An internal “I can’t do it anyway” keeps many people from getting involved with IT. Expert Leena Simon explains where everyone can start.

A teenager lies on a bed and looks with interest at a laptop.

Bedrooms are usually well protected from the view of third parties; digital rooms do not Photo: imago

taz: Sometimes even the Bundeswehr cannot communicate securely, as we learned with the Taurus spy scandal. Is knowing what app you can use to do this, for example, part of the basic digital equipment?

Leena Simon: Yes, that would be good. But I also see that this knowledge is not yet widespread and, to be fair, the number of applications that exist is still quite manageable.

Leena Simon, 39, is a philosopher, IT expert and author of the book “Digital Maturity.”

Which one would you recommend to the average user?

The Signal app is a very good and easy-to-use option for making encrypted calls. But Signal reaches its limits when more than two people want to talk to each other, which is what I experienced when I tried it with my sisters. Then we decided on video conferencing and used Jitsi and BigBlueButton.

Why is this knowledge so little spread?

We are simply not used to worrying about the security of communication. It's great that we communicate encrypted with messengers, but honestly, we only do it because these apps have it set that way by default. With email it happens the other way around: users have to take care of the encryption themselves and practically no one does it. It's just as important: I communicate by email with my tax advisor, my insurance agent, and maybe my children's school. There are tons of private information sent around the world in virtual postcards.

Anyone who has ever tried to set up email encryption knows: it's not very easy. Why should people continue to care about these issues?

We need a different approach to technology in order to address the problems of our time. Many of these problems are related to or exacerbated by the fact that we have been using the Internet very carelessly for 20 or 30 years.

For example?

Take climate change, probably the biggest problem of our time. As a society, we could do much more to combat this threat if everyone, at least in broad strokes, recognized and understood the knowledge of relevant experts and drew consequences from it.

But how can digital competence help?

Well, what about, for example, the Law on Energy for Buildings? At first it was a sensible idea to gradually equip the wide range of buildings with more climate-friendly heating systems. But because the debate about it was so dominated by fake news (for example, that a functioning heating system would have to be replaced quickly and then it would no longer be possible to heat it), there was almost nothing left of it. Therefore, there is a big gap in competition when it comes to information that is distributed through social networks.

The fact that this content is distributed so widely is also due to the algorithms of online platforms, which play more with polarizing content.

That's right, we are currently faced with technology that makes it difficult for us to achieve digital maturity. Corporations keep their algorithms secret and manipulate us. For example, through dark patterns on cookie banners, where we click on the big green Accept button and thus consent to all data collection, instead of the small gray decline button. Technology empowers people to become disabled users.

Is it not then the users who have to do something, but the politicians who have to regulate companies better?

It is an interaction: policy must create important framework conditions. Users, in turn, have to demand this from politicians, but at the same time they also have to consciously decide which services they use, at least when there is a choice. And they already exist in some areas. Whatsapp or Signal? Google Maps or OpenStreetMap? Zoom or big blue button? We decide for ourselves what is going well in the market, what is going to be important, and each and every one of us has to accept responsibility.

If someone wants to get started: What are the first steps?

The first step is to decide to take responsibility. Many questions arise in the second step. For example, if you want to install a new app: what does it actually do with my data? Which ones do you actually collect? Then you start searching for the terms and conditions, desperately trying to understand them, and maybe in the end you decide not to use the app. Maybe also the decision that the app is worth the risk. They are both fine. The important thing: I researched it, learned something and made a conscious decision.

After reading the terms and conditions, isn't it tempting to just give up?

Maybe. But if, for example, I have to have surgery, it works exactly like this: I receive an information form, I read it, maybe I can ask questions and at the end I sign it. This does not replace the study of medicine; I certainly can't predict everything 100 percent. But it is a conscious decision based on knowledge that is affordable to me. And just as I don't have to know how to program or have studied law to be able to make responsible decisions about how I move in the digital world.

They suggest spending 30 minutes a day solving a technology problem yourself, without asking anyone for help. How is that supposed to help?

This is a method of empowerment. Most people will find that they can figure out a surprising number of things on their own and may even only need 10 minutes instead of 30. There are other helps too: you can ask on a search engine, search on technology forums or on the software's help pages. And 30 minutes are important to get mentally involved. For half an hour you don't look into the air and say, “Oh, I can't do that anyway,” but you do something. This is an important internal step. And to be honest: I think we should be expected to know what we're doing, at least most of the time. We also want to drive our own cars, do our own shopping, and decide for ourselves where we live.

What is the lever with which users can have the greatest impact?

I see two. The first: use free software, that is, those whose source code is open. And whenever possible. Anyone using Android can install these free apps through the F-Droid app store. The selection here is smaller than on Google, but there is plenty to choose from. The second: we must urgently examine our behavior on social networks and break with the toxic algorithms of Facebook, X, Instagram and company. Because there are very nice alternatives, for example Fediverse, with its best-known platform Mastodon. You can simply give these alternatives a try. Because digital maturity is also a matter of practice. And the more we practice, the less vulnerable we are.

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