Kindle = Nazis?

Apparently, to some, they are. Or, maybe to just one particularly unhinged, paranoid writer.

Read this improbably hysterical screed by Alan Kaufman (writing at the Huffington Post, which goes some way to explain why this ridiculous piece was published in the first place) in its entirety if you dare, or just read the following bits:

When I hear the term Kindle I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit.

… and we’re off to a cracking start. If an electronic book-reader immediately brings to mind the greatest crime against humanity since the Inquisition, I’m not sure we can expect a great deal of sober, rational discourse either about technology or Nazis. Good lord, what this chap must think of iPods, netbooks … what fevered nightmares and night-terrors must this man have suffered when SMS arrived and people stopped talking to each other? But persist we must – I could, after all, be wrong.

And when I hear the term “hi-tech” I think not of helpful androids efficiently performing household chores or light-speed rockets gliding seamlessly through space but of the fact that between 1933-45, modern technology was used to perform in ever more efficient ways the mass murder of six million of my people. The instruments of so-called progress, placed in the hands of the modern state, disappeared six million Jewish men, women and children, into a void from which they will never return and in which a majority of them remain forever unidentified. This was done in the name of progress by means of technology for the creation of a better world.

Well, I guess there’s the difference between Kaufman and I. When I hear the words “hi-tech” I don’t automatically think of the industrialised slaughter of six million Jews. Such things usually come to mind only when I hear words like “Nazi” or “Holocaust” or “Auschwitz”.

If Hitler had been around in the days of the Inquisition, I’m quite sure he would have used whatever technology was available to achieve his ends (one can only shudder thinking about how high the body count & extreme the brutality of the Inquisition itself would have become if the Papacy had had access to automatic weapons, twisted eugenicists & gas chambers). Kaufman’s point is what, exactly – that technology needs to carry as much blame as the ideas and actions of the men who employ it? As I and many others have said before, a chisel can be used to carve David or stab someone in the head. Noone but a complete fool would blame the chisel. Pressing on …

The Nazis often were, by their own lights, well-intentioned idealists working for a better tomorrow. And their instrument was modern technology, aspects of philosophical and aesthetic modernism and the old religious concept of supercession implicit in the Christian notion of progress. Jews were outmoded, useless, they said. Most high level Nazis, like Himmler or Heydrich or Eichmann, did not feel visceral hatred towards the Jew. Rather, they looked upon them coldly as something that simply needed to disappear so that the new life could get on its way. And the means by which they sought to do so was first through a propaganda campaign that portrayed Jews, in Wagnerian terms, as a drag on the visionary energies and bursting vigor of the new Aryan man, and then by the implementation of this decision to eliminate Jews through ever more sophisticated state corporate and scientific technological means. And yet, during the war crime trials at Nuremberg, while Nazi Jurisprudence was tried and hanged, Nazi technological attitudes were not put on trial.

The victorious Allies did not mandate that technology, which had been turned to such murderous ends, must pass an ethical standard review from an international body, like a UN of technology. No such body of decision came about. To the contrary, even while the war crime trials of Nazi chieftains were in session, American and Soviet governments were recruiting high-level Nazis to their intelligence services, military armaments industries, and space programs. So that, while in jurisprudence terms Nazi social and political values were delivered a blow, the Nazi fascination with technology merged seamlessly with that of their conquerors: us.

That is why today we drive Volkswagens, which were invented by Hitler …

I think I’ll end the quote there, not least because, as a historical nitpick, Hitler did not invent the bloody Volkswagen. He might’ve commissioned, demanded, even ranted and raved about needing a cheap reliable car for the masses, but I think Dr Ferdinand Porsche might want some of the credit for its actual production. I wonder if Kaufman sits there watching Herbie Goes Bananas with his children, explaining to their horrified faces that Herbie’s actually not a cheeky, fun-loving automobile; he’s a child-killing phantasm who runs on Zyklon-B.

Next, I wondered about his assertion that the Allies should have immediately set up a “UN of technology”. I stopped wondering immediately after I realised how ineffectual the current “UN of Politics” is at curbing the militarist aggression of nations such as the United States and North Korea. Has the IAEA – the closest thing we have to his UN of Technology – managed to stop nuclear proliferation? Considering India, the US, the UK, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and who knows who else have sufficient nuclear arms to vapourise all life on Earth, Kaufman’s combined 20/20 hindsight and naivete which led him to suggest a UN of Tech indicated he hasn’t thought about this very much. Neither did his sub-editor at the Huffington Post, if indeed he even had one (if you’re going to blame technology for anything, blame it for basically removing any form of quality control in publishing).

Additionally, I find interesting his line about the Nazi techno-love merging seamlessly with that of the Allied nations. Well, of course it did. During the war the entire world was discovering new and exciting technology and the war itself drove technological research into overdrive in all areas – not just those concerned with killing people en masse but in medicine, science, communication, transport and countless other areas. The Allies weren’t going to pass up appropriating anything useful the Germans had developed (including the German scientists themselves). The Nazi ideology and actions were on trial, not their technological prowess or every single innovation – they would have gone on trial had they carried out their Final Solution with sticks and rocks. Should the Allies have simply razed every product of German technological achievement to the ground, made them start from scratch and set all their scientists, engineers to work in the fields? Even if the case could be made that they should have done exactly that, there’s no reason to expect that they would have. The Allies’ technology and their own ranks of brilliant scientists had helped them deliver crucial blows to the Axis: Turing cracking the Enigma code, radar, Barnes Wallis’ ridiculously left-field but amazingly effective bouncing bomb and of course the A-bomb, which finally ended the war with Imperial Japan. There was no realistic chance that the victors of this hideous war were going to ignore what tools and methods the Nazis had created, regardless of the reasons for their creation. Indeed, they would have been foolish not to investigate any technological advance – Stalin’s USSR was making the Western Allies nervous even during its alliance against German fascism.

Kaufman then begins the end of his article with this:

Today’s hi-tech propagandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form that society would be better off without. In its place, they want us to carry around the Uber-Kindle.

Wait … what? Who are these propagandists? Where are they saying such things? Is there any actual data Kaufman can supply to back this up? Has he been to amazon.com lately? Has he even been to a bookstore lately? I really hope he does.

The hi-tech campaign to relocate books to Google and replace books with Kindles is, in its essence, a deportation of the literary culture to a kind of easily monitored concentration camp of ideas, where every examination of a text leaves behind a trail, a record, so that curiosity is also tinged with a sense of disquieting fear that some day someone in authority will know that one had read a particular book or essay. This death of intellectual privacy was also a dream of the Nazis. And when I hear the term Kindle, I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit.

Here, I must admit that Kaufman comes within shouting distance of a point. A point which, in isolation, is a good one and one worth discussing. Does the Kindle “report” everything you read? Should it? To whom does it report your reading habits? My response, of course, is “I don’t know exactly how a Kindle functions. Here’s a tip though: if you’re worried, don’t buy a Kindle. Real books are still being produced in their millions.” However, he took all essay to reach this point and unfortunately shits all over any relevance and currency it may have had by falsely conflating it with Nazism 2.0.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the blinding, white-hot irony of lamenting an apparently imminent book-holocaust by means of an electronic medium which itself has been blamed ad nauseam for the imminent newspaper-holocaust … or should we? There’s a 50% chance Kaufman’s using the internet with an IBM-compatible computer. Going by his deep knowledge of Nazi motives and methods, he should know that an IBM card-cataloguing system was used by the Nazis to keep the now famously detailed records of their victims. But even if he’s using an Apple, he’s using the internet, which is an offshoot of DARPANET, an initiative of the US Department of Defence designed to allow weapons systems developers and other DoD researchers to share ideas. The US Department of Defence itself has wrought unimaginable carnage using cutting-edge technology across the world since the end of WW2. Kaufman should, by his own standard, renounce any and all technology which has not only been associated with violence or war but has also replaced, or made more accessible, the written or spoken word. Straight to the trash should go his telephone (produced in Victorian Imperialist Britain), television (a by-product of WW2, & conceived by the victorious nations who firebombed civilian cities in Germany and Japan and obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki), his computer (especially if a non-Apple) and of course his internet connection. If Kaufman can’t hear “hi-tech” without thinking of Auschwitz, surely there’s no way he can visit amazon.com without thinking of napalm & My Lai, or incendiary bombs and Dresden.

It’s one thing to lament what might be seen as the passing of the era of the book (though I’m sure amazon.com’s sales department would beg to differ). Every new technology does, to an extent, have an impact on its predecessor: video killed the radio star; VHS killed drive-ins and Beta; DVD is throttling VHS; Blu-Ray nailed HDDVD before it even got off the ground & will be the death of DVD; internet TV-on-demand streaming through multi-function games consoles/data hubs will kill everything else and eventually we’ll all have chips in our heads. Or something. Every new technology also brings out of the woodwork its share of Chicken Littles and NIMBYs (“Not In My Back Yard”), lamenting the loss of the good old days and vowing not to succumb, to conform, to be one of the drones (until, of course, they post said laments on The Internet, the most revolutionary hi-tech communication tool ever developed). Having a grizzle about new tech replacing old tech is one thing (such screeds have been commonplace ever since the invention of the wireless), but to conjure up the grim spectre of Nazi book-burnings and the hells-on-earth of death camps in response to the inevitable digitising of the written word is beyond hyperbole and beyond utterly inapplicable. It’s odious. It’s horrific, completely disproportionate and cheapens the millions of lives destroyed by Nazism – and the tens of millions of lives sacrificed in the process of bringing Nazism to an end.

Again, Kaufman may well have been able to produce a decent discussion, were he to concentrate on the legitimate concerns of privacy which are inevitably part and parcel of any new technology, especially in the modern era where it seems every new product will eventually be connect via the internet to everything else. Unfortunately, he chose to focus on a completely inappropriate tangent about Nazism, create a strawman about the end of the paper book and somehow link that strawman back to Auschwitz. By acting so hysterically he either exemplifies Poe’s Law (which states that, without a smiley or obvious tip-off, any accurate satire of extremism, ignorance or fundamentalism will be indistinguishable from the real thing) or he actually is the real thing – hysterical and ignorant.

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Postscript: Kaufman should probably contact his publisher. His book is available for das Uber-Kindle.

Git.

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