BONN — The Internet "is a large and very technically developed net used by fishermen in the North Sea."
So one respondent told a questioner surveying German public knowledge of technological issues.
That's the funny part. The sad part is the survey found that "40 percent of working-age Germans had never played or worked with a computer," says Hans-Dieter Over, chairman of the young entrepreneurs' group, WJD, which commissioned the survey, presented last week in Bonn.
"This is, if not the most important, then perhaps the most telling result of the survey. That such large sections of the German population are keeping their distance from modern technologies speaks volumes about the predicament of our industrial society," he says.
Germany is a highly developed industrial society, but its particular strengths are in the mechanical and chemical sectors - 19th-century technologies - rather than in the late-20th-century technologies of microelectronics and biotechnology.
The WJD survey found that more than 27 percent of the German public did not know what the Internet was, and of those who said they did, 56 percent could not define it with any accuracy. Mr. Over notes how much more likely colleagues and business contacts from other countries are than their German counterparts to list an e-mail address on their business cards.
But at issue are not just German attitudes toward particular technologies but a more general reluctance to accept change, according to Over.
He says that many Germans do not see that their society needs to keep changing. He targets the "yes, but" mentality, as well as the unwillingness to take risks that he says he sees in German society.
"Confidence seems almost a foreign word nowadays," he says.
Potato chips vs. computer chips
In a recent Focus magazine essay headed, "How the Germans Are Sleeping Through the Future," Konrad Seitz complains to his compatriots, "The truth is that we don't want to move into the future."
The author of a book on high technology called "The Japanese-American Challenge," Mr. Seitz argues that the problem is not a general "weakness in innovation," as is so often said. In traditional industries, Germany is quite innovative. In 1994, Germans applied for 3,000 patents on locks of all kinds - but for barely 200 patents on innovations in microelectronics.
Seitz laments Germany's tendency to specialize in older technologies, "potato chips rather than computer chips."