On the Dark Origins of the Computer

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The Icy Automation of Human Destruction. On the Dark Origins of the Computer

Like most technologies, the computer is ambivalent. Its uses, like that of a gun, pen or chainsaw, may obviously be for good or bad. What may be less evident is that its fundamental structure is in itself ambivalent. Like the binary mathematics it is based on, its capacities are breathtakingly all-encompassing and oppressively reductionist. From Bacon and the Enlightenment onwards, mathematics and technology have been essential elements of capitalism’s quest to dominate and exploit nature and humans by reducing the living qualities of both to abstract quantities like ‘resources’ and ‘labour’ that can be manipulated for control and financial profit. We are living at the end of that dialectical, possible fatal, trajectory of progress in which the planet and its people have been increasingly reduced to resource inputs or ‘sinks’ of Capital.

Within this larger historical context, the computer’s double nature becomes quite apparent when seen from the perspective of its origins. These are to be found in the technocratic tools of the most brutal oppression, in war and genocide. The original precursor, or analogue version, of the computer was an important tool for helping the Nazis wage their wars of aggression and organize the industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. This tool was profitably provided by the American company that later developed the digital computer, International Business Machines (IBM). This tool was the Hollerith punch card system, developed and manufactured by IBM’s German subsidiary Dehomag.

A Dehomag poster from the Third Reich in 1934 encapsulates the idea of Nazi surveillance. It shows a large all-seeing eye hovering over and spotlighting the silhouette of a cityscape backed by a large punch card suggesting a large white building. The caption reads ‘Oversight with Hollerith Punch Cards’ (Übersicht mit Hollerith Lochkarten). Exchange the punch card for a computer, and the national cityscape for the world, and you would have the contemporary version of the oppressive panopticon as realised by the NSA and the world’s state and corporate data mining and spying agencies.

Edwin Black (IBM and the Holocaust, pp. 8-10) summarises the IBM story:

“When Hitler came to power, a central Nazi goal was to identify and destroy Germany’s 600,000-member Jewish community. […] Only after Jews were identified could they be targeted for asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and ultimately extermination. To search generations of communal, church, and governmental records all across Germany – and later throughout Europe – was a cross-indexing task so monumental, it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed. […]

When the Final Solution sought to efficiently transport Jews out of European ghettos along railroad lines and into death camps, with timing so precise the victim were able to walk right out of the boxcar and into a waiting gas chamber, the coordination was so complex a task, this too called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card sorting system – a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, made Hitler’s program of Jewish destruction a technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success. IBM Germany, using its own staff and equipment, designed, executed, and supplied the indispensable technologic assistance Hitler’s Third Reich needed to accomplish what had never been done before – the automation of human destruction. More than 2,000 such multi-machine sets were dispatched throughout Germany, and thousands more throughout German-dominated Europe. Card sorting operations were established in every major concentration camp. People were moved from place to place, systematically worked to death, and their remains catalogued with icy automation.”

Perhaps IBM ‘just’ supplied the machinery and then left the rest to the Nazis? Not so. IBM Germany was a Nazi outfit itself and provided a whole range of corporate services for the genocidal Nazi state:

“IBM Germany, known in those days as Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or Dehomag, did not simply sell the Reich machines and then walk away. IBM’s subsidiary, with the knowledge of its New York headquarters, enthusiastically custom-designed the complex devices and specialized applications as an official corporate undertaking. Dehomag’s top management was comprised of openly rabid Nazis who were arrested after the war for their Party affiliations. IBM NY always understood – from the outset in 1933 – that it was courting and doing business with the upper echelon of the Nazi Party. The company leveraged its business relationship with Hitler’s Reich, in Germany and throughout Nazi-dominated Europe.

Dehomag and other IBM subsidiaries custom-designed the applications. Its technicians sent mock-ups of punch cards back and forth to Reich offices until the data columns were acceptable, much as any software designer would today. Punch cards could only be designed, printed, and purchased from one source: IBM. The machines were not sold, they were leased, and regularly maintained and upgraded by only one source: IBM. IBM subsidiaries trained the Nazi officers and their surrogates throughout Europe, set up branch offices and local dealerships throughout Nazi Europe staffed by a revolving door of IBM employees, and scoured paper mills to produce as many as 1.5 billion punch cards a year in Germany alone. Moreover, the fragile machines were serviced on site about once per month, even when that site was in or near a concentration camp.”

One can thus imagine IBM’s early computer precursors, the punch card-reading machines, efficiently humming away in dingy offices looking out on the smoke stacks at Auschwitz and Sobibor. These stacks were emitting the smoke and ash of human beings worked to death, gassed and burned by Nazis convinced of their racial inferiority and their own superiority as a master race. These punch cards did not drip with the blood of the victims they catalogued.

The German engineer Konrad Zuse is also credited with a seminal role in building some of the very first process-controlled computers. Like IBM’s punch-card machines, his S1 and S2 computers were also built for the Nazi war machine, not for organizing and statistical purposes but for direct military ones: namely as special devices computing ‘aerodynamic corrections to the wings of radio-controlled flying bombs’ and forming part of the Henschel 293 and 294 guided missiles, the Nazi precursors of modern cruise missiles (Wikipedia). Zuse would never have been confronted with the dead and maimed and traumatised his computers helped produce. Apparently, in best technocratic fashion, ‘While Konrad Zuse never became a member of the Nazi Party, he is not known to have expressed any doubts or qualms about working for the Nazi war effort.’ (Wikipedia).

A similar lack of doubt or qualms seems to pertain regarding the American computers today guiding the drones killing civilians and purported militants in Pakistan or Yemen, as a Noble Peace Prize-winning black president and constitutional lawyer ticks off his Tuesday kill list and goes to meet the press with funky gait, the obligatory concerned expression and a winning Colgate smile.

Equally, for the drone operators of both sexes in their metal demountables in Nevada or Utah, this is just another computer game: zero in, blast, total up point score for the week, bite into another Big Mac and slurp the Starbucks. Screens and statistics drip no blood, emit no screams or smells of rotting corpses. It’s all just a rearrangement of pixels on a screen. From Xbox to drone operator in one easy step. Thus, with the help of computers, the automation of human destruction has quite progressed since Auschwitz. It has now been integrated into the world of media and entertainment, the Pentagon and CIA fused with Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

This may have made it even easier for the ‘banality of evil’ (Hannah Ahrendt) to reign both with the many contemporary Eichmans of the world and the quiescent audiences and willing consumers of the almost totalitarian Spectacle. Advanced industrial capitalism is now a ‘theatre state’, a mass hallucination where we ‘now live in a culture entirely perceived inside a self-referential media hologram of a nation and a world that does not exist.’ (Joe Bageant)

However, capitalist industrialisation and mass society have long fused a sinister amalgam of complexity and terror. The admin professionals of war and genocide wear white collars or coats and are called statisticians, bureaucrats, doctors, IT professionals. The doors of the power elite have always smoothly revolved between corporations, the military and politics (e.g. McNamara revolving between Ford, the Pentagon and the World Bank). Now they also revolve between the former and the media and entertainment industries (cf. Nick Turse, The Complex), and now even transnationally. Thus we also get the Janus face of the internet, both military and civil commons. ‘Amusing ourselves to death’ (Neil Postman) and totalised surveillance, this is the new intensification of both state and corporate rule.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on March 29, 2014.

5 Responses to “On the Dark Origins of the Computer”

  1. talk about a picture worth a 1,000 words…juxtaposing those two is worth millions…

  2. Ah, dark origins indeed. One of my favorite songs from the iconic australian band The Models, who wrote quirky songs about quirky topics, like The Truth About Scientists, being Unhappy, having a Local and/or General, Bantams. being drunk in the Sydney opera house etc., was Happy Birthday IBM. Then history rears its ugly head and jolts my naive and innocent ignorance.

    The picture makes me think of the rather scary (horrific and terrifying really), scenario in Enders Game. The controllers may be duped/manipulated into thinking they are doing a simulation, when in fact it is the real thing. In Enders Game it was a whole civilisation! We are already doing it I guess.

    “Thus we also get the Janus face of the internet, both military and civil commons. ‘Amusing ourselves to death’ (Neil Postman) and totalised surveillance, this is the new intensification of both state and corporate rule.”

    Yes, and the complete blurring and entanglement of the whole thing/web.

    Still like the song but. A little uneasy when I hear it, but still like it! Maybe there’s some irony in it, I hope, you know, singing to a machine or wishing an abstract entity a happy birthday opr something. I wrote to Andrew Duffield, its composer,for an answer. We’ll see.

  3. I remember going to work with my dad on Saturdays and watching him feed punchcards into the huge processors. Early sixties. You can put a stick on the fire to keep warm or bash someone over the head with it.

    Thomas Pyncho has some good observations about The Web and late capitalism in his latest novel, Bleeding Edge.

  4. Thanks again Peter for clarifying more of my inchoate (before now) deep-rooted concerns about what brought us to this desolate inhumane place, by focussing on the surroundings we swim withinside; the background infotec . Ed Snowden may have alerted us in time about the range of controlling forces, with their mostly secret agenda of world domination. I think that ‘they’ DO see it as a game/simulation in order to disassociate themselves from any possible qualms of the consequence of their actions. Many of them must already have sociopathic tendencies …

    • Thanks Nick. Once we’ve understood the structural necessities and systemic drivers (the need for capital to grow, expand, control resources, markets and the general direction of development, and the need for the state to support all that by all means necessary, including total surveillance, military intervention etc), then I don’t think we need to think in terms of personalising conspiracies, ‘games’ or ‘secret agendas for world domination’. Secrecy is endemic to the oligarchic state (including ‘democracy’) and world domination by Capital is already there. No need to ‘conspire’ about anything really. (Which doesn’t mean there can’t be secondary conspiracies on occasions..).

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