January 28, 2023

The Difference Engine and True Measure of Influence

Allie POWs in 1945

Allied POWs are released in Japan at end of World War Two. Credit: AP

Time Magazine’s One Hundred Most Influential People in the World was off by about seven billion or so, depending on the latest update from the world population clock. These two half starved POWs from a Japanese prison camp in World War Two were among the billions of reasons why the media is free to make its most influential lists. Trying to count the most influential, in my opinion, is like Carl Sagan trying to count the stars. The list can go on for billions and billions…

The POW picture came from¬†Laura Hillenbrand’s Facebook page. She deserves to be on the Time 100 list one of these years.¬†Unbroken was Time’s non-fiction book of the year when published in 2010 and has stayed on the bestseller list.

Trying to calculate influence might require a Difference Engine more meaningful than Klout. Charles Babbage devised the principles for a computer nearly one hundred years before the World War Two era mainframe was created. Babbage called his machine a Difference Engine, believing the true essence of man could be calculated by the “algebraic equation of his character.”

Babbage was consumed with his dream that “all these tables might be calculated by machinery” and rose at 3:30 AM every morning and worked until late evening. Historian Paul Johnson writes in The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 that Babbage was a brilliant thinker but lacked the literary skills to explain the vision of his Difference Engine. He would require the poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, to put the vision on paper- “foreshadowing the science fiction that H.G. Wells was to use to popularize science.” This intersection of art and the computer also foreshadowed the presence of Steve Jobs.

Today, the Difference Machine has made meaningless Time’s 100 Most Influential. Once you start naming names, it’s impossible to stop at a hundred.

Hitler said these words at dawn of the mainframe era, and one hundred years after Babbage’s Difference Machine:

“If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this: In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people… Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.”

Eric Metaxas writes in his bestselling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that a “crippling fear rose up like a bad odor.” Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a propaganda front for a “new Germany,” hiding the internecine warfare between factions that understood the true aim of Hitler and the Nazis. At the Berlin Olympics, Bonhoeffer watched with increasing unease the effect of Hitler’s propaganda machine. Bonhoeffer and his supporters had pitifully little “klout” or influence compared to the Nazis. Inside the Olympic stadium, a young American track star named Louis Zamperini competed as Hitler watched, admiring his strong finish.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics is where the subjects of Laura Hillenbrand and Eric Metaxas cross paths. Years later, they would cross again on the bestseller list. One man, the American track star and POW, surviving the war with a remarkable story of resilience. The young German theologian Bonhoeffer hanged at the end for plotting to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s real influence would slowly emerge from the rubble and devastation of World War Two. Thomas Nelson, with Michael Hyatt at the helm, published Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer in 2010, the same year as Unbroken. Michael Hyatt has built up remarkable influence in this information revolution, offering advice on all sorts of way for someone to build up their own influence.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer disliked the camera and had few good pictures, something that Eric Metaxas believed was significant in explaining his character.

‘Why should it always have to be the bad people who make the revolutions,” Bonhoeffer asked.

It’s a great question for a Michael Hyatt podcast, and for the rest of us.


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