Monday, 14 February 2005

Nazis, Computers and Me

My parents' house has a lot of books that I wouldn't normally buy or read, mostly not to my taste but also a lot of real gems. Over the last month I read THE PAST IS MYSELF, Christabel Bielenberg's memoir of life in Nazi Germany in the years leading up to and during World War II, as a "normal person" having some contact with the German opposition to Hitler. It's a well-written, moving, intriguing, thought-provoking book --- well worth the time. It would be an excellent book to study in schools.

The book forces me to consider the questions of what I *should* and *would* do if I found myself in a similar situation. Nazi opponents had a spectrum of options but no clear idea which would prove moral, prudent or effective. At one end, direct and open opposition would be noble but probably short-lived and ineffective. At the other end, a passive struggle for the survival of oneself and loved ones could easily become tacit cooperation with the regime. But my great fear is that my choices would become clear and out of cowardice I would take the safe and venal path, surely the greatest sin of all.

The book also troubles me because I imagine what the Nazis could have achieved with the emerging technology of the 21st century. I'm forced to conclude it would have suited them very well. With their software running on every device, in tamperproof hardware, sporting diverse sensors, chattering wirelessly --- and with computers to sort and mine the data --- it's unlikely resistance could remain organized and secret nearly as long as it did. The new science of mind-reading with MRI and related sensing will likely transcend the fantasies of the Gestapo and even Orwell. Are we who look forward to universal democracy like people climbing a ridge in fog, blissfully unaware of steep cliffs on either side? Hmm. Let God have mercy on us.

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