since 1989

What did you do on November 9th 1989? Do you remember? I was thirteen years old and sleeping snugly in my bed in Bremen, Northern Germany, West Germany, when my parents woke my younger sister and me up and allowed us to sit down in front of the television in the living room. This felt like Revolution (with a big R) in our children’s world: Usually, we were neither allowed to watch TV nor to stay up late, except on New Year’s Eve. But this wasn’t New Year’s Eve nor was the TV showing the traditional end-of-the-year comedy „Dinner for One„, where an old lady celebrates her 90th birthday in a circle of friends, each of them impersonated by her butler James who is getting totally drunk.

But what we saw on the screen looked very much like a huge street party. Crowds of laughing people, shouting „Wahnsinn“ in disbelief, people crying, embracing each other, standing on the Berlin Wall, waving, talking to each other, still not quite understanding what was going on .

The Polish journalist Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of the influential Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and participant of the Polish Round Table in 1989 – a genuine Polish invention for democratic change – has called 1989 an „annus mirabilis„, a year of wonders. Because in 1989, everywhere in Europe people were demonstrating non-violently for their rights and their freedom.

When we look back today, our historical consciousness presents us with a circle of democratic energy all over Europe ranging from Gdansk to Prague and Budapest and Leipzig. But people in Eastern and Western Europe were not the only ones to connect. At the same time, another network, the World Wide Web was founded by Tim Berners-Lee. It was based on a programme called hypertext, linking information and documents between decentralised computer hosts. (In 1989, there already were 150.000 hosts. Now, in 2009, there are 681.064.561.)

I got my first email account when I started studying in 1996. I remember the screens being black and the writing green when I logged in at the university’s computing centre, and I had to talk with the computer in some weird code language in order to enter my account. My first essay for a university course I wrote on my parents’ typewriter, getting a very bad mark for aesthetics. I have to admit, my handwritten corrections inserted between the printed letters didn’t look good.

Today, it is impossible to study anywhere in Europe without using a computer, without being connected to the internet, without having access to digitalised knowledge. Most of you are probably members of several social networks by now, such as Facebook or MySpace, sharing personal information and pieces of interest with your circle of friends, sending out copies and codes. This year, Facebook has become the most used social network, with 300 million members. If it were a country, Facebooklandia would be 8th biggest country in the world. A country without national borders, without passports, without border control. A transnational state – without a democratically elected government, ruled by software and those who control it instead of being legitimised by a constitution. There is some hope, that Facebook might use its power for good causes, playing „a part in promoting peace by building technology that helps people better understand each other.“ This is how  Caroline McCarthy from CNET News explains the new site Peace.Facebook.com. It wants to enable people to exchange their ideas about a peaceful world and to connect activists. So far, it presents links to some anti-violence groups and charts of how friends from different ethnic backgrounds are connected as well as charts about „world peace“.

In short: The world is the net, we have become the net. Some of you might write blogs, some of you might have a YouTube or Vimeo channel to post your films. Every minute, 15 hours of material are uploaded on YouTube, 24 hours per day, 7 days a week. It has become very easy today to use software, to share information, to share thoughts and beliefs, to share creativity, to upload one’s ideas into the global data networks. Even the White House – the US government -, has switched to an open-source software (Drupal) a few days ago to run its official website. The Techpresident blog cited the government press office, saying that this way the Obama administration was realising its ”vision for interactive government“. So, borders are coming down and it is all about interaction. It is about logging into or being logged into the global digital stream of consciousness.

So how not to get lost in these streams? We need filters. Filters are the new borders. The good thing is: You can create your own filter by getting connected to the media and people you find interesting and reliable. The bad thing is: You are also being filtered yourself, you are being „read“ by the software that is running on your computer, software, that is checking your identity, for example, when you take quizzes on Facebook, when Google remembers your quieries and presents customised adverts in the right-hand column, when your data is being used and processed without your consent and knowledge.

However, the general European feeling is, that crossing national borders has become much easier, that borders are getting more and more permeable: The European Union supports and guarantees the free movement of goods, labour, education. Some of you might have travelled to Arnoldshain without even showing your passports. On the other hand, some of you might have had to open their suitcases, might have had to queue for x-rays or had to fill in visa forms. You probably passed hundreds of surveillance cameras, your biometric passports might have been scanned, there were posters looking for internationally wanted terrorists, maybe you rubbed disinfectant on your hands to protect yourself from swineflu and other real or imagined threats. Your data might have been checked and filtered. These filters are getting even stronger, when we are looking at the external borders of the European Union: Refugees risk their lives to enter the „Fortress Europe“. Almost every day we hear on the news, that another boat has arrived on the Southern shores. We watch documentaries about the horrible conditions of refugee camps in Italy and Greece. 20 years ago, there was solidarity among the peoples in central and eastern Europe, a sudden change hailed in a new decade in history. I don’t want to get into historical detail here, but rather make one point that seems of some importance to me: It was a live revolution – transmitted by TV cameras. By being filmed the revolution itself stressed the rising power of visual media, their ability to cross borders and to connect and inform interested and open-minded people all over the world, across time zones. (Years later, in 2003, the Iraq war would become the first war shown live on TV through 24-hour news networks. Globally.)

For me and my sister back in the 80s a few hours of TV felt like a revolution. We didn’t know anything about cable nor about satellite TV, we played outside in the streets, hide-and-seek, sang songs with our mother, painted pictures, we grew up in West Germany in the 1980ies, a decade of economic stability, only interrupted by the radioactive cloud coming from Chernobyl. For a year or so, we didn’t drink milk, we didn’t eat mushrooms. We knew the few and short, 6-digit telephone numbers of family and friends by heart, these numbers had to be dialled, not typed, we didn’t play computer games nor did we own mobile phones. When we wanted to meet a friend, we either arranged something at school or talked on the phone. You couldn’t just cancel a date via SMS; each date, each appointment was fixed once it had been arranged. This world, in retrospect, seemed very stable, very secure, very reliable, in comparison to my flexible online life of today. I have moved from an analogous childhood to a digital adulthood.

But not only my private life has been accelerating. After 1989, one generation substituted another much quicker than before. When I went to school, I was told, that generations last for a quarter of a century – now they only seem to be labels that cover a few years. Let me name only a few: We have seen the rise of the Generation X, being  working in precarious McJobs and being heavily influenced by popular culture, described by the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland in his „tales for an accelerated culture“. In Germany, the journalist Florian Illies coined the term of the Generation Golf, referring to the saturated generation born between 1970 and 1975, who were often given a Volkswagen Golf for their 18th birthday. Kurt Cobain, singer and key figure of the band Nirvana, was the key figure for the the Grunge Movement and their „Teen Spirit“, followed by the MTV generation, characterised by a short attention span of the length of a video clip. Today we are talking about the Generation Y and about Digital Natives, there is a Generation A (totally driven by the internet), there are Silvers Surfers, the first pensioners that grow old digitally, that keep connected via the web even though they cannot visit each other anymore. (You can follow, for instance, even the 104 year old woman Ivy Bean on Twitter!) There are probably many more labels sticking to generations in your countries that I don’t know (maybe you’d like to tell me?).

It has all become about being in or being out today. Being online or offline (only one fifth of the world population has access to the internet), being inside the EU or not, having a job or not, living in the city or in the countryside, having the newest technological gimmick or not, having the EURO or not, speaking English (Chinese, Spanish…) or not. When the ARPANET, the first basic internet was established in 1969 between only 4 hosts in the US states of California and Utah, its first message was supposed to be „Login“. But the receiving computer crashed because it misread the word for „Log“ and the message had to be resent. Hours later, in the evening, it worked, the computers were connected. English since then has become the most spoken language in the EU, some call it „globish“, a sort of rudimentary lingua franca, and if you are not speaking English, you will have people laughing at you, as happened recently with Germany’s new foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. In fact, it is all about understanding. With mobile phones we keep connected, always available, logging into mobile services, roaming, emailing, googleing, reading online newspapers from all over the world.

Let me shortly return to the night of 9 November 1989, a peaceful, mostly joyous night, which took everyone by surprise. When the East logged into the West, let me keep this internet metaphor, for a moment the energy of democratic grass-root movements was ruling, people were „voting with their feet“ for their individual freedom, there was a will to reform political systems. Thus, one month earlier, on 10 September 1989, the founding document of the first democratic citizen platform „Aufbruch 89/Neues Forum“ in the GDR had stated the need for a „democratic dialogue about the obligations of a legitimate state, of the economic and the cultural system. We have to discuss and think about these questions publicly, together and everywhere in our country“. Interestingly enough, the majority of GDR citizens did not wish for a reunified Germany, rather believed that there would have developed a confederation of two states until 1999. But in the tumult of history, everything sped up. There were the first German elections in 1990, chancellor Helmut Kohl was promising ”flourishing landscapes“, a new vocabulary came up: Besserwessi, Jammerossi, Soli(daritätszuschlag), Begrüßungsgeld. The European Union grew: from 12 to 15 member states in 1995, then to 25 member states in 2004 with the accession of the Eastern European countries, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007, we now have the EU 27, and we might get even bigger: Croatia is waiting to log in, and so is Turkey.

Although 1989 was about „looking for freedom“ (David Hasselhoff), about the freedom to vote, to speak out, to travel, to believe, this „wind of change“ (Scorpions) felt a bit chilly, it also made many people feel lonely, they felt they were standing on shaking ground: like the first piece of the wall being taken out at Potsdamer Platz in the centre of Berlin by a crane, hanging in the night sky as if it was flying, as if it was ignoring gravity, as if it was obeying only its own rules. This piece of the wall we might take as a symbol for individual freedom, a freedom that still had to be defined. When you visit Potsdamer Platz today, you find tourists looking at this piece of the wall – it looks tiny between cinema complexes, a huge shopping mall and many business skycrapers. Only one year after the fall of the wall, you could already buy original remnants from auctions. The first one took place in June 1990, in Montecarlo, where the Hennessy clan, the famous French Cognac producing family, bought one. Also the CIA, George Bush senior and the Museum of Modern Art in New York own a „Stützwandelement UL 12-11“, height 3,60 metres, width 1,20 metres, weight 2750 kg. In September 2008, a Berlin auction house sold one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall for more than 7,800 euros.

Why am I talking so much about the wall? It also symbolises how fast the world has changed, at least in Germany. A concrete wall for border control has become an object on sale on the global market. You can buy it via Ebay, it will be delivered to your doorstep. Unlimited choice: Quite the contrary to the consumer culture in the GDR.

Let me tell you a joke, I heard on the radio the other day: A woman with an empty bag is standing in front of the GDR supermarket chain Konsum. She is speaking to herself: „Mmh, I’m not sure, have I already been shopping or not?“ Maybe it is an irony of history, that the GDR supermarkets were called Konsum, when really they were famous for their empty shelves – and that a chain of malls now very present in Eastern Germany is called Real, as if the only reality experience imported from the West was „real shopping“. Was 1989 really about the freedom to shop? The freedom to consume? Was consumerism the new value to follow? Let me give you another image, of the day after: 10 November 1989: a row of trabis, East-German cars about which many jokes have been made, as well, because they were not very fast, used smelly petrol and were quite tiny. On 10 September 1989, they were creating historic traffic jams, squeezing through opened border controls. The GDR citizens became mobile. Now, in 2009, you can take part in „Trabi Safaris“ in Berlin. The daily life of the GDR is selling well: so-called „ostalgia“ (nostalgia for the East) has become something exotic. If you want to rent a Trabi for 1 hour with 2 people, you need to pay 80 Euros.

Of course, this Trabi Safari is not really depicting mobility. It is a pseudo mobility, imitating a historical experience. But it tells us something about the past and about our present. The Trabi Safari connects experiences: Everyone can get into a Trabi, you, me, and find out how it feels to be stearing this GDR car. The same happens when you talk to people who have experienced the changes since 1989, when you do research for a film, an article, when you start finding out about the others’ experiences. And new media, that has sped up our lives so much, can help us here. Howard Rheingold, a sociologist from the US West Coast, a region that is always about 20 years ahead of global processes, has predicted that social media turns us into „more humane communites“, that they might prevent loneliness and isolation. In one of the biggest US blogs, the Huffington Post, the social media journalist Jared Cohen asked whether we should rename social media into „connection technologies„. One commentator asked back: Why not call it „connectology“, another one proposed „active technology„.

And now I have come nearly to the end of my thoughts about borders, about being inside or outside. I think we need to be active on both sides, we need to be aware of borders, in order to see them moving, to be conscious of tectonic energies. We need to realise that there are still many borders to be aware of and to overcome, regarding gender equality, integration, press freedom (Berlusconi), the new invisible governments of internet giants like Google. Ingo Schulze, a German writer who was present at the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, the biggest one taking place on 9 October 1989, with 70.000 people, has just described this movement in the German weekly DIE ZEIT like this: „In Poland, a Solidarnosc government was determining it’s countries fate, the Hungarians had opened the Austrian border on 9 September, in the GDR, the first opposition Das Neue Forum was founded one day later. The call Let us out had changed into We will stay here at the end of September.“

We are living in a global era, most of us belonging to this global generation, leaving our villages, small towns, a generation that is mobile – in reality and in communication. We are living in a world without limits, it seems. We have limitless possibilities. We could be happy. And still something is missing. In Germany, some 11 percent wished for a return to the GDR system in January 2009, only 22 percent perceived themselves as real BRD citizens. So, there is still a gap between East and West in Germany. There is a feeling of non-belonging. A few years ago, we had a debate about the gap between the „old“ and the „new Europe“. So is there even an inner-European divide? Have the changes come too quickly for us to really come together? The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has written a book of more than 500 pages about acceleration („Beschleunigung“) in 2005. In order to read this you need to sit down for a while. Also, the French philosopher Paul Virilio has been talking for years now about „polar intertia“ („Rasender Stillstand“) (1990), criticising new technologies for just simulating speed, and in reality erasing space and time, fixing us in immobility in front of our screens in an „electronic apartheid“.

Maybe we need to slow down a little bit and switch of the machines, in order to think about existing borders, how they endanger our seemingly limitless freedom? Well, I don’t think so. I rather think, we have to live WITH borders, we have to become bi-textual, knowing both sides of the reality coin, sitting in front of the computer, passively, but also going out into the real world, actively, and to tell each other about it, as communitarian beings. The Italian writer Claudio Magris who has been awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2009 has always been writing about borders, he has been moving along borders in his writing, for example in his great biography about the river Danube. His laudator the historian Karl Schlögel praised this sort of writing as productive, because working at and on borders means that you have to open up to another side. He praised Magris for depicting a „civiltá mitteleuropea, a middle European citizenship, that can take on paradoxons and can think the other side“.

So, let us now move to the other side. To the many other sides. What did you do in 1989? Or, if you cannot remember, what did your parents and friends do? And how has your daily life changed? As Martin Scorsese said once: „Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.“ You can decide, what’s in your frame. You can decide where and when you want to log in.

(Presented at Conference „Border Crossings“ at Evangelische Akademie Arnoldshain, 1 November 2009)