The Observation Deck

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Month: November 2023

I (finally) read Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. This book had been on my queue for years, and I put it off for the same reason that you have probably put it off: we don’t like to confront difficult things. But the book is superlative: not only is it fascinating and well-researched but given the current level of anxiety about the consequences of technological development, it feels especially timely. Black makes clear in his preface that IBM did not cause the Holocaust (unequivocally, the Holocaust would have happened without IBM), but he also makes clear in the book that information management was essential to every aspect of the Nazi war machine — and that that information management was made possible through IBM equipment and (especially) their punch cards.

I have known little of computing before the stored program computer, and two aspects of punch card systems of this era were surprising to me: first, to assure correct operation in these most mechanical of systems, the punch cards themselves must be very precisely composed, manufactured, and handled — and the manufacturing process itself is difficult to replicate. Second, punch cards of this era were essentially single-use items: once a punch card had been through a calculation, it had to be scrapped. Given that IBM was the only creator of punch cards for its machines, this may sound like an early example of the razor blade model, but it is in fact even more lucrative: IBM didn’t sell the machines at a discount because they didn’t sell the machines at all — they rented them. This was an outrageously profitable business model, and a reflection of the most dominant trait of its CEO, Thomas J. Watson: devotion to profit over all else.

In the Nazis, Watson saw a business partner to advance that profit — and they saw in him an American advocate for appeasement, with Hitler awarding Watson its highest civilian medal in 1937. (In this regard, the Nazis themselves didn’t understand that Watson cared only about profit: unlike other American Nazi sympathizers, Watson would support an American war effort if he saw profit in it — and he publicly returned the medal after the invasion of Holland in 1940, when public support of the Nazis had become a clear commercial liability.) A particularly revealing moment with respect to Watson’s disposition was in September 1939 (after the invasion of Poland!) when IBM’s German subsidiary (known at the time as Dehomag) made the case to him that the IBM 405 alphabetizers owned by IBM’s Austrian entity in the annexed Austria now belonged to the German entity to lease as they please. These particular alphabetizers were important: the 405 was an order of magnitude improvement over the IBM 601 — and it was not broadly found in Europe. Watson resisted handing over the Austrian 405s, though not over any point of principle, but rather of avarice: in exchange for the 405s, he demanded (as he had throughout the late 1930s) that he have complete ownership of IBM’s German subsidiary rather than the mere 90% that IBM controlled. The German subsidiary refused the demand and ultimately Watson relented — and the machines effectively became enlisted as German weapons of war.

IBM has made the case that it did not know how its machines were used to effect the Holocaust, but this is hard to believe given Watson’s level of micromanagement of the German subsidiary through Switzerland during the war: IBM knew which machines were where (and knew, for example, that concentration camps all had ample sorters and tabulators), to the point that the company was able to retrieve them all after the war — along with the profits that the machines had earned.

This all has much to teach us about the present day with respect to the true risks of technology. Technology serves as a force-multiplier on humanity, for both better and ill. The most horrific human act — genocide — requires organization and communication, two problems for which we have long developed technological solutions. Whether it was punch cards and tabulators in the Holocaust, radio transmission in the Rwandan Genocide, or Facebook in the Rohingya genocide, technology has sadly been used as an essential tool for our absolute worst. It may be tempting to blame the technology itself, but that in fact absolves the humans at the helm. Should we have stymied the development of tabulators and sorters in the 1920s and 1930s? No, of course not. And nor, for that matter, should Rwanda have been deprived of radio or Myanmar of social media. But this is not to say that we should ignore technology’s role, either: the UN erred in not destroying the radio transmission capabilities in Rwanda; Facebook erred by willfully ignoring the growing anti-Rohingya violence; and IBM emphatically erred by being willing to supply the Nazis in the name of its own profits.

To bring this into the present day: as I relayed in my recent Monktoberfest talk, the fears of AI autonomously destroying humanity are worse than nonsense, because they distract us from the very real possibilities of how AI may be abused. To allow ourselves to even contemplate a prohibition of the development of certain kinds of computer programs is to delude ourselves into thinking that the problem is a technical problem rather than a human one. Worse, the very absurdity of prohibition has itself created a reactionary movement in the so-called “effective accelerationists” who, like some AI equivalent of rolling coal, refuse to contemplate any negative ramifications of technological development whatsoever. This, too, is grievously wrong, and we need look no further than IBM’s involvement in the Holocaust to see the peril of absolute adherence to technology-based profit.

So what course to chart with respect to the (real, human) risks of AI? We should consider another important fact of IBM’s involvement with the Nazis: IBM itself skirted the law. Some the most interesting findings in Black’s book are from the US Department of Treasury’s 1943 investigation into IBM’s collusion with Hitler. The investigator — Harold Carter — had plenty of evidence that IBM was violating the Trading with the Enemy Act, but Watson had also so thoroughly supported the Allied war effort that he was unassailable within the US. We already have regulatory regimes with respect to safety: you can’t just obtain fissile material or make a bioweapon — it doesn’t matter if ChatGPT told you to do it or not. We should be unafraid to enforce existing laws. Believing that (say) Uber was wrong to illegally put their self-driving cars on the street does not make one a “decel” or whatever — it makes one a believer in the rule of law in a democratic society. That this sounds radical — that one might believe in a democracy that creates laws, affords companies economic freedom within those laws, and enforces those laws against companies that choose to violate them — says much about our divisive times.

And all of this brings us to the broadest lesson of IBM and the Holocaust: technological development is by its nature new — a lurch into the unknown and unexplored — but as I have discovered over and over again in my career, history has much to teach us. Even though the specifics of the technologies we work on may be without precedent, the humanity they serve to advance endures across generations; those who fret about the future would be well advised to learn from the past!

“It’s been worse for me than for you.” These extraordinary words came out of the mouth of John Fisher, incompetent owner of the Oakland Athletics, on the eve of getting approval from Major League Baseball to rip its roots out of the East Bay.

I have been reflecting a lot on these words. Strictly from a public relations point of view, they are gobsmackingly disrespectful, plumbing new depths of malpractice even for the worst ownership in sports. And of course, they are obviously wrong, as this clumsy move is worse for literally everyone else than it is for John Fisher. It is worse for the fans having their hearts ripped out; worse for the Oakland employees losing their jobs; worse for the many small businesses that make their livelihood on the team; worse for the players who have been told their entire athletic careers to take accountability only to be forced to watch in silence as their skinflint ownership takes none.

But there is a kind of truth to these words too, in that there are ways that it is worse for Fisher, for we have things that he cannot. Take, for example, the Reverse Boycott, the game on June 13th, 2023 when Oakland fans deliberately attended to show that we are, in fact, not the problem. Everything about that game was extraordinary: the energy was post-season electric as the worst-in-baseball A’s entered the game with a best-in-baseball win streak. The Coliseum was rocking, in a way that only the Coliseum can. Then, at the top of the 5th inning, the fans fell silent in protest of the move to Las Vegas. There was no plan beyond this; no one really knew what would happen when the silence ended. What happened next was spontaneous, straight from a shared heart that was breaking: a deafening chant, rolling and crashing over the stadium. “SELL! THE! TEAM! SELL! THE! TEAM!” (I accidentally recorded this; you can hear the emotion in my own voice — and that of my 11-year-old daughter next to me.) The game ended as only fiction would have it: with Trevor May striking out the best team in baseball to seal an improbable win for Oakland. The biggest surprise of the night was the sheer joy of it all: it was a New Orleans funeral for Oakland baseball, and we were glad to be there as a family. As I told my kids on the drive home, it was a night that they would one day tell their own grandchildren about.

How is it that a baseball game can conjure such emotion, let alone one from a losing franchise with a signed death warrant? Because, simply: sports are about much more than what’s on the field. Sports bring us together — they bind us across generation, disposition, and circumstance. A family that might agree on little else may shout in indignant agreement that that wasn’t pass interference or that he was obviously safe. They give us solidarity with one another: they give us stuff to believe in together, to celebrate together — and to grieve for together. In short, sports are the raw id of our own humanity. The Reverse Boycott distilled all of it into a single, singular night — binding us together in the kind of shared adversity that has always been the stuff of tribal legend.

And it is in this regard that John Fisher might be right: it is, in fact worse for him, because this shared humanity of sports eludes him. His camera roll is not filled with A’s-themed birthday parties, or of selfies with his kids in rally caps, or of toddlers running the bases late on a Sunday afternoon. It would be tempting to say that he instead sees sports as only a business, but even this gives him too much credit: the only business he knows is assuring the mechanics of inheritance — of hoarding the spoils of his birth. In this regard, he is at least passably capable: he took MLB at its word that it would cut off his welfare payments if he did not secure a stadium deal by January 2024, and dutifully secured a deal, however obviously disastrous. It’s worse for John Fisher because this has all been laid bare: the real cost of securing his allowance is that his ineptitude is no longer merely an open secret among beleaguered A’s fans — he is now MLB’s famous failson, the Connor Roy of professional sports.

Whatever success John Fisher may find in Las Vegas, he will not be able to outrun the wreckage he is leaving behind here in Oakland. In John Fisher’s obituary, it will not speak of what he built, but of what he broke; not of what he gave, but of what he took away. He will be a stain on his family, who will spend their lives trying to apologize for him. He himself will find that no amount of success will absolve him of the scar that he is leaving on the East Bay’s heart. And the much more likely scenario — abject commercial failure — will merely confirm for him his own nightmares: that he is exactly the klutz and dunce that he surely fears himself to be. And if John Fisher will always be searching for what he cannot get, we Oakland A’s fans will always have what cannot be taken away: our solidarity with — and love for — one another. We are raucous, brainy, creative, and eclectic; our lives are richer for having one another in them. John Fisher has none of this, and never will. As terrible as it is for us, it may indeed be worse for him.

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