End of summer update: 100-year-old computers and surveillance

Hey — it’s been a while! But I've been keeping busy. Between writing/researching the book, moving to New York with my wife and helping film a documentary (based on my previous reporting on California’s Oligarch Valley) — it’s been a hectic and productive summer. I’m actually on plane right now to the West Coast — first to do some filming for the doc in the Central Valley and then on to do some interviews for the book in Silicon Valley. Like I said — a busy schedule, and a never-ending procession of valleys: Silicon Valley, Oligarch Valley, Surveillance Valley.

So what’s going on? Well, right now I'm working my way through a section of Surveillance Valley that deals with the history of computers and the Internet. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but one thing I keep being amazed at is just how tightly mass surveillance and war has been intertwined with the development of computers — going all back more than a century. Everyone focuses on cryptography, but it goes way deeper than that. Just check out this early 1930's poster for an IBM German subsidiary that sold Hollerith machines — punch card tabulator-computers invented more than 100 years ago: "See everything with Hollerith punch cards.”

“See everything with Hollerith punch cards.”

Talk about Big Brother! The imagery of giant overlord eyeballs in the sky is much more stark and straight-forward than the happy, friendly ad copy churned out by Silicon Valley these days. But whether it's today or 80 years ago, the goal has always been the same: "see everything."

In other Surveillance Valley news: I've been fighting a few FOIA battles. The most interesting one is with the CIA. Citing "national security" concerns, the agency is trying to block the release of documents relating to the sale of a CIA-funded company Google bought back in 2004. It’s infuriating, but not unexpected — as this sale represents a key moment in Google’s transformation from a consumer-oriented company into the hybrid military-intelligence contractor that it is today. You can read more about it here. I'll of course update you with any developments.

That's it for now. I should have a bit of other news about the book soon — something pretty big. Stay tuned!

—Yasha Levine

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