In June of 1995, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and several other of the United States’ largest publications all received packages containing copies of a long essay. The author of the essay was Ted Kaczynski, better known at that time as the “Unabomber”. Since the late 1970s, this mysterious murderer had been sending out mail bombs to unsuspecting victims, killing several and wounded many more. Attached to the essay was a note, promising to kill the killing if one of the publications would print the essay. On September 19, 1995, the Washington Post published the 35,000-word essay titled “Industrial Society and its Future”. It would come to be colloquially known as the “Unabomber Manifesto”. What it contained was an elaborate diatribe against modern technology and the industrial society we have today, calling for a return to the simpler life that man enjoyed in his more primitive days. As with all things related to Kaczynski, it was nothing if not controversial.
Kaczynski was eventually caught as a direct result of the publication, as his writing style had been recognized by his brother. Even so, Kaczynski probably wasn’t interested in getting away with his crimes. He wanted eyeballs on his ideas, and that is precisely what he got. As the years have passed since its original publication in 1995, society has continued to progress and technology has occupied greater and greater spaces in all of our lives. Accompanying this change is growing sentiment, born out of either sarcasm or sincerity, that perhaps Kaczynski — despite his violent methods of spreading his message — was right after all.
Is Kaczynski just a crazy old loon hopelessly blinded by nostalgia for an age he never experienced? Is the Unabomber Manifesto just the ravings of a mad man exiled from society? Or is Kaczynski right about the dangers of modern society? Let’s find out.
Kaczynski’s basic thesis can be summarized like so: modern society has led to serious problems for individuals, including social friction, psychological distress, and internal despair. The source of these problems is that our advanced technological world has reduced man’s freedom and destroyed his spirit. As a result of our loss of freedom, this system exercises more and more control over us, and the only option to restore mankind back to its former state of satisfaction and happiness is to overthrow the technological order that oppresses us now.
We can break this down into four main points, each of which will be examined in turn:
1. The Problems of Modern Society
2. Modern Society and Man’s Freedom
3. The Control Modern Society Exercises over us
4. The Solution of Overthrowing the System that Oppresses us
As a quick disclaimer, the manifesto itself is 35,000 words, and I cannot hope to faithfully capture and analyze everything that it contains. Needless to say, some of the finer points and details of Kaczynski’s argument we simply will not have a chance to cover. If you want to hear everything he has to say, I invite the reader to read the entire manifesto for themselves.
1. The Problems of Modern Society
The introductory paragraph of the essay is easily the most famous and recognizable piece of the manifesto, and we would be remiss if we did not quote it at length here:
“1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been 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. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in ‘advanced’ countries.”
Later on in paragraph 44, Kaczynski is more explicit about the types of problems that modern society inculcates in its victims:
“…boredom, demoralization, low self-esteem, inferiority feelings, defeatism, depression, anxiety, guilt, frustration, hostility, spouse or child abuse, insatiable hedonism, abnormal sexual behavior, sleep disorders, eating disorders, etc.”
According to Kacynski, these are the creation of the modern technology that has infiltrated our lives:
“45. 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. This sort of thing is not normal for human societies. There is good reason to believe that primitive man suffered from less stress and frustration and was better satisfied with his way of life than modern man is. It is true that not all was sweetness and light in primitive societies. Abuse of women was common among the Australian aborigines, transexuality was fairly common among some of the American Indian tribes. But it does appear that GENERALLY SPEAKING the kinds of problems that we have listed in the preceding paragraph were far less common among primitive peoples than they are in modern society.”
Furthermore, the growth in technology has allowed for densely packed living conditions that man was never supposed to be in:
“53. Crowding, rapid change and the breakdown of communities have been widely recognized as sources of social problems. But we do not believe they are enough to account for the extent of the problems that are seen today.
54. A few pre-industrial cities were very large and crowded, yet their inhabitants do not seem to have suffered from psychological problems to the same extent as modern man. In America today there still are uncrowded rural areas, and we find there the same problems as in urban areas, though the problems tend to be less acute in the rural areas. Thus crowding does not seem to be the decisive factor.”
The picture that Kaczynski paints here is fairly simple: technology has taken man much farther than he was ever meant to go. The result is the unhappy state of mankind that we occupy today, suffering from a constant white noise of despair that only seems to get worse. The only option is to turn back. If we are ever to regain our joy and satisfaction in life, the technological state we live in today must be abolished. However, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Kaczynski is not suffering from a crucially selective view of mankind’s past. In man’s primitive state, survival was never-ceasing struggle. Not only in war and conflict with others, but against nature itself. The necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, water, and warmth must be toiled for, day after day. An illustration of the forgotten horrors of the past is a book by Cornelius Walford titled “The Famines of the World: Past and Present”. The book provides a history of all famines recorded in human history up to that point. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Ireland 963–64: An intolerable famine, “so that parents sold their children for food.”
- England 1073: Famine, followed by mortality so fierce that the living could take no care of the sick, nor bury the dead.
- Ireland 1586: “Human flesh is said to have been eaten.”
The list goes on for pages and pages, illustrating just how common it was in the past for crops to fail and for food to run out. The result of such a calamity is just not just death, but the slow painful death of starvation, wherein one slowly loses one’s strength, vitality, and will to continue living.
Modern technology has also given us the ability to fight disease in a way that was impossible several hundred years ago. Ailments and conditions that would previously have been equivalent to a death sentence, such as bubonic plague and smallpox, have all but vanished today. The advent of vaccinations means that diseases that used to routinely kill and cripple children, such as polio and scarlet fever, live on only in laboratories for scientific study. These are just the most obvious benefits of our technological society, but the luxuries we enjoy are almost innumerable: automobiles, electricity, the internet, air conditioning, heating, telephones, refrigeration, plumbing, etc. that several centuries ago even the wealthiest of kings did not have access to.
Of course, our modern world is not without its problems. The various maladies that Kaczynski lists are all problems that many people struggle with today, some of which are becoming more prevalent over time. These are challenges that need to be overcome, but they clearly pale in comparison to the challenges of the past. Given the option, which would you rather suffer from: depression or a lack of food? Anxiety or a mysterious disease that you have no cure or treatment for? For any rational person, the choice is obvious. The problems that Kaczynski emphasizes are more or less accurate, but he crucially downplays the much graver problems of the past. One can’t help but think that Kaczynski has engaged himself in a romantic and wholly unrealistic conception of man’s past, nostalgic for a more noble time that never actually existed.
2. Modern Society and Man’s Freedom
The reason that modern society is so problematic for Kaczynski is because it restricts mankind’s freedom. Kaczynski has his own peculiar definition of freedom, so we will quote him at length to allow him to explain his position:
“33. Human beings have a need (probably based in biology) for something that we will call the “power process.” This is closely related to the need for power (which is widely recognized) but is not quite the same thing. The power process has four elements. The three most clear-cut of these we call goal, effort and attainment of goal. (Everyone needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.) The fourth element is more difficult to define and may not be necessary for everyone. We call it autonomy and will discuss it later.
94. By “freedom” we mean the opportunity to go through the power process, with real goals not the artificial goals of surrogate activities, and without interference, manipulation or supervision from anyone, especially from any large organization. Freedom means being in control (either as an individual or as a member of a SMALL group) of the life-and-death issues of one’s existence; food, clothing, shelter and defense against whatever threats there may be in one’s environment. Freedom means having power; not the power to control other people but the power to control the circumstances of one’s own life. One does not have freedom if anyone else (especially a large organization) has power over one, no matter how benevolently, tolerantly and permissively that power may be exercised.”
For Kaczynski, freedom is defined through what he refers to as “the power process”, which is essentially a base striving for goals in the human psyche. However, not all goals are created equal. In primitive societies, the goals that individuals have — hunting for food, gathering materials, creating shelter, etc. — are all closely related to their survival. Accordingly, the accomplishment of these goals brings a great deal of satisfaction and happiness. In the modern world we live in today, most of our goals carry only a fraction of the importance that the goals of primitive man. If we don’t get to work on time, we aren’t going to starve to death or be eaten by a predator. Because of the low stakes of these goals, their achievement doesn’t provide any meaning to our lives at all. Kaczynski refers to these modern style of goals as “surrogate” goals.
Technological society, by its very nature as a freedom-destroying system, takes away control from the individual over their own lives. As technology progresses, the individual loses more and more control over themselves:
“117. In any technologically advanced society the individual’s fate MUST depend on decisions that he personally cannot influence to any great extent. A technological society cannot be broken down into small, autonomous communities, because production depends on the cooperation of very large numbers of people and machines. Such a society MUST be highly organized and decisions HAVE TO be made that affect very large numbers of people. When a decision affects, say, a million people, then each of the affected individuals has, on the average, only a one-millionth share in making the decision. What usually happens in practice is that decisions are made by public officials or corporation executives, or by technical specialists, but even when the public votes on a decision the number of voters ordinarily is too large for the vote of any one individual to be significant. Thus most individuals are unable to influence measurably the major decisions that affect their lives. There is no conceivable way to remedy this in a technologically advanced society. The system tries to “solve” this problem by using propaganda to make people WANT the decisions that have been made for them, but even if this “solution” were completely successful in making people feel better, it would be demeaning.”
The definition that Kaczynski adopts for freedom is unique, if nothing else. In one sense, it is correct that all human action is necessarily aimed at achieving ends. Whenever we act, it is because there is something we have in mind which we want to achieve. Ludwig von Mises demonstrates this point clearly in his classic economics treatise, “Human Action”. As Mises writes in the introductory paragraph,
“Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life” (Human Action, pg. 1)
Even so, his framing of goal achievement as freedom is inherently problematic. Because of his power-process view, he implicitly views freedom as a subjective concept, not as a sociological concept. Accepting such a view entails some very unititutive conclusions about the nature of freedom. For instance, even in a hypothetical society where man has been transformed into angels and all violence, conflict, and strife have been replaced with peace and harmony, you still would not be considered free by Kaczynski’s definition. Common sense then dictates that Kaczynski’s notion of freedom butchers the meaning of the word entirely. However, such is always the result when freedom is removed from a purely sociological context and placed where it does not belong. The only definition of freedom that aligns with our intuitions and is internally defensible is freedom as the absence of violence or coercion from others. Any other extensions or modifications lead us into absurdities and contradictions.
These problems with Kaczynski’s notion of freedom carry on into his belief that modern technological society exercises immense control over our lives. Taken at purely face value, Kaczynski is correct that the progression of society creates an inextricably complex and interwoven social order. One of the most striking illustrations of this point is the famous essay from Leonard Reed, “I Pencil”, in which he demonstrates that there is not a single person on earth who knows how to make a pencil. If you examine the entire process of production as a whole, from the gathering of materials, to the creation of the machines necessary to process the materials, to the transportation and assembly into the finished product, there is not a single person who knows how to accomplish all of these various steps necessary to create a pencil. If the production process for the creation of a simple pencil is this complex, then the complete production process for a television must be near-unfathomable.
Despite the great degree of interpersonal dependence that exists in modern society, this does not at all entail that people living under the conditions that we enjoy today cannot be free. Indeed, the very proposition that Kaczynski presents us with seems completely inverted. Living in modern society means that our basic needs and requirements for life are effectively taken care of. As a result of this, Kaczynski draws the conclusion that this apparently makes us less free! We can infer from this position that in order for our freedom to be restored, we must be subjected to more and greater difficulties in our own life. The unavoidable result is that much of what we enjoy today: art, music, film, literature, etc. we will have little to no capacity for in a de-technologized state. Life will necessarily become monotonously bland as the variety of our lived experience is replaced with a constant struggle for survival. And Kaczynski offers this to us in the name of making us more free?
3. The Control Modern Society Exercises over us
Kaczynski goes on to argue that the control that society exercises over us manifests itself in differing ways:
“73. Behavior is regulated not only through explicit rules and not only by the government. Control is often exercised through indirect coercion or through psychological pressure or manipulation, and by organizations other than the government, or by the system as a whole. Most large organizations use some form of propaganda to manipulate public attitudes or behavior. Propaganda is not limited to “commercials” and advertisements, and sometimes it is not even consciously intended as propaganda by the people who make it. For instance, the content of entertainment programming is a powerful form of propaganda. An example of indirect coercion: There is no law that says we have to go to work every day and follow our employer’s orders. Legally there is nothing to prevent us from going to live in the wild like primitive people or from going into business for ourselves. But in practice there is very little wild country left, and there is room in the economy for only a limited number of small business owners. Hence most of us can survive only as someone else’s employee.”
Many of the unfulfilling surrogate goals that we chase aren’t even products of our own desires, but are implanted into us through advertising and marketing around us:
“Advertising and marketing techniques have been developed that make many people feel they need things that their grandparents never desired or even dreamed of … Modern man must satisfy his need for the power process largely through pursuit of the artificial needs created by the advertising and marketing industry, and through surrogate activities.”
Because we are forcibly assimilated into modern society, we as human beings are manipulated and conformed into fitting into a system completely unconducive to our own happiness and well-being:
“143. Since the beginning of civilization, organized societies have had to put pressures on human beings of the sake of the functioning of the social organism. The kinds of pressures vary greatly from one society to another. Some of the pressures are physical (poor diet, excessive labor, environmental pollution), some are psychological (noise, crowding, forcing human behavior into the mold that society requires). In the past, human nature has been approximately constant, or at any rate has varied only within certain bounds. Consequently, societies have been able to push people only up to certain limits. When the limit of human endurance has been passed, things start going wrong: rebellion, or crime, or corruption, or evasion of work, or depression and other mental problems, or an elevated death rate, or a declining birth rate or something else, so that either the society breaks down, or its functioning becomes too inefficient and it is (quickly or gradually, through conquest, attrition or evolution) replaced by some more efficient form of society.
144. Thus human nature has in the past put certain limits on the development of societies. People could be pushed only so far and no farther. But today this may be changing, because modern technology is developing ways of modifying human beings.”
Kaczynski far overstates his case concerning the degree to which we are forced to participate in the technology-infused society around us. After all, he famously lived a life of seclusion in a cabin in the woods, where he wrote this manifesto! He still had some limited interaction with civilization in the buying of supplies and such that he might need, but no one forced him to do so. If he wanted to live in total isolation — a la Robinson Crusoe — then he would have been free to do so. He claims that this option is not feasible in the modern day because one cannot escape modern civilization due to a lack of untamed land untouched by man, but this is simply not true. In the United States, for instance, there are vast stretches of land in the Mid-West for example, such as Montana, where there is a very low population density and large amounts of land that has never been inhabited. If it is a forested environment you want, there is remote land available in the Pacific Northwest or in the Appalachians that may suit your fancy. The reason why people don’t isolate themselves from society even when given the opportunity to do so is that modern civilization gives people numerous benefits that they would prefer to keep. All of luxuries of technology, are enough to dissuade most individuals from emulating Kaczynski’s hermit-esque lifestyle.
The notion that people’s wants and desires are manipulated by advertising and marketing is not exclusive to Kaczynski. A similar thesis formed the core of John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous work “The Affluent Society”, which is one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Despite its popularity, the idea is dubious at best. If companies can manipulate the consumers into buying their products, why don’t they spend more money on advertising? Moreover, why wouldn’t they spend as much money on advertising as they possibly can? Whenever a company is struggling financially, marketing is usually one of the first areas where budget cuts are applied. However, if the consumer is haplessly at the will of advertising, then it seems like any struggling company should do the exact opposite! They should pour even more money into creating and promoting advertisements to further bamboozle the consumer against their will into buying their products. The fact that entrepreneurs forgo such a strategy should give us sufficient cause for doubt.
The basic fact that advertising and marketing are intended to change the buying habits of the consumer is obvious enough. If the companies paying to create and distribute the ads didn’t believe they would change the consumer’s purchases at all, then why would they make them? However, this is a far cry from the idea that the consumer’s wallet is at the mercy of whatever marketing ploy is thrown in front of them. The role of advertising is to convince the consumer that their needs can be best served by the product being advertised. The consumer may accept the advertiser’s claims and buy the product, or he may reject them. In either case, the choice is up to him.
Kaczynski also has an unfortunate tendency to refer to society as if it was a living and acting being. It is in this way that he speaks of society forcing us to act in certain ways or society draining away our freedom. While another error not limited to Kaczynski, this view of society is perilously incorrect. Whenever we conceive of the social order as acting and moving on its own, this precludes any understanding of true social dynamics. Society does not act because it is not an entity. Whenever we speak of “society”, this is really just shorthand for an amalgamation of individuals; it has no will or agency of its own. Thus, it cannot force anyone into doing something, because it cannot do anything at all.
Because society is a just a group of individuals, the social bonds that they form amongst themselves are a result of individuals actions. Thus, the particular form or structure that society takes, rather than being imposed upon us as Kaczynski believes, is a result of the actions and desires of the individuals that reside within it. We are not at the will of the society we live within, but participants and constructors of our social order. Society is the summation of everyone, and everyone has a piece of this greater whole. Whichever direction society moves towards, it is always the result of the conscious acting of individuals that propel and sustain that direction.
4. The Solution of Overthrowing the System that Oppresses us
Kaczynski posits that in the coming days, the technological system will go one of two routes: it will collapse, or it will come to control everything:
“162. The system is currently engaged in a desperate struggle to overcome certain problems that threaten its survival, among which the problems of human behavior are the most important. If the system succeeds in acquiring sufficient control over human behavior quickly enough, it will probably survive. Otherwise it will break down. We think the issue will most likely be resolved within the next several decades, say 40 to 100 years.
163. Suppose the system survives the crisis of the next several decades. By that time it will have to have solved, or at least brought under control, the principal problems that confront it, in particular that of “socializing” human beings; that is, making people sufficiently docile so that heir behavior no longer threatens the system. That being accomplished, it does not appear that there would be any further obstacle to the development of technology, and it would presumably advance toward its logical conclusion, which is complete control over everything on Earth, including human beings and all other important organisms. The system may become a unitary, monolithic organization, or it may be more or less fragmented and consist of a number of organizations coexisting in a relationship that includes elements of both cooperation and competition, just as today the government, the corporations and other large organizations both cooperate and compete with one another. Human freedom mostly will have vanished, because individuals and small groups will be impotent vis-a-vis large organizations armed with supertechnology and an arsenal of advanced psychological and biological tools for manipulating human beings, besides instruments of surveillance and physical coercion. Only a small number of people will have any real power, and even these probably will have only very limited freedom, because their behavior too will be regulated; just as today our politicians and corporation executives can retain their positions of power only as long as their behavior remains within certain fairly narrow limits.”
For Kaczynski, a collapse of technologized society is preferable. However, the system cannot be changed from within, but must be overthrown:
“140. We hope we have convinced the reader that the system cannot be reformed in such a way as to reconcile freedom with technology. The only way out is to dispense with the industrial-technological system altogether. This implies revolution, not necessarily an armed uprising, but certainly a radical and fundamental change in the nature of society.”
Kaczynski believes that the best way to bring about this collapse is slowly, as opposed to a sudden destruction of the present order:
“167. The industrial system will not break down purely as a result of revolutionary action. It will not be vulnerable to revolutionary attack unless its own internal problems of development lead it into very serious difficulties. So if the system breaks down it will do so either spontaneously, or through a process that is in part spontaneous but helped along by revolutionaries. If the breakdown is sudden, many people will die, since the world’s population has become so overblown that it cannot even feed itself any longer without advanced technology. Even if the breakdown is gradual enough so that reduction of the population can occur more through lowering of the birth rate than through elevation of the death rate, the process of de- industrialization probably will be very chaotic and involve much suffering. It is naive to think it likely that technology can be phased out in a smoothly managed, orderly way, especially since the technophiles will fight stubbornly at every step. Is it therefore cruel to work for the breakdown of the system? Maybe, but maybe not. In the first place, revolutionaries will not be able to break the system down unless it is already in enough trouble so that there would be a good chance of its eventually breaking down by itself anyway; and the bigger the system grows, the more disastrous the consequences of its breakdown will be; so it may be that revolutionaries, by hastening the onset of the breakdown, will be reducing the extent of the disaster.”
As for the consequences of eliminating modern technology:
“185. As for the negative consequences of eliminating industrial society — well, you can’t eat your cake and have it too. To gain one thing you have to sacrifice another.”
Kaczynski seems to believe that the collapse of modern society is necessary, but will almost certainly involve a great deal of suffering. On the later point, Kaczynski is absolutely correct. If actually implemented, a total de-technologization scheme would indeed be the most calamitous disaster ever inflicted on the human race. First, the sick and elderly would die first as the means necessary to keep them alive become unavailable or inoperable. Next, the standard of living for peoples across the world will begin to drop precipitously as jobs are eliminated and goods and services become progressively more scarce. Eventually, utility services are shut down as well, finally depriving the people of running water and electricity. The only method of survival for most individuals in the short-term is theft to supply their basic needs. After most of the food remaining from the technologized era is consumed and the animals are all slaughtered, cannibalism will be the only recourse to survival. Some individuals with knowledge and ability for agriculture will be able to plant food and continue on, but the vast majority of the population who have no skills relevant for basic survival will die. Man will be returned to a primitive state and all of his own enemies, which he had previously conquered, will return once again. Disease, famine, predators, child mortality, and the struggle to supply basic needs will all haunt him just as they did his ancestors. The story of human society, for those still alive to tell it, will be of humble beginnings into a steady rise of civilization that grew exponentially at the industrial revolution, only to ingloriously collapse back into its original state of deprivation and despair. The only hope left for that unhappy bunch is that civilization may rise again, and that there might be yet another industrial revolution, and that there will not be another Ted Kaczynski to foul it all up.
What are we to make of this Unabomber Manifesto? Modern society does indeed have its problems, as Kaczynski illustrates. Many of these, especially those related to mental health, appear to be only increasing in recent years. However, the solution to such problems is not to throw off all technology and return to the stone age. The troubles of our present age should be faced head-on, not avoided in pursuit of some happier past that wasn’t actually as happy as Kaczynski would have us believe. The industrial revolution and our modern technological state have allowed for higher standards of living than any in the past would have even imagined. The basic questions of food, shelter, and clothing are easily and readily met today. Survival is no longer a bitter struggle, and man has both the time and energy to devote himself to other interests and passions. In the past, such frivolities would never have been possible for the masses. What Kaczynski advocates for is not just the loss of the technology that has made this possible, but also much of what us human and what makes life worth living. If our existence is wholly composed of mere survival, what that existence even worth? What makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom if all we live for is to make it to the next day?
Under all the layers of argumentation, what Kaczynski fundamentally advocates is a total rejection of the modern world. At the very least, we cannot accuse him of living in self-contradiction. He voluntarily rejected the comforts of modern life, and all those that wish to emulate him are free to do so. Anyone that reads his manifesto and believes his views to be correct have the right to similarly reject all technology in favor of a primitive life. However, they should not coerce the unwilling majority into joining their self-imposed exile from civilization. Let those who wish to enjoy the fruits of technology do so, and let those who wish to avoid them do so as well. As in all things, individuals should be free to make voluntarily decisions concerning themselves.
Ever since the manifesto’s publication in 1995, it has continued to draw strong reactions from readers. For some, it is the ravings of a lunatic who has spent too long in his cabin. For others, they have found points of resonance with Kaczynski, and it isn’t hard to see why. The idea that there might be severe problems in modern society and that mistakes have been made on the path to get us where we are today is both plausible and understandable. However, we should always look at things in the context of the bigger picture. Man’s condition has drastically improved over the last 300 years, and we can’t even imagine what the next 300 years might hold. We have our problems today; that much cannot be denied. But we have always had problems. Our ancient ancestors had their set of problems, just as we have ours today. Our aim should always be to improve and make the problems of tomorrow a little more manageable than the problems of today. In this fashion, the human spirit and conditions continually improves, one day at a time.