March 5, 2015

Walter Benjamin on the secret resistances of things

“Warmth is ebbing from things. The objects of daily use gently but insistently repel us. Day by day, in overcoming the sum of secret resistances—not only the overt ones—that they put in our way, we have an immense labor to perform. We must compensate with our warmth if they are not to freeze us to death.”
Walter Benjamin

March 1, 2015

Karl Knausgaard on the triumph of American technique

I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all difference the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels, and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identify as the one Americans lived their lives within.
Karl Ove Knausgaard

From "Knausgaard in America," New York Times Magazine, March 1, 2015

February 26, 2015

Bill McKibben endorses Not So Fast

I'm honored today to receive an endorsement of Not So Fast from Bill McKibben, a leading figure in the fight to address global warming. Here is what he said:  
“It's crucial—even as we sink ever deeper into our mediated world—that we pay attention to the technology engulfing us. This book helps draw the baseline that we're leaving behind, and perhaps will help us slow down the flight from reality.”
— Bill McKibben, activist and author, Enough, The Age of Missing Information and The End of Nature

For other endorsements Not So Fast has received, click here. 

February 17, 2015

MIT's Ted Postol endorses "Not So Fast"

was thrilled today to receive another outstanding endorsement of Not So Fast from another scholar I deeply admire, Ted Postol, longtime professor at MIT and one of the world’s leading experts on weapons design and control.
Here is what he said:  
Doug Hill’s book Not so Fast is not a criticism of technological innovation and enterprise, but rather a careful and well-thought-out advisory on the unpredictable effects of technology on human activities and culture. This exceptionally interesting book not only contains an exceedingly diverse set of examples of how technological outcomes can differ from what is intended and expected, but it also contains a very interesting review of how wrong the predictions and advice of “technological visionaries” can be.  Anybody who is interested in the unexpected consequences of technological innovation should consider this book an important contribution to their library.  
          – Theodore A. Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

February 14, 2015

Zygmunt Bauman: The crux of the question, after Auschwitz

"That is the crux of the question whenever we ponder the meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz. Our evolution has outpaced our understanding; we can no longer assume that we have a full grasp of the workings of our social institutions, bureaucratic structures, or technology."  
       Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust

February 3, 2015

On Gandhi’s Spinning Wheel and the Digital Millennium: An Open Letter to Vishal Sikka

Gandhi and his wheel in the famous picture by Margaret Bourke-White.
Gandhi insisted that White learn how to spin before consenting to be photographed by her.

Note: This is an open letter to
Vishal Sikka, CEO and Managing Director of the computer services company Infosys (current market capitalization, just over $31 billion), in response to an essay he posted on the blog site of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, subsequently reposted on Medium.

Dear Vishal,

I hope you won’t mind me addressing you informally. I’m writing because I was intrigued by your recent essay, “Why Technology Actually Makes Us More Human.” 

To be honest, “intrigued” isn’t an entirely accurate description of my reaction to your piece, but I’m trying to remain civil here. I’d like to accord you the respect you deserve. I say this not because you’re the CEO of a major multinational corporation but because I don’t doubt your comments are sincere, and because from what I’ve read, you seem a perfectly decent guy.  

I also feel a need to tread gently because what bugged me about your essay were your comments about Mahatma Gandhi, and Gandhi is considered the father of your country, not mine. (I refer to the country in which you were born and raised; I’m aware that you’ve since obtained American citizenship.) It stands to reason, therefore, that you might be more familiar with the great man’s legacy than I am. 

Nonetheless, sir, I have to say: On the question of Gandhi’s spinning wheel, I’m pretty sure you got it completely wrong.

Specifically my objections have to do with the analogy you draw between the spinning wheel — the charkha — in Gandhi’s era and computer technology today. Just as Gandhi believed that the spinning wheel represented hope for the advancement of the human condition in India, you contend, so digital technologies represent hope for the advancement of the human condition globally today. 

“Among his many other initiatives,” you write, “Gandhi encouraged Indians to spin and weave, and wear clothing made from this homespun fabric….Today, computing technology can serve as humanity’s charkha.”  

Your essay is short on specifics and long on generalities, as these types of visionary statements tend to be. Your second graph, however, seemed to sum up the basic point: 

“The digital revolution has positioned us at the epicenter of change and opportunity. We are surrounded by technology that enables us to do more, with less, for more. I believe this exponentially increases our individual and collective ability to achieve our true potential, and enhances our freedom to evolve.”

Vishal Sikka
Now, as I say, I’m no expert on Gandhi, but I couldn’t help but wonder if equating artificial intelligence and automation with the charkha could possibly be faithful to his message. I decided to investigate. Sure enough, a couple of hours on the web and a few hours in the library confirmed my suspicions. Far from being analogous, the spinning wheel revolution Gandhi proposed and the digital revolution you proclaim are aimed in pretty much opposite directions.

You write that for Gandhi the wheel represented the “freedom to be innovative” and the ability “to find our own insights.” To the contrary, in an era of rampant technological expansion, Gandhi saw the spinning wheel as representative of traditional skills that needed to be revived and reincorporated into daily life. Spinning wasn’t about finding the new new thing, or about disruption. It was about recovery and preservation. 

You go on to argue that by encouraging Indians of all castes and religions to spin, Gandhi hoped to foster “a national revolution built on the tenets of human creativity, self-reliance and entrepreneurship.” This, you add, was one of the earliest manifestations of a “maker movement” and a strategy “aimed at turning India into a manufacturing hub to trigger its economic transformation.”

That’s half right. It’s true that Gandhi envisioned spinning as a way for the masses of India to affirm their desire for independence while at the same time producing products that would help them attain it. He wasn’t, however, advocating entrepreneurship, at least not in the “billionaire or bust” sense typically associated with that word in Silicon Valley. Nor was he advocating turning India into a manufacturing hub on anything more than a local level. 

Independence for Gandhi wasn’t about hitting the jackpot with stock options but about finding a way for villages, and the values villages nourish, to survive. Spinning was a catalyst of “rural mindedness,” and thus an antidote to the giganticism and exploitation that were, in Gandhi’s view, inherent in industrial capitalism.

“You cannot build non-violence on a factory civilization,” Gandhi wrote, “but it can be built on self-contained villages….Rural economy as I have conceived it eschews exploitation altogether and exploitation is the essence of violence. You have therefore to be rural minded before you can be non-violent, and to be rural minded you have to have faith in the spinning wheel.” 

One phrase you use in your essay, Vishal, threw in especially stark relief the distance between your conception of technology’s potential and Gandhi’s. It appears in the midst of your discussion of computer literacy. “Just as the charkha did many decades ago,” you write, “computer literacy will help make makers out of us, help us weave our dreams into reality.” Two things are needed to make those dreams come true, you say: “advances in tooling and better abstractions.” 

Advances in tooling and better abstractions. No offense, but I can’t help thinking only a computer engineer could come up with a combination like that. And here again, you’re half right. 

Gandhi was definitely in favor of advances in tools (according to Wikipedia, he invented a small, portable spinning wheel that could be folded into the size of a small typewriter), but he wasn’t into abstractions. Indeed, he saw the spinning wheel as the antithesis of abstraction. The hands-on experience of spinning — the physicality of it — was precisely the point. What Gandhi called “charkha atmosphere” was a result of being fully grounded in the present. Spinning was a form of active meditation and a means of connecting to community and to nature. “Unless our hands go hand-in-hand with our heads,” he wrote, “we will be able to accomplish nothing whatsoever.” 

John Ruskin
These ideas are clearly less in tune with Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Ray Kurzweil (among the more prominent of your fellow believers in the Digital Millennium) than they are with those of Wendell Berry, Ivan Illich and E.F. Schumacher. The book that Gandhi credited with inspiring his spinning wheel campaign, and much else in his life, was Unto This Last by John Ruskin, a leading figure in the original “maker” movement and one of industrialism's greatest enemies. “We shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise, generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth,” Ruskin said, “— the most cruel in proportion to their sensibility, — the most unwise in proportion to their science.” 

It’s no small irony, Vishal, that you published your essay on the occasion of the World Economic Forum, an event at which packs of super-rich executives arrive in private jets to discuss, among other things, global warming and the potential impact of automation on employment. (Reports list your own salary at somewhere around $7 million a year.) Perhaps more than anything, Gandhi objected to the concentration of wealth that modern technology tended to promote and the greed that drove it. 

Gandhi dedicated his life to personal austerity, to improving the lot of the poor and to spiritual rather than material gain. He often spoke of his admiration for the spirit of discovery in Western science and insisted that he wasn’t against all technology; what he opposed was the way technology was frequently used. “I do want growth, I do want self-determination, I do want freedom,” he said, “but I want all these for the soul…It is the evolution of the soul to which the intellect and all our faculties have to be devoted.”

To be fair, Vishal, I don’t doubt your hopes for humankind are the same as Gandhi’s: progress toward a better future for all. But please, can we acknowledge that the charkha and the computer embody substantially different ways of getting there? 

Yours Truly,

Doug Hill

(References that proved especially helpful in research for this letter include Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule and The Essential Writings; Rebecca M. Brown’s Gandhi’s Spinning Wheel and the Making of India; “Towards an Understanding of Gandhi's Views on Science,” by Shambhu Prasad; and “Gandhi and the Concept of Alternative Technology” by K. Gopinathan Pillai. Although his essay doesn’t mention it, Sikka may have been influenced by Sudheendra Kulkarni’s book, Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi's Manifesto for the Internet Age.)

©Doug Hill, 2015    

January 27, 2015

Daniel Goldhagen is mistaken: Why the technology of the Holocaust mattered, and still matters

This past Sunday the Review section of the New York Times published a rather odd opinion piece by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
Entitled “How Auschwitz is Misunderstood,” the essay anticipated today’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of that most infamous of Nazi killing camps.  
Goldhagen’s basic point was that the importance of technology in the Holocaust – what he calls "the cliché" of assembly line killing -- has been exaggerated. There’s no need to apply modern technology to the project of genocide, he says. He cites as an example the Hutus' success at slaughtering some 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda using only machetes, knives and clubs. What matters, according to Goldhagen, isn’t the methodology of the Holocaust but the anti-Semitism that inspired that methodology.
“Focusing on Auschwitz’s mechanistic qualities as a precondition for the Holocaust’s vast destructiveness,” he says, “allows people to see the Nazis’ eliminationism as something uniquely modern — to believe that it takes a technically proficient, bureaucratically expert state to carry out such violence. And even though we all recognize that genocides can be unleashed without such advanced systems, people still too often assume that true eliminationism, with the intention of completely destroying another group, takes a relatively rare constellation of a state apparatus and technological means.”

I have some problems with Goldhagen’s arguments that I’ll enumerate here. Before I begin, though, let me make clear that I am not a scholar of the Holocaust. I’m a journalist and student of the history and philosophy of technology. It is from that perspective that I think Goldhagen is, in ways that are important for us to recognize, mistaken. The technological aspects of the Holocaust matter a great deal.
My reaction to Goldhagen’s argument is admittedly a defensive one. Two months ago I posted an essay on my blog essentially arguing precisely what Goldhagen disputes: that the assembly line technology of the Final Solution was intrinsic to its execution. My essay was based entirely on a close reading of what is universally considered one of the seminal works of Holocaust scholarship, Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. (Hilberg, incidentally, was one of several Holocaust scholars who dismissed Hitler's Willing Executioners, calling it “worthless” and “totally wrong about everything.”). 
What follows, then, are six reasons why I believe Goldhagen’s dismissal of technology as centrally important in the Holocaust is misguided: 
1. Goldhagen’s overall argument sets up and knocks down a straw man. He suggests that a wide body of opinion, even a consensus, exists that the Germans would never have attempted to eliminate the Jews if they didn’t have assembly line techniques at their disposal. He also states that the Nazis “would still have killed around the same number of Jews and non-Jews” had the technology of the extermination camps never been created.
First of all, no one can know how many Jews the Nazis would have killed had they not used the technologies they had at their disposal. More to the point, Goldhagen doesn’t identify anyone who argues that technology rather than anti-Semitism was the Holocaust’s motive force – undoubtedly because no sane person would make such an argument. Would the Germans have tried to eradicate the Jews if the techniques of the assembly line hadn’t been available? Given the climate of anti-Semitism there, and Hitler’s encouragement, it’s possible they might have. Nonetheless, all we can know for certain is that, thanks to Henry Ford and others, the techniques of the assembly line were available, and were immensely useful in facilitating the Nazi’s intentions. 

The first step on the Nazi's assembly line

There’s a big difference between making the Holocaust possible and making it easier. For better and for worse, our tools allow us to more effectively realize our desires. Our prehistoric ancestors discovered at some point that they’d have better luck killing dinner if they used a spear. The spear, however, wasn't a “precondition” for their wanting something for dinner. 
2. Perhaps the most obvious rationale for using techniques of mass-production, whether in the manufacture of automobiles or the killing of human beings, is efficiency. If you want something done on a huge scale, fast, assembly line technology is the way to go. 
Goldhagen points out that the Hutus in Rwanda needed no assembly lines to slaughter nearly a million Tutsis, but how long could they have kept it up? Hacking people to death with a machete is a lot more physically demanding than turning the valve that released the Zyklon B. Could they have killed six million had they persisted? Impossible to know, but the fact is, they didn't.
Goldhagen acknowledges in passing a chilling thought about the Nazi’s killing machine, which is how they might have put it to use had they won the war. As it was, they’d just about gotten the process perfected when the Allies stopped them. Hilberg documents how the Nazis struggled to fix a host of logistical problems, from how to keep fresh supplies of Zyklon B (it tended to deteriorate after a few months) to which Nazi department had dibs on the dead Jews’ possessions (the SS became, Hilberg says, “a veritable Salvation Army”), to, most vexing, disposal of the corpses. With the installation of the crematoria, he says, they finally nailed it. “The capacity for destruction was approaching the point of being unlimited,” Hilberg says. “Simple as this system was, it took years to work out in constant application of administrative techniques.”

Shoes at Auschwitz

In 1939 the worldwide Jewish population was approximately 16 million (not to mention the populations of non-Jews the Nazis also marked for elimination). There was, then, plenty of work left to be done. So, yes, it’s true, as Goldhagen says, that you don’t have to use assembly line techniques to commit genocide — the task can be accomplished by hand. Nonetheless the technology of the Holocaust matters because it shows us the potential of what can be done when human depravity and modern technological efficiency are combined. 
3. An essential quality of technology, from the spear to Skype, is action at a distance. Technology enables us to have an effect on people and things far away. In general, the more advanced the technology, the further away it is able to impose an effect. 
Nothing is quite so intimate, by contrast, as murder. It's necessary to somehow inflict sufficient damage upon your victim’s physical person – upon his or her body — to cause its biological functions to cease. Technology makes it easier for the would-be murderer to bridge that gap. As much as anything that was the purpose technology served at Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps.
Goldhagen argues that the cliché of assembly-line killing “belies the fact that rounding up Jews and shipping them, sometimes for many hundreds of miles, to a death factory was far less efficient than merely killing them where the Germans found them.”
Well, that depends on what you mean by “efficient.” It also begs the question, why would the Nazis go to all the trouble of erecting the architecture of the Final Solution if they could have simply shot the Jews where they lived? Shipping them off to concentration camps must have served some purpose. 
And indeed it did — several purposes, in fact. On the most basic level, if the Nazis had shot all the Jews where they lived, what would they have done with the bodies? As mentioned above, disposal of the Jews’ corpses was one of the most difficult technical problems the Nazis encountered in their prosecution of the Holocaust. An early solution to that problem, burial in mass graves, proved unworkable, Hilberg says, because the ground would break open in the sun, exposing rotting corpses. Cremation eventually provided the answer, but even then the number of bodies often exceeded the capacities of the crematoria, requiring the digging of pits 40 yards long, eight yards wide and six feet deep, into which bodies were piled for burning. 

Crematoria at Buchenwald

All of this could conceivably have been accomplished somewhere in closer proximity to the cities, but that would have eliminated one of the most potent, and most important, weapons in the Nazi’s arsenal.
4. That weapon was denial, and killing at a distance was essential to its effective deployment. That’s why the Nazis did everything possible to hide what they were doing. Secrecy helped maintain Jewish passivity, for one thing. If the Nazis' victims knew for certain what was in store, it’s likely more of them would have resisted. As it was the Nazis told the Jews that the trains they were boarding would take them not to their deaths, but to labor camps somewhere in “the East.” This is somewhat different than the Hutu approach of hacking their victims to death in their homes, on the road or in the churches where they hid.
The Nazis' deception of the true purpose of the camps persisted even after the Jews arrived. This was why the gas chambers were disguised as showers. At Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz complex) the Jews were told to hang their clothes on numbered hooks outside the chambers, and to remember what number hook their clothes were on so that they could reclaim them when their showers were done. One reason the Germans were anxious to dispose of the bodies efficiently, Hilberg says, was to avoid having the Jews see piles of corpses as they got off the trains. 

This is not to dispute that there was endless, unimaginable brutality at the camps. My point is only that the Nazis expended considerable effort to ensure that the machinery of extermination ran smoothly. A studied combination of lies and shows of force, Hilberg says, was found to be the most effective formula for accomplishing that goal.  
5. The killing camps also served the purpose of enabling the denial of the German people themselves. This would seem to be a direct contradiction of Goldhagen’s central premise — that the German people were willing and enthusiastic participants in the murder of the Jews — but in fact his essay for the Times includes, again in passing, exactly this point. “The Nazi leadership created death factories not for expeditious reasons,” he says, “but to distance the killers from their victims.”
A pity Goldhagen didn't pursue that point, because it goes directly to the reason assembly line technology was as useful as it was for the Nazi’s purposes. According to Hilberg, even in the military there was squeamishness about what was required, squeamishness the Nazi hierarchy sought to deflect. The Nazi commander who first suggested employing gas chambers rather than some more intimate means of slaughter did so, Hilberg says, because he felt gassing the Jews would “spare his men a great psychological burden.” This was one reason, aside from the need to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible, that the Nazis worked as hard as they did to perfect their killing technique. As Hilberg put it, “The personnel of the machinery of destruction were not supposed to look to the right or to the left. They were not allowed to have either personal motives or personal gains. An elaborate discipline was introduced into the machine of destruction.” 
It’s easy to gag on any suggestion that killing the Jews by gassing them was seen by the Germans as humane, but as Hilberg says, “this ‘humaneness’ was evolved not for the benefit of the victims but for the welfare of the perpetrators.”

Cheering Hitler

I don’t doubt that the vast majority of the German people had no problem with killing Jews, as Goldhagen argues. But it’s one thing to approve of mass murder in principle and another to see women and children slaughtered in front of your eyes. It’s much easier to hate, and to kill, at a distance. 
For all their anti-Semitism, there seems little doubt that, even if the Germans felt no need to be ashamed of what they were doing, they were aware that much of the rest of the world would disapprove. Hence the Nazis' careful use of euphemisms when referring in official documents to the death camps (terms like “evacuation” and “special installations” were consistently employed), and hence their desperate attempts to destroy evidence of the killing apparatus as Allied troops approached.
The need to hide what they were doing — from the Germans as well as from the Jews and the Allies — is why the Nazis built the killing camps at remote locations. The other requirement was that they be accessible by rail line, another way technology played a central role in what transpired. Speedy disposal of the corpses also served to hide the truth: the most damning evidence needed to be destroyed as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. 


Hilberg quotes an SS officer who worried that the smell of decaying bodies from mass graves would be too noticeable. “A future generation might not understand these matters,” he said. He also quotes a speech SS leader Heinrich Himmler made to his commanders, congratulating them for having the fortitude to face the truth of the Final Solution head on. “Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses lie there, or 500 lie there, or 1,000 lie there,” Himmler said. “To have gone through this and — apart from the exceptions caused by human weakness — to have remained decent, that has hardened us. That is a page of glory in our history never written and never to be written.”
Long before Goldhagen, Hilberg made the point that the German people as a whole were virulently anti-Semitic, and thus supported elimination of the Jews. “However one may wish to draw the line of active participation,” he wrote, “the machinery of destruction was a remarkable cross-section of the German population. Every profession, every skill, and every social status was represented in it.” 
Hilberg also emphasized, however, that it was relatively easy for the vast majority of Germans to maintain their distance, physically and psychologically, from the horror. In this he also anticipated Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil.” While it’s true, he said, that a good many Germans were required to participate directly in killing the Jews, “most of the administrators and most of the clerks did not see the final, drastic link in these measures of destruction. Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, signed correspondence, talked on the telephone and participated in conferences. They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desks.”  


Hilberg adds that once the war had ended, many of those who enabled the Holocaust were free to return to their desks, where they often prospered. They may have supported the Final Solution ideologically, but practically, they’d managed to keep their hands clean. I wonder if they’d have been able to accomplish that so easily if they’d wielded machetes. 
6. The last reason I think it’s important to recognize the use of technology in the Final Solution is that it contradicts, powerfully, one of the more persistent myths of technological enthusiasm: That societies become more humane — more civilized — as their technologies advance. 
The Nazi killing machine is an expression of unimaginable barbarity from a nation that supposedly represented a pinnacle of Western culture. How could such horror emerge from the nation that gave us Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Mann, Schopenhauer and Schiller?
Goldhagen's essay doesn’t address this issue, but it’s one of the reasons the genocide perpetrated by the Hutus isn’t equivalent to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. 
Unlike the Hutus, the Nazis were able to use the tools of a supposedly advanced civilization – modern technology – to manifest humanity’s most debased impulses. Winston Churchill commented on this. “There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,” he wrote, “and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men in name of a great state and one of the leading races of Europe.”
Obviously, we need to avoid ethnocentric and racist assumptions regarding what it means to be “civilized.” But however we define “civilized,” if we think of technological progress as a vehicle for getting there, the Holocaust tells us we ought to think again. 

©Doug Hill, 2015