Political Implications of Data Collection

A German nazi-party requests the number of Jews living in a particular city, and a breakdown of those numbers by district. And this very data does actually exist, as it has been collected by that city. The nazi-party, which calls for the “preservation of the German identity”, is claiming that they need the data “for political work”.

Data Has Political Implications

Exactly that kind of data helped facilitate the Nazi genocide, which started in 1933 when the Nazi Party took over. In fact, the availability of census data was a precondition for the identification, wealth confiscation, deportation, enslavement, and, ultimately, annihilation of Jews and other ethnic groups deemed undesirable.

How did the Nazis acquire that data?

They used technology. The identification of all of the Jewish population in the country, and later also in the countries that had been invaded, posed a massive challenge, which could hardly be tackled manually. Back then, electronic computers didn't exist yet, but IBM's punch card technology did. How exactly that technology helped the Nazi regime to automate parts of the genocide, is documented in the book IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation.

Technology Has Political Implications

IBM's punch card technology is just one example that shows that a technology causes a shift of power when it is becoming available. Given a system with a significant imbalance of power between different groups of people, this will be the case with any technology.

The wide-spread misbelief that technology is neutral is countered in Smári McCarthy's essay Political Implications of Technology, where he notices that technology is rather indifferent:

But whenever we make decisions about technology, all the way from the simplest choices about whether to have fixed width processor instructions or not all the way up to where we source our tantalum from and whether to buy products manufactured by slave labor, there are political implications.


People sometimes say that technology is neutral. It isn't. It is indifferent. It is amoral, and any morality derived from technology is contextual. It can be used for good or bad. Technology does not care.


When we make technological choices, two of the decisions that are implicit are to which degree the technology protects the weak against abuse by the powerful, and to which degree the technology exposes the powerful to scrutiny by the weak.