Preface to this blog post
Why review a book from the hand of a notorious terrorist who killed three and maimed dozens of people? That seems like the right question to answer before continuing this blog post. Theodore J. Kaczynski is an extremely intelligent yet wounded man. He’s been a victim of cold-war era social experiments and, throughout his life, has always been an outsider. He retreated from society and lived like a hermit in the woods in Montana. Nevertheless, he was an activist in search of attention for his ideology and manifesto.
Numerous human lives have been sacrificed on the altars of freedom, ideology, and a better world. Wherever you position yourself on the political spectrum, from left to right, your heroes have blood on their hands. Reagan, Lenin, Bush, Mao, Napoleon, Robespierre, Obama, Chavez, Macron, Selassie, and Guevara, in one way or another, are responsible for the death and suffering of many. Yet we read their memoirs, manifestoes, and biographies. We have their posters on the walls of our children’s rooms. In this light, the refusal to read and review Industrial Society and its Future would be an act of hypocrisy.
Finally, the central claim that technology is inherently bad for society is of relevance to this blog. I completely distance myself from the man’s actions, but his manifesto definitely struck a chord. I currently cannot think of a better way to scrutinize my techno-optimism than to write about it.
The Power Process
Industrial Society and its Future is an essay of 232 numbered paragraphs in which Kaczynski explains what’s wrong with society, how it should be, and how we can get there. The most interesting parts of the essay describe the core concept of the Power Process, its consequences, and how technology has an impact on it.
Human drives can be classified in three broad categories:
- Drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort: a walk around the block.
- Drives that can be satisfied at the cost of serious effort: chopping down a tree for burning wood.
- Drives that cannot be satisfied, no matter the effort one puts in it: somersault from a high cliff and survive it
Kaczynski claims that all humans need a power process: (1) we all need goals, (2) effort to attain them, and (3) the attainment of some of these goals. Finally, it requires a degree of (4) autonomy. Consequently, the power process is part of the second category of human drives.
If unattained goals result in death, they are important. If the non-attainment of one’s goals is compatible with survival (i.e. not important), it will lead to defeatism, low self-esteem, and depression (as I explain later on). In the Western world, one only needs minimum effort to survive. Satisfying biological needs has been reduced to triviality. One can live off welfare checks, or have a bullshit job to satisfy physical needs. The only thing required is a minimal degree of obedience. Humans have given up autonomy and effort to attain the needs to survive — the important goals. That’s why humans artificially create the four components of the power process for themselves: they are involved in surrogate activities: long-distance running, blogging, collecting stamps, gardening and even pursuing an academic career.
Technology messes with the power process
Kaczynski distinguishes between two kinds of technology: The first one is small-scale technology, like a mill or a water wheel. The second kind is organization-dependent technology that requires large-scale social organization: A refrigerator depends on complicated and industrially created parts and requires electricity. The first kind can produce real progress and freedom. The second kind has a negative impact on our freedom: the externalities outweigh the benefits. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma on a global scale.
Since the Industrial Revolution, most new technologies are of the second kind. The wave of smart and connected devices and software that’s heading our way is no different. Algorithms can curate all available information on our timelines, only inviting more and more (fake?) articles to be produced. Autonomous cars are safer and offer the freedom to keep the hands of the wheel. Yet as self-driving cars are simply sensors on wheels, you will have zero privacy regarding your location. Self-service checkouts are supposed to be faster. Yet as supermarket customers more often use them, fewer registers with cashiers will be available, reducing human personal contact. Oh, and you need a loyalty card, which is digital-only, for which you need a smartphone.
Social and psychological problems arise when humans cannot go through the power process. In modern society, technology (especially of the second kind) tends to push drives into the first group: gathering food is now one tap away. Intimacy can be achieved by swiping or paying a minimum fee. Leisure can be found on Netflix or Steam. Turn up the heat by asking your Nest.
On the other hand, technology also moved other drives into the third category. With urbanization reaching record numbers; experiencing authenticity, harmony, nature, silence, and clean air is nearly impossible for many inhabitants of this planet.
Some important goals that remain in the second category, like achieving status, can no longer be done autonomously. To reach the highest echelons of the corporate ladder, one needs to adhere to company culture, engage in networking, and pass opaque assessments. A management position is often at the goodwill of another manager, higher up.
The primitive man only had to fear disease and certain aspects of the environment. He could accept this stoically, or invent gods and demons. But these problems weren’t man-made, imposed on them by someone’s decision which he had no impact on. Although many of us create them for themselves, for others, surrogate activities do not suffice. The results are aggression, mental breakdowns, burnouts, depressions, mid-life crises, and declining fertility. As decisions are increasingly outsourced to trustworthy and unbiased machines — think facial recognition by police departments, or algorithms sending people to jail — hopelessness and rebellion will only increase.
In modern society, mental health is defined by how one behaves in accord with the needs of the system.
Technology is a rational response to problems
A compromise between freedom and technology is impossible because technology is a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom. That’s because each new technology appears to be desirable and only threatens our freedom later on. Motorized transport allows us to travel a lot farther. Yet once the adoption of cars reaches a critical threshold, one is expected to own a car: Local shops and public services disappear and become centralized in malls and government buildings. The internet allowed us to communicate with each other faster than ever. As companies adopted the internet, one can no longer apply for a job without an internet connection. Technology changes society as to make itself indispensable.
The following words read like a prophecy: “Generally speaking, technological control over human behavior will probably not be introduced with a totalitarian intention or even through a conscious desire to restrict human freedom. Each new step in the assertion of control over the humankind will be taken as a rational response to a problem that faces society…”
For example, society has given up privacy to battle COVID-19 with apps and track&trace strategies. Facebook promised us freedom of speech and unlimited reach, but without the financial means, you’re shouting in a vacuum. The Patriot Act (and the mass surveillance technology that came with it) was designed to battle terrorism but introduced legal arbitrariness. These three examples were all rational responses to existing problems but produced unforeseen externalities.
As technology makes itself indispensable, machines will take care of more and more tasks and “on those who are employed, ever-increasing demands will be placed: the will need more training, more and more ability, and will have to be ever more reliable, conforming and docile, because they will be more and more like cells of a giant organism.“
Think of the swarm of Uber or Lyft drivers who took a short training on how to use the app and are now driving people around in servile silence. Their data feeds the algorithm, and the algorithm thinks for them. The only thing left is to abide by the system.
Which brings us to Kaczynski’s “solution”. This topic lacks the depth and cunning analogies that can be found in the earlier chapters. His recipes aren’t new: one can find elements of Bakunist, Gramscist, and Debrayist thinking.
Because technology is the strongest social force, gradual change is impossible. The only way to break this circle, this slippery slope to servitude to the machine, is a revolution. While the system might collapse under its own internal difficulties, Kaczynski claims we should promote social stress and instability in industrial society. Humanity should return to nature to live in small groups and to be in control of life-and-death issues: food, clothing, shelter, and defense. This is true freedom: the power to control the circumstances of one’s own life. It’s not an ideology, it’s Nature with a big N:
“We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society. Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.”
Manifestos are always dull, so I didn’t expect this book to be an enjoyable read. But quite a lot of insights were so masterfully crafted, that I often had to allow my mind to wander off in a quest to find (counter-)examples and arguments to what I just read. If you’re into political theory, this will be a treat.
Nevertheless, the structure of the book and the order of the chapters seemed strange to me. Many of the topics — like anti-leftism and motives of scientists — get special attention which gives the impression that they are driven by his first-hand negative experiences and grudges.
This isn’t a finished work. Kaczynski touches the surface of many topics and at best delivers the fundamentals of a political theory. It has definitely aroused my interest to read more about anarcho-primitivism, which seems to be the school of thought that is most in line with the Unabomber Manifesto.
This book isn’t for everyone. One should be familiar with manifestoes and should be able to separate the author and his acts from the writings. If you’re up to that, nobody will stop you from reading this notorious work.
Hi, first of all, thank you for a very interesting and insightfull blogpost. I will defintly share it to some friends. And i might even try to get trought the entire manifesto since it seemed like an interesting read.
I just wanted to point out that the link for Theodore J. Kaczynski name points to a wikipedia article about bullshit jobs and is probably missplaced (most likelly it should instead have been in this sentince “One can live off welfare checks, or have a bullshit job to satisfy physical needs”). Or maybe i missunderstod some context and it is in fact correct.
Thanks for the link. Fixed it!
That was a good description of what TK wrote, but you failed to post your own thoughts really.
Personally, I think the solution lies in technology itself. Technology is neither “good” nor “bad”. For instance, a chef knife can be used to create a wonderful salad, or to stab someone a hundred times. (Like guns, but I digress…)
So, for all those jobs where one “must become an automaton”, robots are a perfect fit. They will soon be able to do almost all the menial, horrible jobs humans have always hated. Cleaning sewers, pulling weeds, picking up trash…the list is next to endless. As a matter of fact, those robotic Uber drivers will soon be replaced by robots. That’s Uber’s business plan.
So, we’re left with “income inequality”, which really should be viewed as “net worth inequality”. I can imagine a society so wealthy that almost everyone would have a machine that lets them travel at will, a device that allows them to see art and events all over the world in real time, another device they can carry around and communicate with anyone at any time, and a host of other technological wonders. It might provide such an abundance of food and other necessities that their lack would be extremely unusual. Excellent medicine would be available to all, and life expectancies would rise indefinitely.
I hope most realize that I’m describing our society today. It is an amazing wonder compared to societies of even one hundred years ago, much less a thousand. The “poor” in the United States are quite wealthy compared with the “poor” of almost all other countries. I expect as we begin to exploit the wealth available in the rest of the Solar System, almost unimaginable compared to the pittance we have here on Earth, that everyone who wishes to be will live as the ultra-rich do today, and in fact will have options today’s rich do not.
I also expect that technology will evolve in many different directions. For instance, as we begin to colonize Mars, the ultra large scale industrial technologies of Earth will have to be adapted to the transport and construction constraints of interplanetary travel. That will very likely result in much smaller, more automated replacements for things like semiconductor fabs. That will reduce centralization, and enable dispersion of humanity and human society throughout the Solar System and the Oort Cloud.
Humanity badly needs a new frontier, and the freedom to experiment with new societies and ways of living. Space is the answer.
At any rate, thanks for your post. It saved me from ever reading TK’s blatherings. 🙂
That’s a lengthy reply! Thanks for taking the time. Inequality (income, wealth & labor market) There’s a huge amount of economic research regarding the polarisation of the labor market due to technology & globalization: https://scholar.google.be/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&as_vis=1&q=labor+market+polarisation+technology+or+globalisation&btnG=
I did not have the intention to write down my own thoughts regarding the subject. For me, it’s merely an extra pair of lenses to look at the world.
You should definitely read Kaczynski’s two books: “Technological Slavery” and “Anti-Tech Revolution.” They each go far, far beyond the manifesto.
Thanks for the tips!
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