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Article Max Muller TRANSFORMATIVE TECHNOCRATS - December 2018

The Unabomber: A Story and A Theory

Written by Max Muller

Over the years, technology has become an increasingly pervasive aspect of our lives. Some regard these developments as largely positive, they are enamoured with the possibilities it has brought us: flying from Amsterdam to New York in under nine hours, for instance. Others, however, are more cautious and point out the dangers of greenhouse gasses being flung into the air by the machines we so heavily rely on.

In this article, I will write about a man who was so furious with the rise of technology that he wanted to destroy it all. Both his curious life story and his theories on technological development (or lack thereof) will be described. The latter will be subjected to a thorough analysis. I aim to show that his theory has substantial flaws. Some aspects of it however ring true, especially nowadays with the advent of artificial intelligence of ever-increasing sophistication. In that regard, his theory will hopefully serve as a warning to us all.

A Brilliant Bomber

Anarcho-primitivists, a subset of all anarchists, believe that technology is inherently evil. The prime example of an individual who adhered to this separate strain of anarchism is Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber.

Ted Kaczynski was a precocious student who skipped two grades in high school and afterwards obtained several university degrees in mathematics. By 1967, he became the youngest assistant professor in the history of the University of California, Berkeley. He could have gone on to become a successful academic, but after a few years he suddenly resigned from his position.

Later, he would embark on a mission to live completely self-sufficiently in a remote cabin he had built in Montana. Over there, Kaczynski at a certain moment had an intense experience. He saw that a road had been built right through a plateau that had a view of a waterfall. The experience led him to formulate an irredeemably negative view of the whole industrial-technological system.  From then on realized the system had to be taken down violently.

He sought to do so by constructing letter bombs and sending them to people who were, one way or the other, connected to the development, manufacture, or sale of technological products and knowledge. He initially targeted those affiliated with universities and airlines. Hence the FBI used the acronym UNABOM (UNiversity and Airline BOMber) to refer to his case while his identity was still unknown. The media popularized his name under the phrase “the Unabomber”.

Writing A Letter

Constructing and sending bombs were not the only thing Ted Kaczynski did in his cabin. He also wrote. By 1993, the FBI had been looking for him for 17 years. Despite 500 agents being on the case and a $1 million reward being offered for his capture, they had no tangible leads whatsoever.

Then, all of a sudden, the Unabomber anonymously contacted the FBI to offer a deal. If they found him a major newspaper or journal that would publish a lengthy essay he had written, he would agree to stop the bombings. Although the FBI did not want to yield to blackmail, they had few other options. They therefore decided to agree to the terms of the deal by publishing his essay “Industrial Society and Its Future” (ISAIF) in both the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1995.

In his 35,000 word essay, Kaczyinski argues that technology is a totalitarian force, which consumes and degrades all aspects of society while simultaneously destroying the environment. David Skrbina, author of The Metaphysics of Technology, summarizes Kaczyinski’s argument as follows:

  • Humans evolved under primitive, low-tech conditions. Our bodies and minds are designed to live and thrive under precisely these conditions.
  • Present technological society is radically different from our natural state, and imposes unprecedented stress upon us.  
  • Technologically-induced stress will only continue to worsen. Humanity will either be utterly debilitated, or reconstructed and transformed to meet the demands of the system.  
  • Such an outcome is undignified, abhorrent, and profoundly dehumanizing.
  • It is impossible to reform the system so as to avoid this nightmare.

Although Kaczynski gained a wide readership with the publication of his tract, it also led to his imprisonment. His brother recognized his writing style and informed the police, leading to his incarceration in 1997. The UNABOM was finally dismantled.

Photo by David Neubert

Analyzing The Theory

We should also delve deeper into Kaczyinski’s version of anarcho-primitivism. Ignoring his despicable actions for the moment, we can scrutinize the arguments that underlie his philosophy. Some have their merits. A key component is his line of reasoning in ISAIF is his contempt of stress-inducing technology. We certainly see examples of technologies that are increasingly putting stress on people nowadays. Many are so pressured by their employers to be available for communication almost all the time, especially via e-mail, that the French government has given workers the right to disconnect. Moreover, the excessive use of mobile smartphones has been linked to sleep difficulties, and social media is associated with (exacerbating) a wide array of mental health problems.

Not all is sound with his theory, though. For instance, Kaczyinski assumes that humans evolved under primitive, low-tech conditions. While this may have been true initially, it ignores the hypothesis that humans have co-evolved with technological and cultural changes. For instance, the development of livestock farming in Europe was paired with an increasing tolerance for lactose. Although scientists are not entirely sure yet, it seems that the use of tools and fire may have profoundly affected human cognition and language abilities. Technology did not develop in a vacuum, but was part of a complex interplay between human evolutionary development, cultural changes, and inventiveness. Therefore, our “natural state” is not as static as Kaczyinski had assumed.

What I find perhaps most striking in the former mathematician’s theory is his purported solution. Even if we were to believe that all technology somehow corrupts or degrades all human beings (which I certainly don’t) and it is for some reason impossible to reform the system, should we then just destroy it?

This is how I picture the scenario that would result from the execution, a large proportion of humanity would just perish. Modern society has largely become dependant on technology (not only digital and electronic), so removing it somehow would plunge it into chaos. Only those close to natural resources who possess survival skills could outlast the catastrophe, though they would constantly need to fend off others vying for precious resources.

When the dust has settled and there are a couple of thousand hunter-gatherer societies left throughout the world, it is almost as if history would be set back 100,000 years or so, when modern humans started spreading out of Africa. I believe these hunter-gatherers would not remain just that, though. History would repeat itself, albeit probably in a modified form. The broader developments would, however, still ensue. They would develop stone tools, agriculture, steam-powered machines, and, eventually, smartphones. Many humans are just too curious, and ingenious not to produce technologies.

A Word Of Warning

For all his intelligence, Kaczyinski’s reasoning and method seem to be rather crude. He wants to eliminate all technology for everyone, even though some technological devices have, in certain respects, vastly improved lives. We live longer than we used to by means of medical advances, and extreme poverty is a phenomenon that is rapidly being eliminated.

I think we need to carefully evaluate each piece of modern technology and how it affects different individuals in our society. This seems to be in accordance with the way most of the modern world operates. Governments and NGOs assess the (possible) negative effects a certain piece of technology has of might have, and policies are implemented in accordance with those assessments. A reformist approach seems to be the way to go in most cases.

There is only one major exception, and that is artificial intelligence. This part of technology has the potential to become self-aware and, furthermore, a major threat to humanity. Once created, we will have opened Pandora’s Box. It differs from, say, biological weapons – they have existed for a while, but are rarely used nowadays due to the self-imposed restrictions governments have set (due to a widespread taboo on this type of warfare).

With regards to AI, developments do seem to be unstoppable and Kaczyinski’s alarmism has a point. Despite warnings of numerous luminaries, including Elon Musk, we seem to be heading towards a world in which a robot with superhuman intelligence could be roaming the earth.

But how do we destroy a type of technology that isn’t there yet? This might be the biggest challenge mankind has yet to face. To do so, we must restrain the very ingenuity and curiosity of which we are so proud. It requires a level of maturity and insight that humanity perhaps has not obtained yet, but this option seems vastly more attractive than the technological wasteland Kaczyinski has in mind. Let’s prove him wrong and show that we can develop the technologies that actually aid our world, instead of destroying it.