November 29, 2014

Praise be to our beneficent Lord, The Great God Technology

In a post a couple of days ago, I mentioned in passing the "salvific" powers we project onto technology.

Here we see a group of supplicants, reaching out on a religious holiday (Black Friday) for healing. 

November 26, 2014

Clara Bow and Augie March on Authenticity

Clara Bow, the "It Girl"

In the 1927 silent film, IT, an author* who has written a book entitled Iis asked how she would define what “IT” is. She answers: 
"Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not — and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold. That's 'IT’!'"

Saul Bellow
In Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, the title character says of himself: 
“I touched all sides, and nobody knew where I belonged. I had no good idea of that myself.” 

* The person playing the author in the film It is Elinor Glyn, the author who actually wrote the novel It, on which the film is based.

November 25, 2014

On the "completion" of the Final Solution: The application of technique to mass murder

On this day 70 years ago, Heinrich Himmler declared that the Final Solution, the Nazi’s campaign to exterminate the Jews, had been completed. He ordered the Nazi network of extermination centers, with their gas chambers and crematoria, closed and dismantled. 

He did so under pressure. Allied forces, the Soviets in particular, were closing in. And as grandiose an operation as the Holocaust may have been, the Nazis always knew it had to be carefully concealed, from the Allies, from the Jews, and from their own consciences. 

Left to his own devices, Himmler might have pursued his campaign a bit longer, but supplies of new victims were becoming scarce. The Nazis’ conquests of new territories had stalled, and Allied bombers were increasingly disrupting the rail lines needed to carry captives to the camps. By 1944 only one of the killing centers, Auschwitz, was still operating at full capacity, “processing” nearly 600,000 Jews between May and October. 

I’m writing about the Holocaust in this space — a blog about technology —  for a specific reason: To remind us of the scale of atrocity that technique makes possible. 

This is an obvious fact that we nonetheless tend to overlook as we celebrate the salvific potential of our latest technological wonders. Those who worship technology tend to think only of the freedoms it promises to provide. They forget that among those freedoms are unprecedented opportunities for humans to destroy one another. 

Set aside for the moment the arguments over technological determinism. Whether you see technology as a force that exerts, independently, a shaping influence on human culture or as a neutral tool that is effective only insofar as human beings decide to use it, for good or ill, the fact remains that the Final Solution was a technological enterprise, both in the machinery the Nazis employed and in the management techniques they used to keep that machinery in motion. 

A definitive source of scholarship on the Holocaust is Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, one of the most thoroughly researched books I’ve ever read. All the details in the opening paragraphs of this post are from Hilberg’s remarkable work, and from here on I will be drawing on passages from it. What follows are snapshots of the Nazi genocide machine. 

Jews on their way to Sobibór
The Assembly Line

Three of the earlier extermination camps, Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec, constructed in occupied Poland in late 1941 and early 1942, demonstrate the basic workings of the world’s first application of assembly line techniques to mass murder. 

The camps, chosen because of their seclusion and proximity to railroad lines, were only a few hundred yards long and wide. Laborers from the Warsaw ghetto were “recruited” to build them. Arriving shipments of Jews were off loaded from freight cars to an undressing area. They were then led, naked, through an S-shaped walkway called the Hose, which was two or three yards wide and bordered on either side by a high barbed wire fence covered with ivy. The Hose led to the gas chambers, large rooms disguised as showers that were filled to capacity for each round of exterminations. 

The Jews were told they were to be transported to camps further “east” and needed to clean themselves for the journey. This was done to ensure they would walk peacefully to their deaths. The aim wasn’t compassion, but efficiency. At Bełżec the arriving Jews were greeted by the music of a ten-man inmate orchestra.

“The killing operation was a combination of physical layout and psychological technique," Hilberg says. "Every step of the victims from train to gas chamber was controlled through a combination of lies and shows of force."

Himmler visits Globocnik
The limited capacity of the camps troubled SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik, who worried he might get “stuck” with more Jews than he could handle. All three camps were expanded in late 1942. At Bełżec and Treblinka massive buildings were built containing at least six gas chambers in each camp. As the numbers of victims threatened to overwhelm facilities, the answer was always to accelerate the killing process, rather than to scale it back. 

This was true of the system as a whole. In 1939 there were six relatively small camps. In 1944 an aide sent Himmler a map showing 20 full-fledged concentration camps with 165 satellite labor camps grouped in clusters around them. Himmler was pleased. “Just such examples show how our business has grown,” he said.

The Disposal Problem

Himmler shut down the mechanism of the Holocaust just as those in charge of running it had finally worked out one of their most vexing production problems: how to dispose of the mountains of corpses they were creating. Early mass burials had a habit of splitting open the earth that contained them, spilling decaying body parts and fluids onto the surrounding terrain, attracting insects and spreading foul odors through the nearby camps. Funeral pyres, primitive ovens and even explosives were tried, but it wasn’t until full-scale crematoria were established at Birkenau, one of three camps in the Auschwitz complex, that the disposal problem was effectively solved. 

Ovens at Birkenau
By May of 1944, Hilberg says, Birkenau’s four crematoria kept 874 men working in two shifts day and night. At times the supply of corpses exceeded the crematoria’s capacity, requiring the digging of eight or nine burning pits, forty yards long, eight yards wide and six feet deep. Human fat was collected from the bottom of the pits and poured back into the fire to increase the intensity of the flames. 

The combination of the pits and the crematoria effectively handled the 10,000 bodies the chambers could produce each day. “Thus the capacity for destruction was approaching the point of being unlimited,” Hilberg writes. “Simple as this system was, it took years to work out in constant application of administrative techniques.”

The Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt’s famous characterization of Adolph Eichmann as a bloodless bureaucrat simply doing his job as he sent millions to their deaths has been criticized for letting Eichmann off too easily. A recent book has documented that he participated with enthusiasm, a true believer in the cause.

It’s odd that Arendt misunderstood this, if she did*, given that she'd read Hilberg’s book (in Eichmann in Jerusalem she calls it “the first clear description of [the Nazis'] incredibly complicated machinery of destruction”) and Hilberg clearly documents Eichmann’s true character. He quotes a comment Eichmann reportedly made to a weeping member of his staff as the Soviets neared Berlin. So satisfying was the knowledge that he'd killed millions of Jews, Eichmann said, that he could jump into his own grave laughing.

Nonetheless, Hilberg also documents that the “banality of evil” label can accurately be applied to thousands of other Germans. The majority of those responsible for keeping the killing machine running, he points out, never aimed a weapon at a Jew or poured gasoline into a gas chamber. “Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, signed correspondence, talked on the telephone, and participated in conferences,” Hilberg writes. “They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desks.”

American soldier sorts through crates of silverware at Buchenwald
Coordinating the Final Solution constituted a massively diffuse, massively complex logistical task. A subset of functionaries was responsible, for example, for collecting and distributing what the murdered Jews left behind. The quantities were astounding. One of Himmler’s lieutenants reported that he'd dispatched 2,900 freight cars filled with clothing with enough left over to fill another 1,000 cars. Another officer noted receipt of 94,000 men’s watches, 33,000 women’s watches and 25,000 fountain pens. As the Soviets closed in on Auschwitz, the Germans rushed to destroy what evidence they could, including the remaining prisoners, but they didn’t have time to finish the job. Troops liberating the camp found six intact storerooms containing 368,820 men’s suits, 836,255 women’s coats and dresses, 5,525 pairs of women’s shoes and large quantities of children’s clothing. In the tannery they recovered seven tons of human hair, used to make felt footwear for German sailors, among other things.

German bureaucrats adapted their customary procedures as necessary. Railroad agents, for example, billed the Security Police for the transport of Jews to the camps, calculating a one-way fare for each deportee by track kilometer. The inevitable unexpected consequence arose. When the Warsaw Jews were rounded up in the summer of 1942, they left behind their unpaid gas and electricity bills, creating a mess for accountants at the local utility companies to straighten out.

Walking to the gas chambers at Birkenau
The complexity of the Final Solution required the active participation of Germany’s civilian as well as military culture. The scope of its component parts defined it as a fully-developed technological system.

“An administrative process of such range cannot be carried out by a single agency,” Hilberg writes, “even if it is a trained and specialized body like the Gestapo or a commissariat for Jewish affairs, for when a process cuts into every phase of human life, it must ultimately feed upon the resources of the entire organized community….The machinery of destruction, then, was structurally no different from organized German society as a whole; the difference was only one of function.”

* Michael Sacasas alerted me to an article that suggests Arendt's "banality of evil" quote has been widely misinterpreted and that Arendt didn't misunderstand Eichmann as much as many scholars think.

November 22, 2014

Bertrand Russell on the lesson of Icarus

I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy. Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father Daedalus, was destroyed by his rashness. I fear that the same fate may overtake the populations whom modern men of science have taught to fly.
Bertrand Russell

November 21, 2014

Hans Jonas' greater fear

Speaking for myself, I fear not the abuses by evil power interests: I fear the well-wishers of mankind with their dreams of a glorious improvement of the race. 
Hans Jonas

For a related post, see "Larry Page and the Lathe of Heaven."

November 15, 2014

Stanislaw Lem, on solicitude to spark plugs and broken bells

"I used to be a philanthropist to old spark plugs. I would buy fragments of incomprehensible gadgets….I would turn some crank or other to give it pleasure, then put it away again with solicitude. To this day I have a special feeling for all sorts of broken bells, alarm clocks, old coils, telephone speakers, and in general for things derailed, used up, homeless, discarded.”
                                   Staislaw Lem

November 11, 2014

Some very nice endorsements for "Not So Fast," updated

Not So Fast continues to receive some very nice endorsements from some very knowledgeable people. Here's an updated selection:  

“Lively, fast moving, always entertaining, Not So Fast offers a grand overview of the extravagant hopes and dire warnings that accompany the arrival of powerful new technologies. Blending the key ideas of classic and contemporary thinkers, Doug Hill explores the aspirations of those who strive for the heavens of artifice and those who find the whole enterprise a fool’s errand. This is the most engaging, readable work on the great debates in technology criticism now available and a solid contribution to that crucial yet unsettling tradition.”
            – Langdon Winner, author of Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought and The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology  

"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 slow down the flight from reality."
            – Bill McKibben, activist and author, EnoughThe Age of Missing Information and The End of Nature.  

Not So Fast is a really fine piece of work. I wish I’d written it. Anyone who might want to reflect on the implications of more than three generations of scholarly criticism of technology should read the book. The same goes for any scholars who have been thinking about technology and who desire to see how their work may have been more publicly appropriated – or, indeed, who may wish to deepen their own understanding of what they have been doing. Doug Hill is a solid independent scholar in the best sense: A Lewis Mumford for our time.” 
              – Carl Mitcham, author, co-author, or editor of Thinking through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy; Bibliography of the Philosophy of Technology; The Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics; and Research in Philosophy and Technology 

"This book is the most comprehensive, provocative, and entertaining review of technological thought, expression, impact and controversy that I have yet seen. Written in a remarkably straightforward and open style, and seemingly without personal axes to grind, Doug Hill provides details and insight into the evolution of technology over the last millennium, while focusing on the debates, pro and con, that shaped many stages of recent development. The book is more than just a discourse; it's an informal encyclopedia of perspectives, predictions, debates and consequences of our society's technologic evolution; the upsides, and perhaps more-so, the downsides; and is more comprehensive and efficient in these explorations than anything that has preceded it. And yet it is easy reading, personable, and charming. An extraordinary achievement." 
         – Jerry Mander, Founder and Chair of the International Forum on Globalization and author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television; In the Absence of the Sacred; and The Capitalism Papers – Fatal Flaws in an Obsolete System 

“Technology is a troubling and confusing force in contemporary culture, and it’s good to see Doug Hill discuss it so calmly and clearly. His book is special in avoiding the rigorous and severe arguments of philosophers and other academics and in being both firm in its views but relaxed in its attitude. The reader hears the voice of a very well-informed writer without being bullied with all that knowledge. There's good reason to believe the book will reach an audience that has been neglected and that it will help to advance the public conversation on technology that is so necessary and so lacking.” 
             – Albert Borgmann, Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana, author of Crossing the Postmodern Divide, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, and Holding on to Reality 

"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

"This is the technology criticism I've been waiting for – aware of the history of technology criticism and the history of changing attitudes toward technology, and at the same time attuned to contemporary developments. Not So Fast is readable, meticulously sourced, and, above all – nuanced. I recommend it for technology critics and enthusiasts alike."
             – Howard Rheingold, author of Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs and Net Smart

"Doug Hill’s Not So Fast has to be one of the five best books on technology I’ve read over the past decade.  Hill has a remarkable command of the technology creators, analysts, and critics, such as Ellul, Heidegger, Kurzweil, Gates, Jobs, Mumford, Borgmann, and McLuhan. He approaches technology from several helpful angles.  His prose is clear, convincing, and often droll! Not So Fast must be part of any reflection on our culture and future." 
             – David W. Gill, Professor of Workplace Theology & Business Ethics, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, President, International Jacques Ellul Society 

"Doug Hill’s Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology presents a rich history of the questions raised and reasons given for bringing more aspects of the biological and cultural worlds under technological control. I highly recommend it." 
              – Chet Bowers, author of Let Them Eat Data and The False Promises of the Digital Revolution 

“I have read carefully Doug Hill’s Not So Fast. Insightful, well informed and well written, it should provide the general educated public with an excellent initiation to the problems of our technological society. I hope it will be soon translated into French, so I could recommend it to scholars, students and friends.”  
           – Daniel Cérézuelle, President, Société pour la Philosophie de la Technique (France)

"Almost everyone today acknowledges that serious questions surround the myriad technologies that inhabit our lives. We need a way to form our own opinions about the relentless advance of technology and the role we want our devices to play in our lives, the lives of our children, and the future of our societies. Doug Hill, a fine journalist and writer, has given us an indispensable tool for doing this. His knowledgeable and well-crafted new book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice about Technology, offers a penetrating yet ultimately heartening view of this fast and furious technological terrain, taking us back, sometimes far back, then bringing us forward to fully face our most intimate concerns about technology in the 21st century."
            – Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, authors of Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics

Not So Fast reflects, in addition to Doug Hill’s consummate skill as a writer, his deep knowledge of the history and the philosophy of technology. His reflections are grounded in that knowledge and at the same time are original and profound. I've worked and traveled in the highest reaches of the tech world for more than twenty years and I still learned much from this book." 
            – Allen Noren, Vice President, Online, O'Reilly Media 

“Not So Fast addresses the primary questions of the day: how can we construct a coherent story about what is happening to us? And what can we do about it? Anyone interested in the future of the human project will benefit hugely from Doug Hill’s lucid performance." 
             – James Howard Kunstler, author of Too Much Magic, The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere 

“Never have I experienced such a probing, in-depth analysis of the push-and-pull of technology as a driver, determining force, savior or disease of our species.”
            – Roger Cubicciotti, former chair, Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology, North Carolina Biotechnology Center; Visiting Scholar, Department of Physics, Wake Forest University

November 7, 2014

A great innovation in technological convergence: the Nazi death camp

“A salient fact about the killing center operations was that, unlike earlier phrases of the destruction process, they were unprecedented. Never before in history had people been killed on an assembly line basis....As separate establishments, both the concentration camp and the gas chamber had been in existence for some time. The great innovation was effected when the two devices were fused.”
        Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews

November 5, 2014

RIP Tom Magliozzi, gentle guide for the technologically perplexed

Tom Magliozzi

Like thousands of others, I was sad to read on Monday of the death of Tom Magliozzi, one half of Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, of public radio’s extremely popular show, Car Talk

The bad jokes and worse puns of Tom and his brother Ray have been keeping us smiling on weekend mornings for years — still do, in reruns, even though they stopped doing live shows in 2012. Sure, it was interesting to hear them analyze the car problems people called in about, but the real attraction has been Click and Clack’s gregarious, wise-cracking, self-deprecating personalities. I can’t remember ever hearing them make a caller feel stupid. I doubt they ever did.

The show’s chemistry has always stuck me as paradoxical. The atmosphere seemed so easy-going, so comfortable, so normal, but it was appealing largely, I suspect, because that sort of interaction isn’t really normal any more. More than any show I can think of, Car Talk conveyed a feeling of inclusion that’s missing from the stressed out, brusque, impersonal interactions that prevail in the everyday experience of many, if not most people today, me included. For all I know, off the air Tom and Ray’s lives were filled with torment, but on the air they seem tuned to the frequency of a kinder, gentler era.

Another thing that struck me listening to Car Talk was how perfectly it embodied an apophthegm formulated by the futurist John Naisbitt in his 1982 book, Megatrends: High tech/high touch.

John Naisbitt
For those too young to remember, Megatrends was a publishing phenomenon, selling something like 14 million copies. At a time when the digital revolution was just starting to disrupt life as we know it, Megatrends offered, as the paperback’s cover put it, “a roadmap to the 21st century….…a new way of looking at America’s future and a new way of understanding the jumble of the present.” 

Some of Naisbitt’s predictions were wrong, as any futurist’s will be, and others were hardly groundbreaking. Nonetheless, some of the trends he identified turned out to be not only accurate, but genuinely important. High tech/high touch, I believe, is one of them. 

The basic idea of high tech/high touch is fairly obvious. Although we’re attracted by the powers and conveniences new technologies offer, they also can convey, collectively as well as individually, a coldness that puts us off. As Naisbitt put it, “The more high tech in our society, the more we will want to create high-touch environments, with soft edges balancing the hard edges of technology.” 

Naisbitt cited gardening, yoga, and meditation as examples of the antidotes we self-administer to counteract the depersonalization of our technicized workaday grind. Whether Steve Jobs ever read Megatrends, I don’t know, but his fabled fondness for skeuomorphs in Apple design reflected precisely the people-friendly qualities Naisbitt said technology products need. 

An Apple skeuomorph design: the iBooks "bookshelf"

“When high tech and high touch are out of balance,” Naisbitt wrote, “an annoying dissonance results….High tech dissonance infuriates people.” 

That seems to sum up how the airline industry has gone so frightfully wrong today. Google tries to strike a bit of high tech/high touch balance with the animations it regularly puts on its homepage, while Facebook tries to preserve that balance by concealing how aggressively it exploits its users' personal information. Social media in general is a massive manifestation of the high tech/high touch principle. 

You might think that the car problems Tom and Ray addressed don’t qualify as “high tech,” but I’d disagree. In fact cars and computers are both technologies we depend on utterly but don’t have a clue how to fix ourselves. For most of us this was true even before the innards of our automobiles became thoroughly computerized, and it’s more true now that they are. We’re as vulnerable facing a car that won’t start as we are a computer that’s frozen. Naked we stand at the mercy of He or She Who Knows.

Which is precisely why Car Talk has always been so existentially reassuring. Click and Clack were guides we could trust to ferry us safely across the chasm of technological uncertainty. Their infectious good humor simultaneously dispelled the mystery surrounding our machines and told us we needn't be ashamed of our ignorance. 

Not all mechanics, or all IT people, are like that, although more and more tech companies are pretending to be, following Amazon’s lead. Of course, as successful as it is, I’m pretty sure Car Talk really does operate on a scale considerably closer to the human than Amazon, or Apple, or their numerous imitators. 

Tom Magliozzi, you will be missed.

©Doug Hill, 2014