Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Machines and Nightmares

I recently finished reading a riveting memoir by Agnès Humbert entitled, Résistance, A Woman's Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France.  This book is a diary of Humbert's experiences from the time the Nazis invaded France in 1940 to the end of World War II. Humbert was an intelligent  woman who was employed at one of the museums in Paris at the time of the invasion. At the age of 43, she decided to work with some trusted friends to produce an underground newspaper of the same name as the book, Résistance.  The little group of a dozen friends lasted about a year until it was betrayed by an unknown informer. The Nazis executed the men involved by firing squad and Humbert and several other women were convicted to five years of slave labor working in Nazi factories in Germany.

What does any of this have to do with technology? Humbert was assigned to work under the most horrifying conditions at a rayon factory in Krefeld, Germany.  I will skip over the descriptions of the malnourishment, abuse, filth, and inhumane treatment at the hands of the Nazis to relate something she wrote while working at the factory. While pondering the inhumanity and total unpredictability of her situation at the hands of her captures, she remarked in August, 1942:

"I wonder - a worthy subject for meditation - what Descartes would have made of industrial machinery. What a subject for a philosopher! Not just the relationship between man and machine, and all the upheavals, material, moral and social that come in its wake, but simply the thoughts that sometimes come into your head when you are working at a machine. There's no tricking a machine; it's just not possible. A part out of alignment? Production immediately slows down. A loose screw? The whole machine seizes up. I like and admire the incorruptible integrity of the machine. With work done by hand there is always a little leeway, a margin of error, and any time lost can be made up with a little effort or improvisation; machinery, on the other hand, admits absolutely no possibility of inaccuracy or prevarication, is immune to all excuses, lies or flattery, Enduring, unswerving and fiercely tenacious, machines can teach men a marvelous lesson in integrity. The builders of the future, of our future, should take inspiration from man's handiwork, the Blessed Machine!"

I had to think about this for a bit because the machine she was describing was the spinning machine which extruded the viscous rayon pre-polymer through a very fine platinum minaret into an acid bath to form the thread. She had to work on this machine without any protection for her skin or eyes. The pre-polymer is extremely caustic to the skin. The acid is not only caustic but leads to blindness. The slave laborers were offered no protective clothing or gloves and had to work ten to twelve hour shifts even while Allied bombing raids were going on. She was a mass of sores and unable to even see for days at a time. How could she sing the praises of machinery? Because she desperately needed to experience something that had integrity.

Humboldt's countrymen in her opinion had totally lost their integrity in rolling over without fighting back against the Nazis. What kept her alive through her incarceration was a feeling of integrity - she would never bend or yield to her captors. She never cracked under interrogation by the Gestapo when they wanted information on her colleagues. She never once begged for mercy. She was one tough lady.

Humboldt survived the war. She was liberated by the U.S. Army while being held captive in April 1945. She stayed for a few months after her liberation and worked tirelessly, but fairly, to identify the true Nazis in the area that were trying to fade into the woodwork. She returned to France and lived for almost another twenty years, dying in 1963.

It still amazes me as I reread her words on machines that she could have been so lucid about such a subject in the middle of such horror.  Having never worked with machines, I would have thought she would have hated them. Yet, she found something positive in them even under the worst of circumstances. I stand in awe. I would love to have met her.

You can get the book on Amazon. There is also a Kindle edition.