Archimedes – Why Godwin was wrong

Or why does all discussion end up on the Holocaust?

As you know I am an Arts graduate not a Computer Science one, I have degrees in Economics and Theology, so I thought I would explain one reason why I think open source is so important for the future of society. Apologies if it is a bit too Richard Stallman for some of your taste – I promise not to grow a beard. In the next post, I will talk about something more practical, the BBC and their Microsoft lovefest.

Godwin famously said:

> "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison
involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one"

The implication was that invoking the Holocaust was an act of desperation. He had identified an effect but attributed it to the wrong cause. The reason that the Holocaust is often cited in discussions of ethical questions is that it is the one fixed point of absolute truth from twentieth century history
that all reasonable and decent people agree on. As Archimedes said:

> "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth."

While sources of morality differ, everyone can agree that the Holocaust was an act of unmitigated evil. As David Weigel said while repealing Godwin’s Law, "You can’t really downplay this stuff or cheapen it through overuse".

The Holocaust was the logical conclusion of European enlightenment modernism, all the optimism and theories, from Martin Luther in 1519 through to Adolf von Harnack in the early 20th Century, came to a grinding halt and became in need of reassessment and reformulation. The seeds of the post-modern world were sown at Auschwitz, even if it took a few decades to notice the sprouting of the new age.

Take one of the greatest ever British thinkers, namely Adam Smith. The division of labour, first identified by Smith, completely restarted economics as we know it. It allows the construction of everything from pins (Smith’s example) through to supercomputers. However, this same process also was one precondition required to make the Holocaust possible (another was technology).

If I go into the street with a knife and ask someone to start killing strangers, it is very unlikely they would. However, the division of labour allows otherwise ethical and educated people to corporate in the death of millions upon millions. One person justifies his own actions, "I just phoned in the location of some Jews, I was just following the law". Another says, "I just round them up in the car, I am just doing my job". Another says, "I just drive the train, it is not my responsibility what happens to the passengers when they leave the train". Another says, "I just put them in the room and shut the door, there are many reasons why they are dying". Yet another says, "I just drop the gas through the ceiling".

Under such a system, you can get most people to do anything. In 2007, these structures of silence and indifference are even more elaborate. That is why people are willing to drink coffee picked by whipped children or buy clothes made by people working twenty hours a day for a dollar. You are probably reading this blog because you are the person that is doing their level best to be a positive force in the world, to break the walls of silence and talk about these things. When people invoke Godwin’s law it is because they are trying to nervously laugh off these ethical questions.

Our own area of interest, open source, may not seem as pressing as fair trade physical products but it is. No part of life is immune from "software-isation", everything is becoming based on software: battleships, cars, medical equipment, washing machines, cameras, TVs, ID cards, churches, schools, everything. Unless software is controlled by the many not the few, then we lose all of our freedoms. We become concentration camp inmates at the mercy of digital Hitlers. None of you need to be told this I’m sure, but I just wanted to say that our cause is a noble one, so keep fighting the good
fight.

2 thoughts on “Archimedes – Why Godwin was wrong

  1. I visited Auschwitz a couple of months ago and I had an epiphany similar to
    this. I’d read ‘IBM and the Holocaust’ about three or four years ago (one of
    the best books I’ve ever read), but in the few months I’ve been using open-
    source, I hadn’t made the connection between these two things, even though I
    should have.

  2. I’m lucky I live in The USA, you never hear about NBC sueing you for $1000,
    or ABC or CBS for that matter or even the FCC.