Albert Speer was one of the few Nazis who reflected on what he did and felt some form of guilt. He was Hitler’s architect, and in the later stages of World War II he took over armaments manufacturing and oversaw tremendous increases in production by bringing in new management techniques. He embraced technology.
I am an avid reader of history and I was particularly struck by the final statement Speer made at his Nuremberg trial in 1947. At first I ignored it, partly because I myself had made a career promoting technology, but it stayed in the back of my head for some reason, and I recently decided to re-read it.
“Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history,” Speer said. “His was the first dictatorship… which made complete use of all technical means… Through technical devices such as radio and loudspeaker 80 million people were deprived of independent thought… Perhaps to the outsider this machinery of the state may appear like the lines of a telephone exchange – apparently without system. But like the latter, it could be served and dominated by one single will…
“The means of communication alone make it possible to mechanize the subordinate leadership,” Speer continued. “As a result of this there arises a new type: the uncritical recipient of orders. We had only reached the beginning of the development… Today the danger of being terrorized by technocracy threatens every country in the world… Therefore, the more technical the world becomes, the more necessary is the promotion of individual freedom and the individual’s awareness of himself as a counterbalance…
“Worthwhile human beings wilI not let themselves be driven to despair,” Speer concluded. “They will create new and lasting values, and under the tremendous pressure brought to bear upon everyone today these new works will be of particular greatness.”
We are lucky in some ways that today the United States has turned into a Ponzi / Pyramid Scheme rather than a true dictatorship. We are lucky that Trump is at heart a con man and snake oil salesman rather than a religious zealot, that his nationalism only matters in the context of his personal enrichment.
We are not lucky that we have much cleverer and clearer-eyed leaders of Big Tech who know full well the role their technology is playing in building the surveillance state. Every day, the engineers of Big Tech bring their genius to bear in finding our weakest and most emotional points and relentlessly manipulating us for “engagement” so as to maximize quarterly returns.
We who work in technology are not utterly helpless. We who live in this ever-encroaching surveillance state are not utterly helpless. Maybe what we do to resist will ultimately make no difference. But rest assured, the surveillance and tracking engineers and designers are counting on us to continue to live as we live: obsessed with free and easy, excited by the cheap and frivolous, addicted to convenience.
We may well be the last generation with the agency and capacity to change. If we could change, we could save ourselves and in the process save the planet, because this march of surveillance, consumerist technology is consuming everything in front of it. A human with a flintstone can burn a forest. A human with a computer can burn the planet.