Machine Readable Race: Constructing Racial Information in the Third Reich

This paper examines how informational processing drove new structures of racial classification in the Third Reich. The Deutsche Hollerith-Maschinen Gesellschaft mbH (Dehomag) worked closely with the government in designing and integrating punch-card informational systems. As a German subsidiary of IBM, Dehomag’s technology was deployed initially for a census in order to provide a more detailed racial analysis of the population. However the racial data was not detailed enough. The Nuremberg Race Laws provided a more precise and procedural definition of Jewishness that could be rendered machine-readable. As the volume and velocity of information in the Reich increased, Dehomag’s technology was adopted by other agencies like the Race and Settlement Office, and culminated in the vision of a single machinic number for each citizen. Through the lens of these proto-technologies, the paper demonstrates the historical interplay between race and information. Yet if the indexing and sorting of race anticipates big-data analytics, contemporary power is more sophisticated and subtle. The complexity of modern algorithmic regimes diffuses obvious racial markers, engendering a racism without race.