It’s as true for Ai Weiwei as it is for German start-ups: The internet is a fascinating thing. The sooner we embrace its potential, the better.

Ai Weiwei uses Twitter, he uses the internet. To the Chinese artist, the digitalized world is a permanent installation. State repression is merely a joke to him under those conditions. One scene in the documentary Never Sorry depicts Chinese policemen, who are being filmed by Ai’s entourage while they film the artist.

When I watched the scene, I remembered the words of the former Minister for the Economy in Berlin, Harald Wolf. He once remarked about Berlin’s focus on creative industries, media companies, and fashion that “we can’t sustain ourselves simply by filming each other.” Well: In China, it seems to pay quite well to record other citizens for the state. For Ai, filming those who film him is art. He enjoys thumbing his nose at the security apparatus of the Chinese government. But the act of rebellion isn’t the filming itself, but lies in the sharing of his footage online. In the documentary, inquisitorial posturing is reduced to its essence: It becomes a grotesque farce.

Not too long ago, dictatorships could deploy their arsenal of repressive tools and practices without being watched. I can remember a story about the University of Salamanca. In 2004, I spent a few weeks there to improve my Spanish. The story goes as follows: The University of Salamanca was once regarded as a beacon of higher education on par with the universities in Paris, Bologna or Oxford, a temple of knowledge and known throughout the Occident. Then, the Spanish Inquisition extinguished the beacon. Fray Luis de Leon, a progressive thinker during his time, was arrested inside the lecture hall and dragged into the Inquisition’s prison. He spent several years behind bars before being released. He returned to his old university, to his old lecture hall, and opened his first class after years of torture and incarceration with the words, “as we discussed yesterday….”

Ai Weiwei was also dragged to an unknown location, and the whole world watched. In Berlin, protests and art installations kept his memory alive and Chancellor Merkel demanded the release of the artist and dissident. Mrs. Merkel grew up in a dictatorship, she knowns well how illiberal regimes try to silence those who criticize them. For a moment, the Chinese government appears to have succeeded. In the documentary, we can see how Ai Weiwei returns home but refuses to speak to the journalists who have gathered at his house. But he doesn’t remain silent for long. Soon, Ai took to Twitter once again.

Ai Weiwei is one of the most well-known artists alive today. He has become internationally recognized as an activist and dissident, thanks in part to the internet. His art, too, has always had digital change as its defining theme. The digital world changes our ideas about images, space, time, and human interaction. And it changes the story of man and machine.

Modernization and industrialization – both of which were marked by the idealization of functionality and efficiency – sparked a sense of longing within the romanticist artists and writers for that which had come before. It doesn’t come as a surprise that romanticist and gothic architecture experienced a resurgence during the industrial era. Even today, Germans remain somewhat ambivalent about technological achievements. We are fascinated by engineering and product manufacturing, we love our cars and look proudly upon the “Made in Germany” label. But there’s also the nagging worry that machines could make human labor superfluous. In his poem “The Bridge over the River Tay” (which focuses on the collapse of the Tay Rail Bridge in Scotland in 1879), Theodor Fontane deconstructs the faith in technological progress that dominated the late 19th century. His verdict: “Frills, frills, those man-made shapes.” The poem portrays the forces of nature as stronger and superior to the forces of technology.

In matters concerning the internet, a similar ambivalence is noticeable: We demonize Google and Facebook, we fear the intrusiveness of Google Street View and discuss the importance of data security. But the vast majority of Germans have embraced the internet as an irreplaceable part of everyday life. Here, the start-up industry is tasked with conveying a sense of excitement: Germans should be as proud of their internet companies as they are of their car manufacturers.

Without digital industries, Germany will be ill-prepared for the future. Unlike classic industries, many people believe that start-ups don’t produce physical products. But they do, or they organize the search for, and distribution of, these products. A start-up is more than a garage filled with two computers.

Over the past years, our economy and services have changed significantly. Mobile computing is now fueling further developments. How we buy something, and how producers communicate with customers, will continue to change.

Status symbols aren’t immune to those changes either. In Germany, the car has lost the prominence it once enjoyed among the youth as a status symbol. Today, it has been replaced by smartphones and iPods. Our economy must keep pace with these developments: Neither the internet industry nor the traditional industrial sectors can define the future of the German economy on their own.

German car manufacturers benefit from the Chinese interest in cars that are “made in Germany.” A friend of mine recently traveled to China; he’s an investor with stakes in several funds, a start-up entrepreneur. His take: China is booming. The internet and those economic sectors that are connected to digital change are highly attractive to many young Chinese. Ai Weiwei is partially responsible for that.

Newconomy is the new weekly column for the start-up industry. It focuses on the intersection of classical and new economies and of politics and entrepreneurialism. Newconomy is sponsored by Factory, the new start-up hub in Berlin.

Read more in this column Alexander Görlach: The Ultimate Playlist


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