Berlin: a Medieval(ish) City

The trademark of Germany is synonymous for high-tech, high quality engineering. Yet somehow Germany and its capital are surprisingly old-fashioned. For example, there is no electronic card system for the public transportation. Like in the old-days you have to go to a ticket vending machine to buy a paper ticket and “activate” it by acquiring a stamp showing the date and time.

“You have to go to a ticket vending machine to buy a paper ticket and ‘activate’ it by acquiring a stamp showing the date and time”

But doing this would be a waste of money as it is fairly easy and safe to cheat the system. In the tram and the U-Bahn (subway) and S-Bahn (elevated subway) tickets are rarely checked. In the four weeks that I have used public transport on a daily basis I have not been checked once. Although many Germans I talked to about this curious fact have warned me for “undercover” conductors, but until now they performed so well undercover that I have not yet been able to spot them. Maybe I look like an undercover conductor myself and that’s why they haven’t approached me yet…

“Public wifi hotspots are hard to find”

Secondly, public wifi hotspots are hard to find. The MacDonalds, for example, does not offer wifi in any of its restaurants, which is a common feature in most other countries. Many smaller cafes and coffee places, however, do offer them, albeit with 30-minute user restrictions and what not. You might wonder how this is possible in the 21st century, well, it all has to do with Germany’s strict legislation concerning copyrights. Unlike most other countries a copyright holder in Germany requires an internet server to disclose the address and name of the internet connection holder – and hold that individual financially liable for any illegal downloads that happen on that connection. Cafes and coffee places can be sent the bill from an illegal download of one of their customers and that’s why they are reluctant to offer unlimited wifi access. I’ve heard stories of colleagues and housemates who had to pay significant fines after downloading illegal content.

“Everything is paid with cash, many stores and cafes do not even offer the possibility to pay by card”

Thirdly, everything is paid with cash, many stores and cafes do not even offer the possibility to pay by card. In comparison with the Netherlands, where many people do not cary any cash at all anymore and where even small market stands chant “klein bedrag, pinnen mag”, this seems a rather peculiar state of affairs. It has happened to me more than once that I wanted to pay for dinner, but found to my surprise that I had no cash anymore and had to find a nearby ATM while leaving my bag in the restaurant as a kind of deposit.

For me these are the three most puzzling differences, but there are others as well. For instance, the streets are actually darker at nighttime than the average street in the Netherlands, simply because the streets here are much wider, while offering the same lighting. At nighttime Berlin is not at its prettiest, perhaps that’s why so many people here go ‘underground’.

“Berliners like to openly comment on each other’s behaviour”

And even though Berlin is a huge city with ‘urban-minded’ citizens, who would normally mind their own business, Berliners like to openly comment on each other’s behaviour. If you are cycling without lights or you cross the road while it’s not your turn to go, Berliners will often address this. Berlin has a similar sort of social control as small, closed-off communities often have.

“It can all be explained by one striking characteristic of German people, namely: their need for hierarchy”

What can be the reason for these old-fashioned cultural habits in an otherwise technologically advanced country? I think it can all be explained by one striking characteristic of German people, namely: their need for hierarchy. German companies, for example, have a culture of adhering great importance to hierarchy; no matter how good a friend your boss is to you, you will always address him with his title (my internship company is an exception to this rule). But that’s not all, hierarchy makes for bureaucracy and Germany has a monstrous one. To get something done, to innovate, takes time and deliberation. Germans are generally quite conservative, so innovation happens mostly on an incremental scale, not a revolutionary one. This conservative stance is great for long term policy-making, such as Germany’s environmental policy, but problematic for short-term change.

“On the other hand it might all be part of one big scheme to turn Berlin into the cyberpunk capital of the world”

Berliners seem not to be bothered by their outdated habits and it remains uncertain how long it will take for them to catch up with the rest of the modern world. On the other hand it might all be part of one big scheme to turn Berlin into the cyberpunk capital of the world. Neo, Morpheus and Trinity would, so to say, blend in nicely here.

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2 thoughts on “Berlin: a Medieval(ish) City”

  1. Every disadvantage has its advantage (Johan Cruijff), true for hierarchies too. Germany is doing well I think in their own way.
    Differences in new and old fashioned of Germany and The Netherlands probably also has a cause in their size. In a small country it will often be easier to make changes. Further, I think the reunion of west and east Germany contributes also to a somewhat conservative way of organizing the country.
    It will be interesting to see where the different paths of the neighboring countries will get them.

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  2. Thank you Wouter for your reply, Johan Cruijff seems to know a thing or two. I think it is generally true that it is easier to make changes in smaller countries, but that doesn’t mean that all large countries are old-fashioned. France, for example, has an electronic card system for most of their public transportation almost as long as the Netherlands (according to a french colleague of mine).

    How do you think that the reunion of West and East Germany contributed to the somewhat conservative organisation of the Germany?

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