Ted Kaczynski’s philosophy, reconsidered

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…]

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5 thoughts on “Ted Kaczynski’s philosophy, reconsidered

  1. Steve Zerger

    Sure technology is dehumanizing, no argument there. But isn’t it a bit naive to think that we will be more free by turning back the technological clock a few hundred years? The Unabomber says we are “technology slaves”. But consider that each American commands the energy equivalent of 100 slaves working 24/7 for his comfort and convenience. Given human nature (and 5,000 years of historical evidence), it seems more likely that the disappearance of those “energy slaves” will result in the reappearance of real flesh and blood slaves. Among all muscle-powered energy sources, humans are the most efficient energy converters, and this has made them the preferred energy source for almost the entire history of civilization.

  2. Steve Zerger

    Amendment: “Human nature” probably isn’t the right attribution. While there are examples of human slavery in a few societies which predate the advent of settled agriculture, there are strong arguments that humans living in an uncrowded balance with their environment aren’t much prone to fratricidal violence.

  3. tom griffin

    The “back to nature” movement put technology on the hotseat, at least when I was in grad school in the 1970’s. John Prine wrote the line in a song:….blow up your TV, eat a lot of peaches…..”

    My mentor was a Political Science professor, Milford Q. Sibley (U/Minnesota). He often lectured and wrote about technology, and the psychological, political, and social effects of technology. Described it a a major revolution, and its acceptance as “inevitable” His last book, in 1977 before Ted K wrote his Manifesto, was “Nature and Civilization: Some Implications for Politics” (Loyola U Series in Political Analysis.

    The association of “anarchism” and anti-technology always seemed to have a sinister cast, which made it seem more than opposed to “progress.” Technology now is inevitable and necessary: a tough combination to overcome.

    Appreciate your writing about this taboo subject.

    Ted K must find Nick Turse’s “Terminator Planet” book about drones quite interesting, assuming he gets to read it.

  4. Joe

    I read Kaczynski’s document some years ago, it is immediately obvious that it is driven by genuine and intelligent thought and feeling, and much of it seems to be valuable commentary, taking the Anglo Saxons to task for robbing and plundering USA from a nature-respecting ethnic population, the native Indians — but — the worthwhile parts of it are frequently interrupted by odd, inconsistent, hum drum proclamations on ideology, survival of the fittest, ‘race’ behaviour, aggression and so on, much of which seems to have been drawn from outdated quasi academic oddball texts or pop academic thinkers/pulp authors from the 1950s and 60s.

    The power of the good chapters from his manifesto are also lessened when the reader remembers that Kaczynski ended up killing innocent working class people ( postal workers and office underlings) as part of his mission.

  5. Joe

    I like Skrbina’s words a lot, and I quote from his book, “We as a civilization need only summon our collective wisdom and courage; learn the lessons of history; and transcend the crude, destructive, and ultimately dehumanizing materialist worldview.”

    Now that sounds about right to me.

    But how would we every get Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein and the thousands upon thousands of military generals to agree?

    Shakespeare seems relevant here — “look you, this brave
    o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
    with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
    me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
    What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
    how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
    express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
    in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
    world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
    what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
    me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
    you seem to say so.”

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