Germany Is Wary of a Digital World (but Loves Its E-Toothbrushes)

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Melissa Eddy, a Berlin correspondent for The Times, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are the most important tech tools for doing your job, and how do you use them?

My iPhone X has become my multipurpose portable notebook, camera, recorder and connection device. I have typed breaking stories into the Notes app and sent them to editors, or jotted down key points from an event, when I found myself without pen and paper.

I’ve used the camera to record Facebook Live video, but also to take still photos of anything that catches my imagination when I am out reporting, or signs that I don’t have time to stop and translate. When I sit down to write, I go back through my photos to jog my memory, although I sometimes worry that it would be better to pause and capture the thought in the moment.

I use the VoiceMemos app to record news conferences and in-person interviews. For phone interviews, I rely on TapeACall Pro, which is easy to use and has been a great addition.

Because many Germans use Android phones, I installed WhatsApp initially to keep in touch with my friends and kids. But increasingly, it is a popular way to communicate with sources. When we were reporting on the more than one million migrants who made their way to Germany in 2015 and 2016, most of them still had cellphones from their home countries, and the only way to reach them was via WhatsApp messages, or “Whatsies.”

Google Maps, a German railway app and a local car-sharing app make up my essential travel tech trio. As a nation obsessed with keeping a paper trail, Germans were very cautious about using apps to make everyday transactions easier — Apple Pay arrived only at the end of last year — but the apps are catching on. It has been several years since I used a paper ticket on the train, and where car-sharing services like DriveNow initially required an extra card to unlock the car, now all I need is my phone.

Is there any tech that you’ve stopped using lately or use less, and why?

I have turned off Apple’s FaceTime after the latest scandal over privacy, but I only ever used that to reach my 80-year-old father, who isn’t on WhatsApp.

For years, I have been a lurker on Facebook and would like to quit it altogether, but I find it too useful for reporting. About 32 million of Germany’s 82 million people are active on the platform. Some members of Germany’s far-right and nationalist circles, including some members of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, use Facebook almost exclusively to communicate with their base, so it has become increasingly useful for tracking their activities.

Germany has a reputation for being very privacy-conscious online. How have you seen that manifest itself?

Many public records are protected in Germany by strict privacy laws, which means that access in general is difficult and that records are not at all available online. The country still demands that applications for most official documents take place via paper or fax. Digital databases of information on individuals do not exist.

Searching for places in Germany on Google Street View returns a patchwork of images and blurred blotches. That’s because in 2010, data privacy activists succeeded in forcing Google to allow them to render their residences unrecognizable. The irony is that Germans, who like to head into vacations hyper-prepared, love to look up their hotels or the cities they will visit on Google Street View.

Nothing in the Berlin public school system is digitized, and parents have to sign special waivers for their kids to have access to Wi-Fi in the schools that offer it. At the start of every school year, parents have to give permission for their email addresses to be shared on a class list, and those who don’t will be left out.

That being said, Germans in their 20s and younger are as active on Instagram or Facebook as their counterparts in the United States. Yet despite being raised in a privacy-obsessed country, they seem to struggle with the idea that whatever they publish on Facebook can be seen publicly, unless they take special action to keep their entries private.

After the 2017 terror attack on a disco in Istanbul, I reached out to a group of friends of one of the victims from southern Germany. They had posted homages to him, and I wanted to use them and perhaps talk to them about their friend. But my attempts to reach out were met with hostility that I would be invading their privacy and “preying” on their mourning — which they had made publicly available on Facebook.

What apps and gadgets do Germans love to use?

Germany’s highly mechanized society seems to extend even to the act of cleaning teeth: Germans love electric toothbrushes. Young kids are started on smaller, battery-powered brushes, which become larger and more sophisticated as they grow. I have had to argue with my dentist that I am capable of keeping my teeth clean with good old-fashioned brushing and flossing.

Uber basically doesn’t exist in Germany after they were largely forced to retreat from the market in 2015 for violating local transport laws. To be on the safe side, the taxi companies quickly realized they needed to create an app or eventually be left behind, so MyTaxi was born. It works the way Uber does elsewhere, but by connecting riders with taxis wherever they are in Germany — even in tiny towns where the local taxi driver has to be pulled off his sofa in front of the TV to come pick you up at the station at some odd hour. To this day, I have never used Uber.

Outside of work, what tech do you and your family love to use and why?

Other than trying to keep up with the latest Netflix series and doing The Times’s crossword puzzle, we are largely an analogue family. Monopoly and Scrabble will come out on the rare nights we are all together for a game.

My 17-year-old son is a YouTube junkie and is surviving his exams and studies by exchanging tips and notes with his peers around the world via Discord, the communication app. He recently wondered how anyone could have passed exams in the days before online resources were available.

Despite teaching herself to read via Starfall, an online program, my 14-year-old daughter prefers paper books to her Kindle. Germany still has a strong network of bookstores, and I try to support their continued existence by ordering books through them, but more often than not we turn to Amazon for easy access to English-language books.

People have always envied my having a bookworm for a child. But the frustrating part is that while I’ve never had any qualms removing an electronic device from someone, I have a much harder time pulling a book out of my daughter’s hands, even when homework and chores need to be done.