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Thursday, December 14, 2000
By Paul Ford
In which I rip off Phil K. Dick, and ask, indirectly: if the Nazis had won, would we have Linux?
If the Axis had won World War II, what would have become of the Internet, of personal computing? Computers were on the way; they would definitely have arrived, and the Reich bureaucracy would have loved the digital efficiency with which der Rechner could calculate ballistic trajectories and process lists of shipments, or of names. Consider:
In August of 1960 in Berlin, a small group of professors, the chief engineers under the employ of the 1000-Year-Reich, stood before Hitler's council throne to make a presentation. The British engineers, imported after the war, noted with sad distaste Churchill's embalmed head mounted next to DeGaulle's in a glass case at der FÃ¼hrer's left. After all heiled, the lead engineer, Brenner, lowered his head and said, “We present...der Steinadler.”
At this cue a group of slaves, Black, Middle Eastern, and Jewish, pushed forward a huge brown box on steel wheels, 15 feet tall and made nearly all of metal. The box trailed cables as thick as loaves of bread, and its entirety was covered in yellow Blinkenlights: the Golden Eagle. The slaves, overwhelmed by the huge room and the presence of Hitler, retreated into formation in a corner, below a swastika 100 feet on a side; ripples passed through its fabric in many directions, each ripple raised by the competing pressures of the microclimate within the stadium-sized room.
“So what is this beast?” asked der FÃ¼hrer, bored, his brain beginning to rot from syphilis which his doctors were terrified to openly diagnose.
Brenner stepped forward, always prepared. “The Golden Eagle is a Calculating Engine, and the first portable model of its kind. By your generosity 90 million Reichsmark have gone to its design and development. It is our assertion, which we place humbly before you, that the Reich's investment will be richly returned.”
This is where it all begins; this is the moment famous in the history of post-war technology as the first true demo; from here will be launched the first entrepreneurial boom of the Information Economy, the boom that just slightly picks America out of its post-war depression. The massive device, a Turing machine, designed after the ideas of Alan Turing, uses new principles of "core" memory and several thousands of "tubes" to process information in a "binary" format. Such a loss, Brenner had thought traitorously when informed of Turing's death, poor Alan, killed by his own hand after being jailed for homosexuality by the Reich - such genius would never have been punished so cruelly had the British prevailed. Yet Turing's ideas had lived on, and would be put to test in service of the greatest government in the world's history.
No one knows that the 18 tons of Der Steinadler, the first fully functioning data-analyzing computer capable of actual processing work at a reasonable speed, those 18 tons are the first node in an yet-to-be-imagined network. Before two decades are over, computing speed will have risen 50,000 times, in accordance with Brenner's Postulate, and all wires will lead to Berlin via das Reichnetz.
Brenner and his team had created their demo with much attention to strategy; it was intended to sate der FÃ¼hrer's gluttony for new strategies in eugenics, for new methods of genetic purification. Brenner, breathing deeply, attacked the details: “it is a machine for...processing information of any kind. We took the information from die ZÃ¤hlung of 1958. We entered a statistically significant portion of that data into our system. And, as I will show, we may now produce the projected, required analytical results from that data, and the analyses will run in minutes, not in years.”
Hitler's eyes brightened. “Now?”
“Yes. The machine will now process only 10% of the total data of the census, but that is a statistically significant amount. The output will be reliable. We entered the entirety of that 10% in 2 weeks using a scanning-grid mechanism pioneered by the Americans. With your permission, I will begin the calculation.” Brenner reached over and pressed a button, then another. Hitler shifted in his seat.
The machine's lights began to blink; a low humming noise filled the room, accompanied by a great heat, and fans thrashed, core memory spinning. After 30 minutes of incomparable nervousness among the engineers, standing at attention as sweat poured over their suits, a noisy teletype spit out 20 evenly spaced pages, each with two columns of numbers, into a stainless steel tray. Brenner picked up the pages and began to collate them. Impatient, Hitler said, “bring them here.”
Brenner walked over, humble but confident. He said, “It is a list of Reich Identification Numbers.”
“What do these numbers say?”
“Each number represents one who does not meet our citizenship standard. Those specific numbrs represent the bottom .05%, the absolute undesirables, of the 10% of the population which we just processed, according to the selection criteria of the 10 Reichsjahr Eugenics Council.”
“You calculated those now? In that tiny fraction of time?” The census was expected to take at least 12-14 years. “How long will it take to tabulate the entire census?”
“One year, or two at the most.”
“One year,” repeated Hitler, in ecstasy. A speedup of at least 10 years with this mechanical wonder. “One.”
“Das ZÃ¤hlblatt has verified our efforts, sir, and are pleased with them. They feel that those numbers are 100% accurate. Those individuals are certainly the bottom .05%.”
To “not meet the standards for citizenship” meant many things; for the bottom percentages, those being discussed, it mean being shipped to Auschwitz, to Treblinka, to the camps in Syracuse and San Diego, Manchester and Nice and Tangiers. For those in higher percentages, some might be placed in local work camps, reassigned, their wives turned out as whores for officers, their children removed to state work-education facilities. Those above 50% will be given manual labor or, if they can handle it, clerical work, and moved to dormitories, and possibly, like all other sub-optimals, but not definitely, sterilized.
The great census' stated goal was to identify the citizens of the Reich for more effective planning of "services," but the widely known truth was that it sought to index and tabulate all human beings under the aegis of the empire, so that only the top 15% (60% in Germany and Japan), the best of the best, could be kept for future breeding; the rest would become a slave class ranked by their capabilities. The census had included required intelligence testing, genetic testing (for the Nazi investment in genetics had fueled a great understanding of genomic traits), blood testing, ethnic purity tests, a Reich loyalty index, a family history report, and full investigation for all forms of Jewishness for every citizes. As the highest priority of the Reich, it had taken nearly one million census employees a full three years to do all the initial paperwork and data-punching. Cross-tabulating the data to create a bell curve, and then to lop off the bottom 85%, was expected to take thousands of human employees over a decade, even with punchcard readers. But this new machine....
Hitler, nearly in tears, said, “I will see the final solution - the purification of the earth - take place in my lifetime.” As sure as there was a race of man living in the hot center of the Earth, the machine before him could cleanse the earth of human impurities, even those which could not be immediately identified by their noses or skin or curly hair, those who could be rooted out by science and mathematics. Der FÃ¼hrer clapped his hands and nearly rose from his chair, but his legs were sore.
Brenner spoke: “Their numbers are before you. They are fully certified. And no human bias interferes.”
“You have built a commendable machine! We will act today!” Der FÃ¼hrer sent an aide with a request for the presence of the Minister of Social Progress. All waited as Hitler made small talk, offering schnapps to the engineers, commending them on their service. The minister finally appeared, in a perfect brown uniform but with exhaustion in his eyes, and was handed the list of numbers. Each number was a single person, a member of a family, a house-dweller, a father or wife or son. Each number was coded by area, and would be telegraphed to the appropriate central bureaus that evening, then telegraphed again for error correction. Hitler conferred with the minister, explained what the numbers meant, and finally the minister heiled and turned, then marched out, prepared to take action.
That night, after a year of calm, came the first of the new knocks on the door, 20,000 quiet, late knocks all around the world; no one knew where the commands came from, to whom to appeal, and they were pulled from their homes and placed on special transports, on their way to the closest camps. Eventually it came out - those who disappeared that night were the most undesirable, ethnically, morally, intellectual, that had been found from the tabulation of the census, and from now on, the fates of individuals would not even be decided by the cold, calculating eyes of the SS, behind which the slightest human feeling might burn, the most infinitesimal sympathy, but by the absolutely frozen soul of a new machine.
Now, let's move forward 40 or 50 years, into 2010, Reichsjahr 60. The results of the census have been enacted; computing is pervasive, but rigidly controlled; die Kommandozeile (command line) interface has appeared, but the GUI is nowhere to be seen -- processor cycles are for work, not pictures. Das Reichplattenbetriebssystem, the ReichOS, is the only computer system on the planet, stagnant but extremely stable, without a single admitted bug, the core OS for mainframes and terminals of the government, the airlines, the schools, and all businesses, each machine connected to a local city, then a state capital, then the national capital, then to Berlin by a series of interlinking fat brown cables. The Berlin cable, wider than a truck, guarded by a special detachment of the SS, terminates at the tallest building in the world, the central processing center of the Republic. Machines are used for tabulations, for schoolwork and mathematics, for online meetings, for economic planning, to schedule gassings, and for other, friendly purposes.
You meet two protagonists: 30-year-old Adolph Yamamoto Bainbridge, der AufsichtfÃ¼hrender von der Ãberrechenzentrum, a system administrator running an academic supercomputer at a university in Iowa. He is beginning to feel doubts about his role, which is essentially to keep a system in operation which taps the phones of 5 different states, while simultaneously managing the movements of slaves to different work sites.
Elsewhere in the country you meet Abraham Shaw, a young man of Jewish and Black ancestry who is befriended by his overseers and who, by nature of his native brilliance, rises, Frederick-Douglass-like, out of slavery, learning every aspect of ReichOS along the way, hacking the internals, breaking into IBM's laboratories, grabbing codes, and using his knowledge to escape to one of the few free economically and racially autonomous zones left in the world (Massachussets? Montreal?). He finds ways to start coding like crazy, and he gains control of Bainbridge's system one late night, trying to stop the transport of his closest friend from a nearby city to Japan.
This is not supposed to happen, and Bainbridge has an online conversation with the hacker, trying to maintain system security. They develop a wary friendship, and they work together to create the plan to save the world from Hitler via hacking Nazi computers, which is, to my mind, a pretty good payoff for a sci-fi novel if it all worked out - like the Matrix, but with real Nazis, not just a bunch of guys in suits.
So that's how it would play out, but the real fun of the story, besides playing with the WWII-alterna-history trope, which, sadly, has been beaten to death by other hacks, would be describing the ReichOS system and its trappings. It would need a 300,000 page manual for the system internals; it would host a faulty word processor that checks your ideology, and networking would work over a minitel-cum-gopher text-based knowledge system, managed and sorted under a harshly coded Leibnizian ontology. You could describe the intense modularity of the giant German “software factories” set up around the world, where computer operators receive 10 full years of training before they can even look at certain pieces of code, and where a true hierarchical beauracracy kills all innovation, until certain 5th columnists begin plugging tiny “errors” into the code.
The author could describe the open knowledge bases on eugenics, Reich history, the fan pages for Goebbels, the propaganda sites (required reading.) Networked ReichOS may be the only dynamic mass medium - after all, television may not have happened at all if, say, the necessary materials for building a TV set were being used for defense.
A whole underground of the computer literate, trained by Shaw, could infiltrate the different control organizations and create their own secret network underneath the Nazi net, sneaking packets of data into the mix, changing databases, fomenting revolution. Perhaps, Shaw manages to sneak a trojan horse into the kernel code of the ReichOS, and one Black Jewish kid ex-slave computer dork could change the world. In the last scene, the Berlin cable might become overheated while automatic defense charges are ignited, the massive central data center self-destructing in arcs of blue and white flame.
And what's the theme? The entire story is an answer the sentiment that colored the expansion days of the Web, the early 90's, when pundits constantly stated that networks would automatically lead to an information utopia, where free knowledge would be shared among all, where the smart young hacker would become the new archetype of human achievement. Networks, because they can track your motions, can just as easily be used as tools to manipulate and control individuals, to abridge freedoms, to catch people. It's important, to me, to remember that the decentralized nature of the Internet is a side-effect of its technical and design goals, not an innate feature placed there so that 20-somethings can build data havens off Singapore. The freedoms allowed by this medium were an accident, a by-product of the needs of the government and the defense industry. A calculated move, a well-placed bill in the US House and Senate with European support, a sniffing and monitoring system plugged into all our wires, all put together "for the good of the people" by government and industry, could abridge our sudden, surprising networked freedoms - to publish as we see fit, to read what we will, from many parts of the world, to use the network protocols we choose - in moments, and those freedoms need never come back.