Interview: Thomas Lopatic (English Version)

Interview for

03. Dez 2008 – 

Kurt Anschütz: Mr. Lopatic, from one day to the next in the summer of 2001 you became famous. You had thrown light into the gloom of Microsoft.


Thomas Lopatic: At the time Microsoft had come onto the market with Windows XP. For the first time a sort of obligatory registration feature was imposed on home users to combat piracy, the Windows Product Activation. To activate the software the user had to dial in to Microsoft. But it was completely unclear what was transmitted from my computer to Microsoft via this connection. The public suspected that users could be spied on, and Microsoft kept its cards covered. However, we managed to analyse the transferred information. And so we were able to show that the speculations were groundless and the information harmless. When we went public with our findings, we hit a nerve. Newspapers and radio stations around the world called every quarter hour for an interview. It was pretty extreme, but it was soon all over. As Andy Warhol said: “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”


KA: But your fame has lasted a little longer. Tell us about it.


TL: I’m a computer scientist body and soul, job and vocation coincide. I grew up in Munich. When I was eleven I was given my first home computer, a revelation that brought me years later to study computer science. In my first job as “ethical hacker” in the 1990s I got to know the New Economy. Firms came to us and said “Break in and tell us what we can do to improve security.” After that a colleague and I chose to set up on our own – and to move to Berlin. That was in 2001. Although I’d actually been keen to move to Berlin for many years. What induced me to do so was an offer of aid from the Berlin Senate for the first months, the “Berlin Welcome Package”; public transport pass, job in Adlershof, apartment in Gropiusstadt.


KA: From Munich to Gropiusstadt – two worlds?


TL: It depends on how you look at it. Of course there were people living in Gropiusstadt who had no money. But the people I got to know there were nonetheless decent. But a year later I moved into a flat share in Friedrichshain because of the infrastructure. In the course of time I came into contact with a many different ways of life from wagenburg residents to business consultants. And that’s exactly what I like so much about Berlin. The inspiration that can go along with this diversity. For once seeing things completely differently, taking off the blinkers, looking beyond your own nose. I’ve been here for seven years now and I think I can say it’s made a different person out of me. Friedrichshain was a good time, but there came a point when I’d had enough. A friend had a place near Hermannstraße, the apartment below hers became vacant and so a year ago my Berlin once again became Neukölln.


KA: From Prenzlauer Berg to North Neukölln – quite a few people have been making the move in recent times.


TL: For me Neukölln is a pleasant part of town: pleasantly unpretentious, pleasantly honest. People don’t put on a show of being something they’re not. In one way relaxed. In another not, but the somewhat rough charm is part of it. Neukölln is now livelier than Friedrichshain. I also find it fascinating how new structures have been developing for some time now in the Reuter Quarter. Pubs, cafés, galleries are appearing out of nowhere, it’s all going astonishingly fast. There’s an interesting mix there, long-established Germans and foreigners live alongside students and dropouts from Kreuzberg and East Berlin. The question is now whether “alongside” can be made into “with” and so keep the mix alive, or is another Friedrichshain coming into being? Apart from that, I'm constantly surprised at what's been happening here, to some extent for years, leaving aside the fashionable topic of “Kreuzkölln”. Three months ago, for instance, the art festival “48 Hours Neukölln”. Really something.


KA: When you say “mix” you mean something quite fundamental: it has to do with the right to participate. Every individual should have access to the opportunities life offers. When googling, for example, I discovered your engagement for “Freifunk” or “free networks.”


TL: Free networks is a fantastic project. It began with a group of people from all sections of society deciding to make their Internet connection available for the general public to use free of charge via WLAN. They started writing software for this in their free time and erecting joint antennas on the roofs of Berlin to allow them to bridge greater distances than they could from the living room. But the technology could do much more, everyone could communicate with all other participants using the infrastructure they had created together without a central body organising and supervising things. Telecom had, so to speak, been re-invented in the form of a grass-roots movement. When I got involved in the project, the software was reaching its limits with a few dozen participants. We expanded and optimised it, and on this improved technical basis the number of free networkers in Berlin increased to several hundred, including many who would otherwise not have been able to afford an Internet connection. Free networking is now particularly popular in developing countries. For example, people in remote areas can themselves organise their connection to the telephone network via free networks at very low cost.


KA: E-democracy as your guiding principle?


TL: There’s a digital gap in the world, and I’d like to help close it. Democracy, however, I still see as taking place offline. Electronic democracy certainly makes participation easier, but technology can’t solve everything. It makes a lot of things possible, but serves no hot meals. Furthermore, there’s an important point to remember with technology: the private sphere of participants. How can people with little knowledge of technology be helped to participate in safety? Developments in recent years have been worrying. Private information is increasingly tapped either overtly or covertly. Here in Germany, for example, data retention has been obligatory since the beginning of the year. An Internet, telephone or mobile telephony provider has to keep a record of who has communicated with whom for six months. And with cellphone calls, the location is also recorded. It’s then stored for six months. And this is the case for all of us.


KA: Completely regardless ...


TL.: …Yes, completely regardless of whether you're under suspicion or not. The latest step in a series. My father said of this growing drive “a satisfied wish produces offspring.”


KA: A few months ago there was big news. Your three-year-old firm was taken over by Yahoo!


TL: Since 2004 we had been developing a technology for advertising-financed games on cellphones. Previously you had to buy cellphone games. In our model the games were free and the costs were borne by the advertiser. In exchange he could advertise his product in the credits at the beginning and end of the game. When Yahoo! and Google began to take an interest in this sort of advertising, we were already there – at the right time with the right product. However it is with engagement, you always need a lot of luck to be successful.


KA: Fortunately it sometimes also works in reverse. You had your reasons to make a donation to the Neukölln Community Foundation.


TL: Right. For me the whole thing is an investment. I’d been wanting to give my support to a project for quite a while. The only problem was, which one? Is the goal of the project convincing? Do I have confidence that the people involved will really attain their goal? Well meaning is not necessarily well done. I looked around a lot, also beyond the bounds of Neukölln. I discovered N+, the Neukölln Community Foundation, at the Rixdorf Christmas Market and had the concept explained to me. Subsequently I was convinced by the projects, the professionalism, and the comprehensive information on the website. I also found it a good approach that input doesn’t always have to be money. In principle, your concept of time donations gives everyone the opportunity to share in the success of N+. Right?


KA. Yes, we need triple input: the input of creativity in exploiting our limited resources, capital input to safeguard our work in the long run, and the input of as much time as possible, so that we can get things moving ourselves and now.


TL: Exactly. I come from the start-up scene. There everyone has ideas. But some are too self-important to roll up their sleeves themselves. Instead, money is raised from investors to pay someone else to do the work. Then the money is soon gone, goes up in smoke, and nothing has been achieved. In the Community Foundation, capital and engagement go hand in hand, the money is a catalyst and not the sine qua non. For me that’s entrepreneurial spirit. To undertake something in the sense of setting out to achieve something. It doesn’t work without engagement, and it doesn’t work without money, either. So it’s true: if you’ve had luck with me, you can thank your performance.


KA; Was the multi-ethnic thrust of the Foundation important for your decision?


TL: In my professional environment, internationality is omnipresent. But also in my family. My grandfather was a farmer in Slovenia, and my father is one of the earliest technology immigrants; he came to Germany as an engineer in 1968. It’s obvious, the multi-ethnic thrust of the work the Foundation does is absolutely worthwhile. The future of Neukölln depends on how community life develops between the many cultures and nations. It can be socially explosive, it can mean potential. However, there are many integration projects I could have supported. So let me repeat myself: what decided me was the way in which the Foundation combines professionalism, the entrepreneurial spirit, money, and engagement in their work now and for the long term. But what particularly pleases me about the orientation of the Foundation’s work is the great emphasis placed on education for deprived young people.


KA: Your own biography over three generations shows how education can broaden a life.


TL: Yes, education and accompaniment. Education gives a person the opportunity to shape his own future. Ideally, it is a tool for personal development. My grandparents were prepared to let my father study. So he was able to come to Germany and work as an engineer. And for me he was able to be both patron and mentor. He financed and fostered my love of computers, showed me the way ahead, and then also made demands of me. And now my vocation is my profession. An absolute privilege. Also that I always knew what I could do well and what I wanted, for people are often not aware of the talents they have. In gross contrast, children from educationally disadvantaged sections of the population often find their origins block any opportunity of advancement. They can never develop their potential to the full, and this lack of prospects naturally brings frustration. That’s why I find the Community Foundation's mentoring programme and the new talents programme so valuable. These are the very fields where money is no panacea. Humanly convincing accompaniment is called for, comprehensive personal input. I was really impressed with what donor Renate Bremmert recently said on the subject in an interview on the N+ website.


KA: The Foundation has to expand. Do you as investor have any tips to give?


TL: I feel the Foundation should publicise its projects even more widely. In competing for attention, almost nothing is an automatic success and little sticks in the mind. Do good and talk about it at every opportunity! The founders have made a wise decision: N+ is not only a foundation that promotes the projects of others, it carries out its own projects. That is more authentic than offering nothing but clever explanations and distributing money. It would perhaps also be worthwhile to think in depth about the following question: basically, many if not all the people who do good would like to be a little hero or heroine. How can the Foundation make them into heroes, showing them due appreciation by lending them this status? And finally, what is not always self-evident: continued complete transparency internally and externally. But, as I say, luck is also needed if something is to grow.


KA: Heroes? You would certainly have been a great help in the search. But for the moment your are making the move from Neukölln to San Francisco. And back again?


TL: I will certainly be working for the next few years at Yahoo! in California. But I won’t be giving up my apartment in Neukölln. Berlin is home.


KA: Thank you! We'll hold you to that.