As I See It: Collaboration And Context
January 30, 2017 Victor Rozek
Blitzkrieg is a German term meaning “lightning warfare.” It describes a rapid, overpowering mechanized strike. Armored columns pour into enemy territory with overwhelming speed and numbers, crushing any opposition.
While this concept is now well integrated into modern warfare, in September of 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, it was revolutionary. Portions of the Polish border were still defended by cavalry, matched against waves of tanks and heavy armor.
A year before the invasion an industrialist received the highest civilian decoration bestowed by the Nazis: The Grand Cross of the German Eagle. He received it for his support of the Nazi regime, specifically for having built many of the vehicles that would be used in the invasion of Europe. His name was Henry Ford.
American industry’s support of Fascism is a shameful and largely hidden chapter of our history. Standard Oil funneled tetraethyl lead, an aviation additive, to the Nazis through Switzerland. Shell made use of Nazi slave labor and through its founder, Sir Henri Deterding, channeled fuel and money to prop up the regime. We tolerated support of Fascism even as we sent soldiers to combat it.
More recently, it was precisely the historic link between Fascism and corporatism that prompted the IT backlash. A growing number of Silicon Valley professionals are urging the industry’s most influential companies to make preemptive commitments against creeping autocracy.
It started when The Intercept contacted leading tech companies and asked if they would refuse to help the Trump administration compile a tracking database on Muslims living in this country. Nine companies were queried including Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google, Apple, IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton, CGI, and SRA International.
Initially, only Twitter unambiguously refused to cooperate with outside surveillance efforts. Booz Allen Hamilton refused to comment, Microsoft replied by touting its commitment to diversity, but then added this caveat: “. . . it will remain important for those in government and the tech sector to continue to work together to strike a balance that protects privacy and public safety in what remains a dangerous time.” The remaining six companies ignored the query.
At least one company, IBM, reached out to the president-elect offering collaboration on several benign fronts. CEO Ginni Rometty wrote a letter touting the benefits of doing business with her company and made the following claim. She describes IBM as “a company that for more than 105 years has believed that prosperity and progress can be achieved by unleashing the potential of all people.” It would be pretty to think so, but the comment suggests Rometty is woefully ignorant of her own company’s history. Indeed, it can be argued that IBM helped “unleash the potential” of one of the most horrific events in human history.
Investigative journalist Edwin Black documented IBM’s collaboration with the Third Reich in his disturbing book IBM and the Holocaust. A single question haunted Black: how did they know? How did the Nazis always know where to find the Jews? Europe is not an insignificant landmass, yet in country after country, Jews were rounded up with uncommon efficiency, herded into ghettos and ultimately shipped to extermination camps.
Black discovered that the Germans had the advantage of state-of-the-art computer technology. The Nazis coded census data on punch-card systems allowing them to sort, identify, and locate Jews with ease. Germany became IBM’s second largest market, as punch-card machine sales followed the German invasion across Europe. Systems were installed in city after city, country after country. The Holocaust was automated.
Since the beginning of the industrial era, the ethical question for corporations remains the same: Do they have a moral obligation not to collaborate with regimes that are–or openly threaten to be–oppressive?
IBM, of course, could argue that it sold computers, not Holocaust automation devices. And Ford sold vehicles, not mobilized weaponry. The degree of separation between products and their ultimate uses lies in the murky region between the desire for profit and the need for deniability.
Perhaps because of historic precedent, or fear of social media, or the desire to act honorably, five additional companies eventually responded to The Intercept query. Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and IBM indicated they would not collaborate with efforts to build a Muslim registry. An IBM spokesperson said, “IBM would not work on this hypothetical project. Our company has long-standing values and a strong track record of opposing discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. That perspective has not changed, and never will.” Although that statement again reflects a poor grasp of history, it must at least be viewed as encouraging.
Something ugly, primal, and reptilian emerged during last year’s election. It has Silicon Valley worried enough to at least begin drawing a line in the sand. Whether anything approaching the horrors of the German Reich could ever happen here is certainly debatable, but we do know that Japanese Americans were interned during WWII. And history tends to repeat itself not because we don’t learn from it, but because the baser human motivations like greed, power, and racial hatreds remain the same across time.
Shakespeare said what’s past is prologue, but it needn’t be. An old Indian proverb speaks of a grandfather who is tutoring his grandson and tells him there are two wolves inside of us that are always at war with each other. One is a good wolf that represents things like kindness, bravery, and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred, and fear. The grandson thinks about it for a moment, and then looks up at his grandfather and asks, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather replies: “The one you feed.”
The IT community appears to be rallying in support of the good wolf, in the hope that history will not be allowed to repeat. For all of our sakes, may they succeed.