The Unabomber: uncanny prophecies of a dangerous man

19 Jan 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 5 Feb 2018

Twenty two years ago a brilliant mathematician showed uncanny prescience when he anticipated a great debate about automation and artificial intelligence.

He predicted that machines would eventually displace people in the workplace and that this would ultimately put the human race at the mercy of technology.

This was written on a typewriter at a time when the internet was in its infancy, desktop computers were large, boxy affairs too expensive for most of us, and artificial intelligence was a fringe science, treated with derision by most.

He explained: “As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and as machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more and more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones.

“Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide. “

Today Ted Kaczynski is in a maximum security prison in Colorado serving four life sentences with no possibility of parole. He is better known as the Unabomber.

Between 1978 and 1995 he was responsible for 16 bombings, killing three people all plotted from a wood cabin in the wilds of Montana. The hunt for him was the longest and most expensive investigation ever carried out by the FBI.

In 1995 he stated that he would stop his campaign if his treatise “The Industrial Society and its Future” was published in a major newspaper. The Washington Post and New York Times carried the 35,000 word essay.

At his trial, much to Kaczynski’s anger, his own defence team argued that he was insane – presumably to save him from the death penalty. That, together with the horrendous nature of his crimes, have militated against any serious consideration of his ideas, until relatively recently. Now, as we contemplate the coming revolution in automation much of what he wrote about is increasingly debated. Today Kaczynski spends his hours embellishing his theories and corresponding with academics and journalists.

His solutions might be unthinkable but some of the issues he raised are precisely those society faces today.

The Industrial Society and its Future is written in the style of a PhD thesis – hardly surprising as its author studied at Harvard from the age of 16 and was an assistant professor at Berkeley by the time he was 25.

Its central thesis is that the industrial revolution and its consequences have proved to be a disaster for the human race. “They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in "advanced" countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.”

He argues for a revolution, not a political revolution, but an insurrection against technology, arguing that it is not possible to reform or modify the system to produce benign consequences.

He is particularly scathing of “leftists”. Leftist thinking, he says, stems from low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness and defeatism. Conservatives, on the other hand are “fools” because their promotion of technological progress will inevitably lead to the breakdown of the communities, way of life and traditions they purport to defend.

Kaczynski therefore stands outside our traditional notion of revolutionaries. He is a pure luddite. And if his ideas are worth exploring at all it is precisely because of this, it gives us the opportunity to study the case against technology – the argument that far from benefiting humankind it is destroying it.

His case centres around his analysis of what he calls human drives. These he defines as: things we can achieve easily; those that we can achieve, but with difficulty, and those which are effectively unattainable.

According to him in many respects life is too easy. “It is enough to go through a training program to acquire some petty technical skill, then come to work on time and exert the very modest effort needed to hold a job. The only requirements are a moderate amount of intelligence and, most of all, simple OBEDIENCE.”

However because humans have a basic need to be autonomous and to achieve difficult goals, this creates a vacuum – and the result is increasing mental ill health, depression, domestic violence and frustration. In his dystopian view modern conditions cause depression, but instead of removing the symptoms sufferers are dosed with antidepressant drugs.

“Any of the foregoing symptoms can occur in any society, but in modern industrial society they are present on a massive scale. We aren't the first to mention that the world today seems to be going crazy.

“Among the abnormal conditions present in modern industrial society are excessive density of population, isolation of man from nature, excessive rapidity of social change and the breakdown of natural small-scale communities such as the extended family, the village or the tribe. “

These pressures, he argues, are compounded by the fact that unlike primitive societies who could act in their own defence and had control over their lives, most of the threats we currently face are beyond our control – pollution, war, redundancy and such. We could probably add to that threats from terrorists, like Kaczynski himself!

So for him, freedom is having control over your own life, and he believes that in an industrialised society, we do not have this autonomy. “The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function. At work people have to do what they are told to do, otherwise production would be thrown into chaos.”

All of the earlier part of his thesis applies to technology that existed at the time. The later passages speculate on future developments – ones which are emerging right now.

The first is the prospect of human genetic engineering. “If you think that big government interferes in your life too much NOW, just wait till the government starts regulating the genetic constitution of your children. Such regulation will inevitably follow the introduction of genetic engineering of human beings, because the consequences of unregulated genetic engineering would be disastrous.”

This has become a live issue: scientists in China have genetically engineered human embyros and in America trials are due to begin shortly on genetically editing patients to cure a blinding disorder.

He believes that ethical codes will not stem a tide that will lead ultimately to manufactured humans: “No code that reduced genetic engineering to a minor role could stand up for long, because the temptation presented by the immense power of biotechnology would be irresistible, especially since to the majority of people many of its applications will seem obviously and unequivocally good.”

He has much to say about Artificial Intelligence which he believes will either make human labour redundant or else essentially purposeless and that people will need to sublimate their need for stimulation and life-fulfillment through hobbies, or else be “treated” for their resulting problems “reducing people to the status of domestic animals”.

Kaczynski anticipates current thinking about the future of work, predicting that those with low levels of skill and little potential to re-train will be condemned to not working, whilst those that remain will need to acquire more and more specialised skills and become tiny cogs in an overall system, designed and driven by technological need.

His entire philosophy is summed up thus: “Imagine an alcoholic sitting with a barrel of wine in front of him. Suppose he starts saying to himself, "Wine isn't bad for you if used in moderation. Why, they say small amounts of wine are even good for you! It won't do me any harm if I take just one little drink.... " Well you know what is going to happen. Never forget that the human race with technology is just like an alcoholic with a barrel of wine.”

Kaczynski’s vision is chilling, as indeed would be the consequences if the industrial order were to collapse. He says he puts freedom before life. Yet he might have survived shooting rabbits in his wilderness cabin, but so many of us, probably the vast majority would not.

But then again he also writes: “In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people.”

So that is Kacznski’s bleak and desperate case for the opposition, a cause for which he committed murder in order to gain publicity. There is an unsettling, unflinching coherence to the document, but it serves more as a foretaste of luddite arguments that will resurface as technology advances rather than any template for our future.

If we can learn anything from it at all it is to emphasise the need for a proper debate involving all of society around what technology is for, how it can make our lives better, and what we don’t want it to do. For the moment at least, we control it, not the other way around.

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