I’d like to propose a science historian’s version of Godwin’s Law: a historical conversation is over when a technology gets linked back to the Nazis in an effort to make it sound a bit sinister.

Actually it doesn’t have to be the Nazis. It could be Stalin, or the US military. The basic formula is the same:

“How many of the millions who use [x] every day of their lives realise that its story began in a secret research program in Nazi Germany…”

I spotted this pattern when I saw it three times in a couple of days. Stephen Fry’s series on rock and roll technology starts with Nazi efforts in amplification. James Harkin’s book Cyburbia traces the invention of social networks to – you’ve guessed it – military theories about cybernetics. And Adam Curtis’* excellent documentary series love nothing more than rooting around and digging up a Nazi or two.

Generally the Nazis in these stories aren’t doing a great deal of historical work. World War II was probably the most concentrated period of R&D spend in human history, and if it wasn’t the Cold War was. The military tends to have a really massive development budget. So it’s enormously unsurprising that many if not most technologies can be traced back to some sort of military roots. It’s interesting but not significant – the historical equivalent of going “aaaah but did you know that Perfect Day is really ABOUT DRUGS?”.

*Curtis is an interesting case because he dodges around the problem – for one thing he rarely starts with the Nazis, for another his Nazis are subject to the same laws of unintended consequences as anything else in his documentaries: they’re mere links in the chain of forces that haunt a Curtisian view of history.