My grandfather: communist, feminist, technologist.

My grandfather was a communist, feminist, and technologist, though he would probably contest each of those labels. He passed away on August 16, 2020.

Viewing the long 20th century through the prism of my grandfather’s life and his relationship to technology, I see how my life continues from his by a common thread. As I remember my grandfather’s life, this biography of piecemeal memories is woven into a tapestry that makes for a meaningful story to me. One that makes me proud of his legacy, while simultaneously fabricating that legacy as that is the only way legacies are made. One that inspires me in my daily life, and one that breathes meaning into my life when “the point of it all” seems less than clear. The following memories are true. 

My grandfather was born in the midst of the great stock market crash of 1929 which precipitated the Great Depression and the eventual rise of a mighty and technologically advanced neighboring power that would nearly end his life many times over and leave long tail traces of trauma. He passed away during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 hallucinating memories of a world war long over but still viscerally remembered. From one crisis to another, my grandfather survived, lived, and co-created the turbulent 20th century. Passing away nearly at the age of 91, he had seen it all. When it comes to technology, it’s hard to exaggerate just how much it had changed over his lifetime. Around the time of his birth, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis debuted featuring the first robot on screen while toward the end of his life, AlphaGo, an actual AI robot beat the Go world champion Lee Sedol.

Growing up with a mother mathematics teacher, my grandfather always gravitated toward the “hard” sciences. He studied radio technology in the 50s, culminating in a PhD financed through his military service. He studied electromagnetism and computers. He wrote his dissertation on the use of radio technology for influencing human behavior, something at which the communist state excelled, to put mildly. Getting his degree from the philosophy and sociology department of the Marxism-Leninism night university, we can imagine the goal of the research was more to understand how radio can be employed in the service of social control rather than “radio for good”. Without basic protections of freedom of speech, expression, and conscience in the People’s Republic of Poland, both sociology and technology were routinely perverted into handmaidens of the totalitarian regime.  

My grandfather got to work on some of the earliest computers in Poland, ones that took up whole rooms. The computer back then was indeed a series of tubes, an assemblage of metal, pipes, and light bulbs that my grandpa had to hit with a special hammer if the computer was acting up. He recalled that it took all sorts of shenanigans to get the one IBM computer available to the military in those days due to the Cold War embargo. Computing in the Eastern Bloc was lightyears behind that of the West.

My grandfather worked his way up to Lt. Colonel in the Polish People’s Army, having never wanted to serve in the military. A quiet and gentle soul, he was not a good cultural fit for the military. He went along with it because it provided educational and professional opportunities that were in short supply in a war-ravaged Poland of the 50s. He recalled the tense years of the Korean War all the way through to Poland’s dark martial law period. He got the call early on a cold December Sunday morning in 1981 informing him that martial law is in effect and he is in charge of ensuring that people in his neighborhood don’t break curfew or get up to anything fishy. Meanwhile, his son was sporting hippie long hair and beard listening to bootleg tapes of Pink Floyd,  R.E.M., and Deep Purple. And, in the 70s, as a young boy clandestinely tuning into a garbled Radio Free Europe in the wee hours of the night as grandpa slept.

The lowest point that I know of in my grandfather’s career was when his unit along with other Warsaw Pact troops landed at the Prague airport in 1968 to squash the Prague Spring. In retelling the story, he always downplayed it, recalling the time quite fondly as a cat and mouse game. The Czech pro-democracy activists played messages from the airport loudspeakers encouraging an uprising and reforms, while my grandpa and team replaced those tapes with their own pro-communist ones encouraging them to cease and desist. And so it would go in circles with occasional breaks for a cold Czech beer, by the way “the world’s finest beer because of the exceptionally clean spring water”. Of course the airlift was the beginning of a full-on invasion replete with over 600,000 troops and tanks. People were killed. Jan Palach self-immolated. And a period of “normalization” set in that rolled back hard-won reforms. To this day, victims of this ugly history and their families suffer from its material and psychological consequences. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the Prague Spring was my grandfather’s radio technology research in action. The invasion was first announced on Czech radio, which was then rapidly occupied and disabled. The truth found its way to the people and then the West via an underground, clandestine makeshift radio system. I’m sure many dissertations have been written on how radio and TV towers and buildings became sites of political contestation between the state and pro-democracy fighters of the late 80s and early 90s across the Eastern bloc (citations here).  

After retiring, my grandfather took on a number of odd jobs to keep busy and keep earning extra money to support his family. One of those jobs included working in an electromagnetic compatibility lab testing appliances made in China and elsewhere to ensure they meet EU market standards. When he could no longer travel to the office by tram, his colleagues sent a car for him. When he could no longer do that, they sent documents for him to work on and translate to his house and would pick them up when he was done. At age 89, I would still see the kitchen table in the living room covered over with papers and a magnifying lense so he could read the fine print.

I saw this from the corner of his laptop camera when we would Skype every Sunday, he, my dad, and I. For years we got together like this to provide my grandfather some company as he no longer left the house on his own. But now I realize he provided us with as much company as we did him. We talked about everything, and no conversation could end without a heated debate over something: was the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 heroic or foolish (foolish), could socialism have delivered on its early promises (yes, but only if the revolution had started in Germany instead of Russia), why is the West so prosperous and the East lagging behind (imperialism and colonialism), why is democracy not the answer (you have to ask yourself democracy for whom?), what caused the downfall of the Polish United Workers’ Party (impertinent Solidarity activists), why is there so much inequality and corruption in the world regardless of political system (there is no rake in the world that rakes away from you, only towards you).

I saw my grandfather last in 2016 when I was in Warsaw on a Fulbright doing my dissertation research on the historical memories of communism. Poland was the first country in Eastern Europe to join the Fulbright program with its first participant coming to the US in 1959 and the first American coming to Poland in 1961. Despite open borders, my grandfather was my only grandparent to never visit us in the US after we moved here in 1993. And I’ll never really know why. Maybe it’s because of some state secrets that he could never share (à la le Carré). Maybe he just didn’t want to confront the fact that his son’s family left Poland for the other evil empire. What I do know is that my grandfather was a true believer in an organic socialist system that held the promise of eradicating the gross economic and social inequalities of monarchical 19th and early 20th century Europe. Seeing the inequities with his own eyes and from the stories of his parents and grandparents, he wanted a system where the fate of the people would truly lie in the hands of the people. Ironically, he never joined the Polish communist party because he was not much of a “joiner”. He saw the corruption, the lies, and the cynical careerism and didn’t want any part of it. For that he and his family paid a price. They were always last on the list to receive party perks like a nicer apartment or a car. When my grandpa cracked a joke about some party member at a work function thinking he was in trusted company, he promptly got transferred to a post in Rembertów, the backwaters of the Warsaw military establishment.

Just like the technologies that my grandpa worked on that were at once used for good and bad, he too was full of complexities and contradictions. Despite having been served a raw deal with all the tragedies that the 20th century brought, he remained a curious, hard working, generous, and kind human being who did his best to scrape by with some sense of honor and dignity in a world that made it extremely difficult. His passion for politics and history inspired me. His ability to pick up new technologies and continuously learn new things in his late age inspired me.

Moreover, I will forever be grateful for his support of all of my endeavours. In what was rare at the time, he was very involved in my childhood. He didn’t lower his expectations of me because I was a girl. He encouraged sport and physical exercise, teaching me how to do sit ups in the park. He taught me how to ride a bike. He lauded my miserable art skills and touted my mathematical prowess when I counted change playing “store”, I as the clerk and he as the shopper. He was overjoyed when I completed my PhD in sociology and maybe less overjoyed when I didn’t become a professor leaving academia for the vulgar corporate world.

In his footsteps, I’ve become a technologist too, but in service of capital. But my grandpa didn’t judge me against his own political benchmarks. He was proud of me for making my own way regardless of where I happened to live. Guiding responsible technological innovation is now my day job. My grandfather’s life story refracts in me, illustrating how technology can be used and abused. With innovations like social media and artificial intelligence simultaneously empowering social movements and undermining democracy, into the 21st century, the future continues to unfold on the heels of history. Technology will be at the center of that history, for good or bad, we will see. 

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