Journalist Yasha Levine: Computers Have 'Racist Origins'

Chris Menahan
May. 06, 2019

The first punch card computer was born out of a "vortex of nativist fears" by "Anglo-American stock" who were "in love with eugenics" and afraid of "race suicide," according to journalist Yasha Levine.

From Yasha Levine, SubStack:
The Racist Origins of Computer Technology

A century ago, America loved eugenics and was obsessed with protecting its "superior" Anglo-American stock from the threat of immigration. Out of this nativist vortex, the first computer was born.

Medium’s One Zero magazine just published my big historical-investigative article about the US census and the racist origins of modern computer technology.

It’s a forgotten history that starts in the 1880s, when the first commercial computer was invented by an American engineer named Herman Hollerith (that’s him up there on business trip in St. Petersburg). It takes you on journey through the racial politics of early 20th century America and ends up in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, while making a brief stop at Steven Bannon and Donald Trump’s nativist palace.

A century ago, America was in love with eugenics. It was consumed by fears of “race suicide” and obsessed with the need to safe-guard its “superior” Anglo-American stock from the millions of immigrants arriving on its shores. Out of this vortex of nativist fears, the world’s first rudimentary punch card computer was born — built on order from the U.S. government for the 1890 census.

The quote in the picture above comes from a letter Herman Hollerith wrote explaining why he ended up going with a “punch card” design over a continuous ticker tape for his newfangled computation device: it would make analyzing the racial attributes of the population much easier. “The trouble was that if, for example, you wanted any statistics regarding Chinamen, you would have to run miles of paper to count a few Chinamen,” he explained. Racial data was front and center in his mind as he perfected his invention.
Have we hit peak journalism yet?

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