Sunday, December 30, 2007

Information Management and the Nazis

Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust

Information management is usually a positive force. In some instances, though, it can be lethal. Edwin Black’s controversial book IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation charges that IBM’s German affiliate combined the technology of the information age and modern warfare to enact the Final Solution.

The IBM Hollerith punch card machine

The IBM Hollerith punch card machine, above, a precursor to the computer originally created to compile census data, was reconfigured to streamline the Holocaust. Each “undesirable” had a punch hole—Jews were “8”—which helped them be identified, ghettoized, deported to concentration camps, and terminated. Each step was made infinitely more smoother by the custom-designed Hollerith machines.

IBM CEO Thomas Watson, headquartered in New York, straddled a position of keeping both the United States and Germany satisfied. Black provides archival evidence that Watson willingly assisted in genocide, ultimately receiving a Merit Cross from Hitler and profiting from leasing deals and the sale of billions of punch cards. Additionally, the Germany subsidiary knew what was happening as well. How could they not? The machines had to be serviced monthly at the death camps by engineers.

From a NPR interview with the author:

"There were many people who found fascination with Hitler during this period.. .but the only one who bestowed the Promethean gift of data automation was IBM and at no point did they stop providing the materials that Hitler needed to proceed with his persecution of the Jews."

Below is an excerpt of the Introduction:

This book will be profoundly uncomfortable to read. It was profoundly uncomfortable to write. It tells the story of IBM's conscious involvement--directly and through its subsidiaries--in the Holocaust, as well as its involvement in the Nazi war machine that murdered millions of others throughout Europe.

Mankind barely noticed when the concept of massively organized information quietly emerged to become a means of social control, a weapon of war, and a roadmap for group destruction. The unique igniting event was the most fateful day of the last century, January 30, 1933, the day Adolf Hitler came to power. Hitler and his hatred of the Jews was the ironic driving force behind this intellectual turning point. But his quest was greatly enhanced and energized by the ingenuity and craving for profit of a single American company and its legendary, autocratic chairman. That company was International Business Machines, and its chairman was Thomas J. Watson.

Der F├╝hrer's obsession with Jewish destruction was hardly original. There had been czars and tyrants before him. But for the first time in history, an anti-Semite had automation on his side. Hitler didn't do it alone. He had help.

In the upside-down world of the Holocaust, dignified professionals were Hitler's advance troops. Police officials disregarded their duty in favor of protecting villains and persecuting victims. Lawyers perverted concepts of justice to create anti-Jewish laws. Doctors defiled the art of medicine to perpetrate ghastly experiments and even choose who was healthy enough to be worked to death--and who could be cost-effectively sent to the gas chamber. Scientists and engineers debased their higher calling to devise the instruments and rationales of destruction. And statisticians used their little known but powerful discipline to identify the victims, project and rationalize the benefits of their destruction, organize their persecution, and even audit the efficiency of genocide. Enter IBM and its overseas subsidiaries.

Solipsistic and dazzled by its own swirling universe of technical possibilities, IBM was self-gripped by a special amoral corporate mantra: if it can be done, it should be done. To the blind technocrat, the means were more important than the ends. The destruction of the Jewish people became even less important because the invigorating nature of IBM's technical achievement was only heightened by the fantastical profits to be made at a time when bread lines stretched across the world.

So how did it work?

When Hitler came to power, a central Nazi goal was to identify and destroy Germany's 600,000 Jews. To Nazis, Jews were not just those who practiced Judaism, but those of Jewish blood, regardless of their assimilation, intermarriage, religious activity, or even conversion to Christianity. Only after Jews were identified could they be targeted for asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and ultimately extermination. To search generations of communal, church, and governmental records all across Germany--and later throughout Europe--was a cross-indexing task so monumental, it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

When the Reich needed to mount a systematic campaign of Jewish economic disenfranchisement and later began the massive movement of European Jews out of their homes and into ghettos, once again, the task was so prodigious it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

When the Final Solution sought to efficiently transport Jews out of European ghettos along railroad lines and into death camps, with timing so precise the victims were able to walk right out of the boxcar and into a waiting gas chamber, the coordination was so complex a task, this too called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card sorting system--a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, made Hitler's program of Jewish destruction a technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success. IBM Germany, using its own staff and equipment, designed, executed, and supplied the indispensable technologic assistance Hitler's Third Reich needed to accomplish what had never been done before--the automation of human destruction. More than 2,000 such multi-machine sets were dispatched throughout Germany, and thousands more throughout German-dominated Europe. Card sorting operations were established in every major concentration camp. People were moved from place to place, systematically worked to death, and their remains cataloged with icy automation.

IBM Germany, known in those days as Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or Dehomag, did not simply sell the Reich machines and then walk away. IBM's subsidiary, with the knowledge of its New York headquarters, enthusiastically custom-designed the complex devices and specialized applications as an official corporate undertaking. Dehomag's top management was comprised of openly rabid Nazis who were arrested after the war for their Party affiliation. IBM NY always understood--from the outset in 1933--that it was courting and doing business with the upper echelon of the Nazi Party. The company leveraged its Nazi Party connections to continuously enhance its business relationship with Hitler's Reich, in Germany and throughout Nazi-dominated Europe.

Dehomag and other IBM subsidiaries custom-designed the applications. Its technicians sent mock-ups of punch cards back and forth to Reich offices until the data columns were acceptable, much as any software designer would today. Punch cards could only be designed, printed, and purchased from one source: IBM. The machines were not sold, they were leased, and regularly maintained and upgraded by only one source: IBM. IBM subsidiaries trained the Nazi officers and their surrogates throughout Europe, set up branch offices and local dealerships throughout Nazi Europe staffed by a revolving door of IBM employees, and scoured paper mills to produce as many as 1.5 billion punch cards a year in Germany alone. Moreover, the fragile machines were serviced on site about once per month, even when that site was in or near a concentration camp. IBM Germany's headquarters in Berlin maintained duplicates of many code books, much as any IBM service bureau today would maintain data backups for computers.

I was haunted by a question whose answer has long eluded historians. The Germans always had the lists of Jewish names. Suddenly, a squadron of grim-faced SS would burst into a city square and post a notice demanding those listed assemble the next day at the train station for deportation to the East. But how did the Nazis get the lists? For decades, no one has known. Few have asked.

The answer: IBM Germany's census operations and similar advanced people counting and registration technologies. IBM was founded in 1898 by German inventor Herman Hollerith as a census tabulating company. Census was its business. But when IBM Germany formed its philosophical and technologic alliance with Nazi Germany, census and registration took on a new mission. IBM Germany invented the racial census--listing not just religious affiliation, but bloodline going back generations. This was the Nazi data lust. Not just to count the Jews--but to identify them.

People and asset registration was only one of the many uses Nazi Germany found for high-speed data sorters. Food allocation was organized around databases, allowing Germany to starve the Jews. Slave labor was identified, tracked, and managed largely through punch cards. Punch cards even made the trains run on time and cataloged their human cargo. German Railway, the Reichsbahn, Dehomag's biggest customer, dealt directly with senior management in Berlin. Dehomag maintained punch card installations at train depots across Germany, and eventually across all Europe.

How much did IBM know? Some of it IBM knew on a daily basis throughout the 12-year Reich. The worst of it IBM preferred not to know--"don't ask, don't tell" was the order of the day. Yet IBM NY officials, and frequently Watson's personal representatives, Harrison Chauncey and Werner Lier, were almost constantly in Berlin or Geneva, monitoring activities, ensuring that the parent company in New York was not cut out of any of the profits or business opportunities Nazism presented. When U.S. law made such direct contact illegal, IBM's Swiss office became the nexus, providing the New York office continuous information and credible deniability. . .

More information about the book can be found on its webpage.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Karel Vredenburg and User Centered Design

Karel Vredenburg, the Program Director for Design Leadership at IBM and author of
User-Centered Design: An Integrated Approach and Designing the Total User Experience at IBM: An Examination of Case Studies, Research Findings, and Advanced Methods has posted several videos on YouTube illustrating a user centered design approach to product development.

Task Analysis

Benchmark Assessment

Conceptual Design

Detailed Design

Design Validation

Competitive Evaluation

Design Walkthrough

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Michael Wesch's Information R/evolution and The Machine is Us/ing Us

Michael Wesch's Information R/evolution and The Machine is Us/ing Us are short films which effectively illustrate how information will be created, managed, searched, stored, and shared in the Internet age.

Information R/evolution

The Machine is Us/ing Us

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Design of Everday Things

Donald A. Norman's The Design of Everyday Things

As part of Human-Computer Interaction class, I read Donald A. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, a seminal work in the field of User Centered Design (UCD). It is an engaging, highly readable book that teaches interactive design principles to apply to daily life. My boyfriend, for example, a gift processing manager for a large, quickly expanding non-profit organization, uses the concepts to create user-centered methods to centralize gift entry in the national office. I have used the theories myself to construct a myriad of information management protocols.

Donald Norman, a cognitive science professor, uses mundane example of bad design from daily life to illustrate his points. Who among us hasn’t been flummoxed by our initial use of office telephones, shower knobs, or doors that we pushed when we should have pulled or vice versa?

The crux of the book is simple: user needs differ from designer needs. When designers fail to understand the processes by which devices work, they create unworkable technology. A well-designed object should be self-explanatory.

Norman recapitulates his points at the end of the book by listing the seven UCD principles for transforming difficult tasks into easy ones:

1. Use both knowledge in the world and in the head.
2. Simplify the structure of tasks.
3. Make things visible.
4. Get the mappings right.
5. Exploit the powers of constraints, both natural and artificial.
6. Design for error.
7. When all else fails, standardize.

Below is an excerpt from the book:

"You would need an engineering degree from MIT to work this," someone once told me, shaking his head in puzzlement over his brand new digital watch. Well, I have an engineering degree from MIT… Give me a few hours and I can figure out the watch. But why should it take hours? I have talked with many people who can’t figure out how to work a sewing machine or a video cassette recorder, who habitually turn on the wrong stove burner.

Why do we put up with the frustrations of everyday objects, with objects that we can’t figure out how to use, with those neat plastic-wrapped packages that seem impossible to open, with doors that trap people, with washing machines and dryers that have become too confusing to use, with audio-stereo-television-video-cassette-recorders that claim in their advertisements to do everything, but that make it almost impossible to do anything?

The human mind is exquisitely tailored to make sense of the world. Give it the slightest clue and off it goes, providing explanation, rationalization, understanding. Consider the objects—books, radios, kitchen appliances, office machines, and light switches—that make up our everyday lives. Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand. They contain visible clues to their operation. Poorly designed objects can be difficult and frustrating to use. They provide no clues—or sometimes false clues. They trap the user and thwart the normal process of interpretation and understanding. Alas, poor design predominates. The result is a world filled with frustration, with objects that cannot be understood, with devices that lead to error. This book is an attempt to change things.

Link to Donald A. Norman's website