Disarming the Unabomber: Choice in the Digital Age

“What the manifesto has to say about our relationship with technology and with society is more true right now than it was when Ted published it. It’s about our relationship with our smartphones 20 years before a smartphone existed. It’s about the way technology constrains us and defines our lives, the way that when your phone dings, you answer it. It doesn’t matter that you know it’s stupid and unimportant. It doesn’t matter that there’s a person in front of you that you are talking to. You obey.”

Andrew Sodroski, executive producer of Manhunt: Unabomber

From 1978 to 1995, Ted Kaczynski mailed or hand-delivered 16 deadly bombs, killing 3 people and injuring 23 more. Kaczynski eventually offered to put an end to the bombings if a major newspaper agreed to publish his manifesto, titled Industrial Society and its Future. The FBI recommended that the Washington Post publish Kaczynski’s work in hopes that a reader would identify the author from its contents. Ted’s brother David recognized the writing and tipped off the FBI, finally leading to the Unabomber’s capture.1

It has been 12 years since the Unabomber’s capture, yet his ideas are far from forgotten. Instead, they are experiencing an unlikely renaissance.

Andrew Sodroski, producer of the recent Discovery miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber, describes Ted’s ideas as “prophetic.” Sodroski’s show leaves viewers with an uncomfortable idea: Ted’s actions were inexcusable, but he may have had a point. “Part of the tragedy of Ted is that the only way he could get people to read what he wrote was by bombing people,” Sodroski said, “and when you bomb people, people don’t take what you have to say seriously.”2

People seem to be taking Ted’s ideas seriously now. Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman penned an op-ed in September with the title The iPhone X proves the Unabomber was right.3 Kaczynski “provided a glimpse of the future we inhabit,” Chapman writes, “and his foresight is a bit unsettling.”

So what exactly did Kaczynski believe? Why are the ideas of a convicted terrorist and serial bomber sparking conversation 12 years after the fact? Are Sodroski and Chapman correct that the Unabomber had a point? 4

What were Kaczynski’s so-called “prophetic” ideas?

Kaczynski’s manifesto begins “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race… they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering… and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.”

From here, Kaczynski lays out a 35,000-word, 232-paragraph case justifying this alleged “disaster” (you can click here to join me on the CIA watch list and read the full text). There are a lot of ideas covered, from the psychology of “leftism” to justifications of violence.5 For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus specifically on Ted’s ideas about technology. These are the “prophetic” ideas that Sodroski claims are more true today than they were in 1995 and that Chapman references when he claims the Unabomber “had a point.”

Kaczynski’s core idea, simply put, is that technology has stolen our freedom and made our lives less fulfilling. He defends this claim with three key arguments. First, Kaczynski argues that technology has taken away our control over the life-and-death issues of one’s existence, such as food, clothing, and shelter:

…technical advances taken together have created a world in which the average man’s fate is no longer in his own hands… Our lives depend on whether safety standards at a nuclear power plant are properly maintained; on how much pesticide is allowed to get into our food or how much pollution into our air; on how skillful (or incompetent) our doctor is; whether we lose or get a job may depend on decisions made by government economists or corporation executives; and so forth.

Second, he argues that the use of technology is not optional, but required – modern man has no choice but to accept and use technology:

When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom… But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society… the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation… When a new item of technology is introduced… it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.

Lastly, Kaczynski argues that as technology continues to evolve, it is only a matter of time before human beings themselves are artificially modified and controlled:

…yesterday’s science fiction is today’s fact. The Industrial Revolution has radically altered man’s environment and way of life, and it is only to be expected that as technology is increasingly applied to the human body and mind, man himself will be altered as radically as his environment and way of life have been… If man is not adapted to this new environment by being artificially engineered, then he will be adapted by a long and painful process of natural selection.

Kaczynski argues that we have lost control over the essentials of our existence, are forced to use technology, and are helpless to stop technology from reshaping our environment and basic humanity. These changes, taken together, have robbed us of freedom and power over our lives. Kaczynski saw no choice but “revolution” in hopes that we can “dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.”

I don’t want to admit it, but I nodded along with some of that. Are you trying to tell me the Unabomber was right?

I know how you’re feeling. When I finished watching Manhunt: Unabomber, I was intrigued enough to type “was the unabomber right?” into Google (like I said – hello, CIA watch list!). I was intrigued for the same reason that Kaczynski’s manifesto continues to generate attention, which is the exact same reason that TV producers and Chicago Tribune columnists feel the urge to revisit the ideas of a serial bomber.

Kaczynski correctly observed the all-encompassing, transformative power of modern technology. This reality combined with our natural fear of change is what makes the Unabomber’s ideas interesting. That’s the reason his work continues to garner attention, and the reason it’s so easy to be sucked into his ideas at a high level. A deeper look, however, reveals that Kaczynski missed the big picture.

Technology hasn’t made us less free. Technology has transformed the choices and options that make up our lives – and this transformation means new trade-offs, challenges, and opportunities. It’s up to us to recognize the choices we face and exercise our freedom to make technology work for us, and not the other way around.

Let me explain.

It’s undeniable that many modern technologies have been adopted to the point that they are essentially mandatory. The social costs of choosing not to own a car or smartphone are high enough that avoiding these tools is not a realistic option for most people. It’s also true that the level of direct control we have over many “essentials” like food, clothing, and shelter has evolved. It’s up to the farmers and companies that grow, prepare, and provide our food to determine how much pesticide is used on my produce.

But does that mean we have less control of our lives? Are we less free?

We are free to work on a farm and directly control our food – but technology and specialization has created a world where we don’t have to. We have the freedom to not grow our own food, build our own homes, or sew our own clothes. We are free to pursue countless other options, knowing that the “essentials of one’s existence” that Kaczynski romanticizes can be fulfilled without consuming the entirety of one’s existence.

Technology has opened up a world of options in exchange for the obligation to own a car, obey the rules of the road, or carry an iPhone in our pockets. A trip that once took a lifetime can be completed in a matter of hours. Smartphones give us access to read any book, buy any product, watch any movie, listen to any song, or talk with anyone we desire – whenever we want to. That’s a level of opportunity that people in 1995 could barely even imagine.

Technology has created a world where we have more choices and more control over our lives than ever before. We haven’t lost our freedom; we are looking at a fundamentally different menu of options.

That leads us to Kaczynski’s final point: technology is reshaping our environment, behavior, and minds. This phenomenon is probably more far-reaching than you think. There are nearly as many monthly Facebook users (2.07 billion) as there are followers of Christianity (2.2 billion). Studies have shown that as many as 80% of smartphone users check their phones before brushing their teeth – and almost half of people do so before even getting out of bed. Tristan Harris, a former Product Philosopher and Design Ethicist at Google,6 has written and presented at length about the ways that technology is deliberately designed to hack our minds and control our attention. Even Dilbert is getting in on the action:

If technology is really “hijacking our attention,” has it hijacked our freedom? Modern technology has real downsides. It can be addicting, erode our privacy, or spread false information. These challenges are the cost of the freedom, the growing menu of options, that technology creates.

When technology enabled the production of mass quantities of unhealthy, addictive junk food, consumers responded. Today, fast food menus feature calorie counts and grocery stores offer organic options. Awareness and concern around how unhealthy food was changing us told companies and technologists to give us something different.

We can do the same with technologies that “hijack our attention.” Upset about the way that technology pulls on our ability to focus, or enables the spread of false information? Apple, Google, and Facebook hear the demands of their customers just like food providers once did. We have the freedom to decide how to spend our time, communicate with our friends and family, or wake up each morning. Be aware of your relationship with technology and the choices you make. Those choices are the force steering how technology evolves.

Technology is more persuasive, addicting, and all-encompassing than ever before. It is important to recognize the tradeoffs that society makes by embracing – or abandoning – new technologies and the environment they create. Ted Kaczynski was wrong in claiming that technical advances rob us of our freedom. Rather, technology is forcing us to exercise our freedom and make the choices that will define the future of humanity.

We need to demand technology that serves us, not the other way around.

 

 

 

  1. The FBI codename for the search for the man behind the mailed bombs was “UNABOM,” based on the targets of the attacks (UNiversity & Airline BOMber). The media picked up the name and transformed it into the Unabomber moniker. Hypothetical question – if the FBI had given the operation a less catchy codename, would he have been 10% as infamous? I vote no. “POSERVLUN” (POstal SERVice LUNatic) doesn’t lead the nightly news.
  2. It’s darkly ironic that, had Kaczynski waited a few years, the technology would have existed for him to publish and distribute his anti-technology ideas to millions without resorting to terrorism.
  3. If this article was titled “7 reasons why the iPhone X, Lavar Ball, and Kendall Jenner prove the Unabomber was right – you won’t believe #4!” we would have officially broken the clickbait machine.
  4. GIANT FLASHING NEON CAVEAT SIGN: No one is defending the Unabomber. He hurt people, he is a lunatic, he is a criminal, and he belongs in prison. With that said, shows have been made and articles written discussing his philosophy and ideas. We can talk about them without condoning being a serial killer. Moving on.
  5. There’s plenty in here to remind the reader that this was written by a total nutjob.
  6. Yeah – Silicon Valley is insufferable enough to give people job titles like “Product Philosopher” and “Design Ethicist.” I groaned too.

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