Amerika

Why Ted Kaczynski was right about technology

Ted Kaczynski, the convicted bomber who blew up dozens of technophilic professionals, was right about one thing: technology has its own agenda.

The technium is not, as most people think, a series of individual artifacts and gadgets for sale. Rather, Kaczynski, speaking as the Unabomber, argued that technology is a dynamic holistic system. It is not mere hardware; rather it is more akin to an organism. It is not inert, nor passive; rather the technium seeks and grabs resources for its own expansion. It is not merely the sum of human action, but in fact it transcends human actions and desires. I think Kaczynski was right about these claims.

In his own words the Unabomber says: “The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity.”

I too argue that the technium is guided by “technical necessity.” That is, baked into the nature of this vast complex of technological systems are self-serving aspects – technologies that enable more technology, and systems that preserve themselves — and also inherent biases that lead the technium in certain directions, outside of human desire. Kaczynski writes “modern technology is a unified system in which all parts are dependent on one another. You can’t get rid of the ‘bad’ parts of technology and retain only the ‘good’ parts.”

Kaczynski claims that civilization is the disease and not the cure. He wasn’t the first to make this claim. Rants against the machine of civilization go back as far as Freud and beyond. But the assaults against industrial society speed up as industry sped up. Edward Abbey, the legendary wilderness activist, considered industrial civilization to be a “destroying juggernaut” wrecking both the planet and humans. Abbey did all he could personally to stop the juggernaut with monkey wrenching maneuvers – sabotaging logging equipment and so forth. Abbey was the iconic Earth Firster who inspired many fire throwing followers. The luddite theorist, Kirkpatrick Sale, who unlike Abbey, railed against the machine while living in a brownstone in Manhattan, refined the idea of “civilization as disease.”

In 2008 John Zerzan published an anthology of contemporary readings focused on the theme “Against Civilization”. Derrick Jensen penned a 1,500 word treatise on how and why to topple technological civilization, with hands-on suggestions of the ideal places to start – power and gas lines and the information infrastructure.

KK

I like the way this man approaches this topic. He’s clearly intelligent. In my view, he is under-informed about history and the “civilization life cycle” as reflected in Plato’s Republic.

You can read the full Unabomber manifesto here.

First, I think “freedom” is overused in the manifesto and in this article. We don’t want freedom; we want a sane civilization where what we need to do (a small set of events) is unobstructed, not “freedom” (where presumably an infinite set of events is unobstructed). Equally important to “freedom” is not to suffer at the hands of others, which means that it’s more sensible than asking for freedom to ask for a consensus as to desired activities, and to form a civilization on that basis. If everyone is heading in roughly the same direction, conflicts will not occur.

Second, I think he is throwing out the baby with the bathwater when he describes Civilization as the problem. Plato’s approach is more mature: like us, each civilization has a life cycle. When it’s young and healthy, it is a meritocracy made multi-generational via a feudal caste system and aristocracy. When it’s old, and tired, it makes its decisions via democracy, and thus becomes so dramatic tyranny comes about.

Technology just aids this process. Blaming technology itself for mankind’s use of it is to forget that the real problem is a lack of human organization, and a different kind of cancer: the illusion that we can all do whatever we want and still have a functioning collective — because civilization is inherently collective, every civilization, every time.

But that’s an unpopular truth.

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