The Unabomber's Manifesto Totally Nailed Our Addiction To Technology
Industrial Society and Its Future: More than just a catchy title
From 1978 to 1996, Ted Kaczynski (better known as the "Unabomber") went on a reign of terror that involved mailing a series of increasingly sophisticated homemade bombs to seemingly random targets. The explosives killed three people and injured 24 more over the the nearly two decades of attacks. His crimes are some of the worst cases of domestic terrorism of the 20th century. In other words, he was a real jerk.
Along with his bombs, however, Kaczynski produced a 35,000-word manifesto to explain why he was trying to destroy modern civilization. Titled Industrial Society and Its Future, the Unabomber's manifesto detailed the ways in which he believed technology had destabilized the world. Kaczynski might have been completely out of his gourd (or maybe not—we'll get to that), but he nailed our addiction to technology.
He was worried about social media before that was a thing
Kaczynski was, to put it lightly, a thoroughly paranoid person. He was so turned off by technology and its increased usage in urban America that he moved to woods of Montana, where he wrote and blew things up until he was caught. His paranoia is on fully display in his literary masterpiece, but he predicted the rise of social media with eerie accuracy. He lamented that people were already becoming too locked into their "useless pursuits," taking part in "surrogate activities" from the consumption of movies to sports to celebrity gossip, to do important work. Of course, he considered science a "useless pursuit," so don't worry, he was still a complete weirdo.
The manifesto foresees a worst-case scenario for our techno-worship
In the Unabomber's manifesto, Kaczynski pushed the concept of destructive technology to the furthest point when he said that unless we reverse our technological habits, genetic engineering will be the next step of human evolution. Essentially, he believed that humans would start changing themselves at the cellular level to meet the needs of social systems designed by technology. That sounds like science-fiction, but he's not saying that Cyberdyne is going to install computer chips in our eyes against our will, just that we'll start behaving in ways that turn us into a product of our own technology. Only the most naive Facebook user, the last holdouts who truly believe they and not the advertisers are the customer, won't recognize how that turned out.
Aside from the fear that we're changing our social structures to fit our addiction to computers, phones, and other high-tech conveniences, he predicted that an increased usage of technology will give way to expanded police and government powers as well as schools that teach conformity. This has already happened: In 2020, the New York Times reported on facial recognition software that allows police to search a database of 3 billion photos that are mostly culled from social media, and standardization is a major component of the education system, even if it doesn't feel dystopian.
Wild nature, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Montana
By the mid-'90s, we were already in deep with technology. The Internet was a thing, people had phones in their cars, and we had more TV channels than we knew what to do with. Even then, it felt impossible to get away from technology, but Kaczynski proved it could be done if you were extreme enough. He called the concept of disassociating from technology "a return to wild nature," which is a better way of saying "moving into a hermit cabin deep in the woods."
The Unabomber argued that if people can separate themselves from technology, or "the system," they'll survive. However, as much as he was right about the issues society faces as technology moves beyond normal understanding, his parachute of becoming a doomsday prepper not only feels extra, it's really only a solution for him. As with many an eccentric genius before him, instead of using his spectacular IQ for good, he just ran away to his crime shed.
The manifesto wasn't well received
In a response that shocked no one, the public wasn't very receptive to the Unabomber's manifesto. Maybe it had something to do with his methods, but many scholars noted that Kaczynski's ideas weren't even all that revolutionary. Alston Chase, a reporter for The Atlantic, wrote:
[The essay] was greeted in 1995 by many thoughtful people as a work of genius, or at least profundity, and as quite sane [but it] is the work of neither a genius nor a maniac. Its pessimism over the direction of civilization and its rejection of the modern world are shared especially with the country's most highly educated.
His manifesto was his undoing
After the release of Industrial Society and Its Future, scholars and government law enforcement agencies alike marveled at the paranoia that played alongside the real technological fears in the Unabomber's manifesto, but for a while, it brought them no closer to the man who wrote it. Its authorship was obvious, however, to one person who read it: David Kaczynski, Ol' Teddy's brother. David was already pretty sure that Ted was the Unabomber, but once he read the manifesto, he couldn't help but notice bizarre similarities the writer shared with his big brother. He told Oprah:
After I read the first few pages, my jaw literally dropped. One particular phrase disturbed me. It said modern philosophers were not ‘cool-headed logicians.’ Ted had once said I was not a ‘cool-headed logician’, and I had never heard anyone else use that phrase.
After reading the Unabomber's manifesto, David contacted the FBI and told them in no uncertain terms that his brother was the man they were looking for.
Things ended quickly for Kaczynski
On April 3, 1996, the FBI arrested Kaczynski at his cabin in Montana. There, they found that the Unabomber was an unkempt hermit who lived in a disarray of bomb components and thousands of pages of handwritten journal entries that covered everything from his experiments with different explosive devices to excerpts from an addendum to his manifesto to the original typed copy of Industrial Society and Its Future.
Almost two years later, much to everyone's surprise, Kaczynski was declared competent to stand trial. The next day, on January 22, 1998, he pled guilty to the charges against him to avoid the death penalty, scoring the lesser sentence of life in prison. He later attempted to withdraw the plea, but Judge Garland Ellis Burrell, Jr. refused to honor the request, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit did the same.
Was he right?
Even if Ted Kaczynski felt that humanity was moving towards extinction thanks to our increased dedication to technology, the way he went about warning people was all wrong. You know the phrase "You draw more flies with honey"? What he did was the complete opposite of that. However, it's incorrect to call him insane, as the court's experts determined. Author Michael Mello says that we've protected ourselves from admitting that Kaczynski was right about a lot of the downsides of technology by convincing ourselves that he's crazy. Mello writes:
The manifesto challenges the basic assumptions of virtually every interest group that was involved with the case: the lawyers, the mental health experts, the press and politics—both left and right ... Kaczynski's defense team convinced the media and the public that Kaczynski was crazy, even in the absence of credible evidence ... [because] we needed to believe it ... They decided that the Unabomber was mentally ill, and his ideas were mad. Then they forgot about the man and his ideas and created a curative tale. But the truly disturbing aspect of Kaczynski and his ideas is not that they are so foreign but that they are so familiar. The manifesto is the work of neither a genius nor a maniac. Except for its call to violence, the ideas it expresses are perfectly ordinary and unoriginal.
Tags: 1990s | technology | terrorism
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