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Ibm and the Holocaust

IBM and the Holocaust - Edwin Black It all started with a contest. In 1884, the U.S. Census Bureau wanted to streamline its operations in preparation for the 1890 census. They held a contest, offering prize money for the method or device which could best improve their efficiency. Twenty-four year old Herman Hollerith had been at the Bureau for a few years already, and had been thinking about this for some time. He observed that once data came to the bureau from its door-to-door census takers, it was subject to a slow and error-prone process of hand-counting and tabulation. He envisioned a "counting machine" which could read notched or punched paper cards representing the data. It was the first punch card machine, and it was an astonishing success. Hollerith's device saved the bureau 50% of its annual budget, while dramatically reducing errors and processing time. Soon industry and other governmental institutions had an interest in Hollerith's machine. He left the Census Bureau and formed his own company, which he sold for a cool $1.4 million to industrialist Charles Flint in 1910. Flint teamed up with an ambitious cash register salesman, Thomas Watson, to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording (CTR) Corporation of America, which would eventually become IBM, and which Watson would eventually take over completely. Watson's genius at growing the business was in development of a smart business model: CTR leased the machines to companies at cost, but picked up terrific profits by selling them the patented proprietary punch cards to work them with. That just so happens to be the same business model most manufacturers of medical laboratory equipment use today: lease the machine at cost and charge a bundle for the reagents. There are some interesting anecdotes about CTR aggressively going after companies they suspected were using cheaper, non-CTR cards. Sorry for that book summary, but I thought it was interesting. The company grew rapidly, both because of the merits of Hollerith's machine, and because Watson was an agressive bastard, who suppressed superior products and used influence to destroy startup competition. By the 1920's there were CTR foreign subsidiaries all over the world, including the German company "Dehomag", owned by German entrapaneur Willie Heidinger. When the Nazi Party took control of the government in 1933, Heidinger sent representatives to the German census bureau to convince the newly-enstated officials how Dehomag could streamline the census. Over the course of the next few years, the nightmare unfolded, as increased capacity to handle more complex data fueled Nazi Party interest in tracking the ethnic origins of every citizen- particularly Jews. Dehomag enabled the tracking of everybody with as little as 1/16 Jewish heritage, as well as gypsies, foreigners and others. The technology itself was not the evil, naturally, but it greatly increased the capacity of Hitler's government to perpetrate autrocities on a larger scale. Exploring the complex marriage of technology and tyrrany is one of the strengths of this book. By the time the first concentration camps began operation, Dehomag was an integral part of Third Reich machinery; every concentration camp had a dedicated "Hollerinth Department" used to catalogue the inmates, the flow of materials, the work productivity statistics, and the ultimate fate of each prisoner, sorted by genetic heritage, political offense, and other criteria. Black dispassionately shows how there is no way Heidinger couldn't have at least suspected what his machines were being used for. Business was exceeding all expectations, and the Nazi government used powerful incentives as well as threats to make sure Dehomag would continue to provide services. This is the nature of fascism: the marriage (consenting or otherwise) of industry and government. The victim of both is the citizenry. With his family and himself under direct threat of prison or worse, a reader might sympathize with Heidiger's continued business relationship with the German bureaucracy. What is not forgivable is Watson's decision to maintain trade with Dehomag. Watson himself traveled to Germany in October 1933, to help secure a land purchase for a Dehomag factory near Berlin. By the time America joined the war, the Third Reich was the largest market for IBM outside America. Naturally, the declaration of war prohibited American companies from directly conducting commerce with enemy nations, but ample letters and internal memos showed how Watson maintained "business as usual" with Heidiger through a series of intermediates. The only real snag the war created in Watson's relationship with this subsidiary is that Heidiger's profits could not be transferred back to the US for use in other IBM operations. Instead, Dehomag accounts were kept compartmentalized within Germany, for release back to IBM as soon as war concluded. Presumably, that happened, although this book does not make a point of tracking down the post-war money shuffling. In fact, the book doesn't say very much about what happened after the war, other than to note how relations between IBM and its German subsidiary have obviously normalized. Much of this book's contents were not known for nearly fifty years after the fighting ended... which leaves us all with a dilemma about what should be done. IBM obviously feels that nobody currently in the company had anything to do with assisting the Third Reich, and essentially takes the position that it is all "water under the bridge". The IBM attitude asks "Why should honest people now lose jobs to punish a company which only shares a name with the company who violated U.S. law, oh so long ago?" My problem with that is that is the message it sends, and the prescedent it sets. Why shouldn't present-day corporations expect the same sort of "[companies] will be [companies]" tacit approval, should the same moral questions come up in the course of their operations? ("You let IBM get away with it; why are you treating us differently?") Corporate complicity with, and participation in, tyrrany is not unique to Hitler's Third Reich. Google's internet search engines in China today assist that regime in censorship and suppression of "dangerous" ideas. Likewise, independent contractors interrogating prisioners in Iraq have been implicated in torture... raising a number of troubling questions about how the Geneva Conventions may or may not apply to them, and to what degree the government may (try to) distance its own conduct from that of its contractors. (see References, below) It seems that resolving what should be done with IBM is not an abstract question for some college Philosophy course; this is a serious ethical issue which demands public discourse. If anything, it seems likely the problem is more widespread today than it was in the 1940's.REFERENCEShttp://tinyurl.com/6l7p6d3http://tinyurl.com/6bhfd7chttp://tinyurl.com/5s5k9wehttp://tinyurl.com/phcn3