Jeffrey R. Young writes: The paper “Industrial Society and Its Future” makes the case that modern technology has restricted freedom, ruined the environment, and caused untold human suffering. People have become overstressed and oversocialized. Humanity, the author writes, is at a crossroads, and we can either turn the clock back to a happier, more primitive time or face destruction.
The author has occasionally been praised for understanding the unforeseen consequences of technology in modern life. Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired magazine who, even though he disagrees with the author’s conclusion, devotes a section of his latest book to these ideas, calling the paper “one of the most astute analyses” of technological systems he has ever read.
But for the most part the 35,000-word manifesto, first published in September 1995, has been dismissed as a rant.
That’s because the author is Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, who terrorized academics for nearly 20 years by sending a series of mail bombs that killed three people and injured 23. His demand, accepted by authorities in the hope that granting it would unearth clues to his whereabouts, was for a major newspaper to publish that manifesto.
Media profiles from the time of his capture, several months after the manifesto’s publication, paint Kaczynski as a kind of comic-book villain, a scruffy loner in a hooded sweatshirt whose failure in relationships drove him to insane acts of violence.
But when David F. Skrbina, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Michigan here, read the manifesto in The Washington Post on the day it was published, he saw value in the message. He was particularly impressed by its clarity of argument and its references to major scholars on the philosophy of technology. He saw a thinker who wrongly turned to violence but had an argument worthy of further consideration. That argument certainly wasn’t perfect in Skrbina’s view, and he had some questions. Why not just reform the current system rather than knock it down? What was Kaczynski’s vision of how people should live?
In November 2003, Skrbina mailed a letter to Kaczynski, then as now in a supermax prison in Colorado, asking those and other questions designed “to challenge him on his views, to press him.”
So began a correspondence that has spanned more than 150 letters and has led Skrbina to help compile a book of Kaczynski’s writings, called Technological Slavery, released in 2010. The book is a kind of complete works of this violent tech skeptic, including the original manifesto, letters to Skrbina answering the professor’s questions, and other essays written from the Unabomber’s prison cell.
Today, Skrbina is something like a friend to Kaczynski. And he’s more than that. The philosophy lecturer from Dearborn serves as the Unabomber’s intellectual sparring partner, a distributor of his writings to a private e-mail list of contacts, and at times even an advocate for his anti-tech message.
In more than 15 years at The Chronicle, I’ve never had so many sources refuse to talk to me for an article. Many people I reached out to simply didn’t return my calls and e-mail messages.
To Skrbina, that’s evidence of a societal taboo against saying anything negative about technology. But reactions to Kaczynski are not just about ideas. People died, and many others suffered serious injuries, in Kaczynski’s pipe-bomb blasts. He has become such a symbol of dangerous irrationality that a climate-change skeptics’ group, the Heartland Institute, recently used his face on a billboard that read, “I still believe in Global Warming.”
And there’s the chance that a serious consideration of the Unabomber’s ideas could encourage others to send bombs to get attention. At times, that thought made me want to spike this story. In recent months copycat killers citing the Unabomber as their inspiration sent mail bombs to nanotechnology professors in Mexico, publishing their own antitechnology manifesto. A killer in Norway who gunned down dozens of students at a camp last year wrote a manifesto that included phrases lifted from Kaczynski’s.
Yet the Unabomber’s warnings about the dehumanizing nature of technology are popping up in more and more serious books and articles these days—even if most of the writers don’t cite Kaczynski directly.
What can be learned from the Unabomber? And just as important, should we be listening to an admitted killer in the first place? [Continue reading…]