I have recently enjoyed watching Netflix’s mini-series Manhunt, which details the life and crimes of Ted Kaczynski- better known as the infamous Unabomber. Although already familiar with Kaczynski’s reign of terror, I found the emphasis this series placed on the intellectual rationale for his crimes compelling and uncomfortably relatable. As the episodes rolled on- many of them touching on deeply moving and tragic experiences from his past- my feelings of sympathy toward Kaczynski grew and grew almost to the point of being all-consuming. Yet by the final scenes featuring his arrest, trial and incarceration, this feeling had morphed into one of condemnation. I will here explain why.
In September 1995 the Washington Post published Ted Kaczynski’s 35,000 word political manifesto in its entirety. The manifesto- Industrial Society and its Future- was an extended polemic against the unrelenting proliferation of technological ‘advancement,’ and the destructive effects a machine-based society has on individual freedom. The arguments presented in the manifesto are lucid, organised and sequential. It’s clear from even a cursory reading of the text that Kaczynski was no intellectual dullard. If not totally original, the ideas in Industrial Society and its Future nonetheless point toward an individual with a keen ability to both analyse the present and think prophetically about the future. Consider the problem of individual and collective anxiety. When reflecting on the internally anxious state of humanity, Kaczynski first writes of the conditions facing an individual within primitive society. Such individuals clearly knew that peaceful existence was tempered by an awareness of the many and varied threats to life; disease, famine, animal predators etc. Each carried the distinct possibility of sickness and death. The primitive man, however, tended to accept these realities stoically, as they were simply a part of the arbitrary nature of life. The legends of Norse mythology, for example, are replete with the idea that everything in life is predetermined, and that fate must be accepted ‘without question or rebellion.’ (1)
The situation facing modern man is vastly different. Kaczynski maintains that the origins of the anxiety we feel in the present age have a false premise. They are a product of our own evil and totalitarian instincts, and their content does not reflect actual life and death concerns. He writes that ‘threats to the modern individual tend to be MAN-MADE (his capitalisation). They are not the results of chance but are IMPOSED on him by other persons whose decisions he, as an individual, is unable to influence. Consequently he feels frustrated, humiliated and angry. (S. 69) Although not explicitly mentioned in this early part of the text, analysis of the later sections make it clear that the method in which we willingly sacrifice our own autonomy is through the development and widespread use of technology. Technology in the short term functions as a sort of valium in which we distract ourselves from the difficulties of life in an attempt to make everything easier and more pleasurable. Ultimately, however, the technologically obsessed society leads to widespread nihilism, anxiety and the loss of freedom. Cautioning against defining the idea of freedom as a sort of rampant permissiveness, Kaczynski locates the heart of freedom as a form of self-autonomy that’s free from the manipulation of organisations and institutions, whilst acknowledging that this freedom must not impede on the freedom of another. For Kaczynski, freedom means ‘having power; not the power to control other people but the power to control the circumstances of one’s own life’ (S.94). Technology may give us the illusion of freedom, but in reality it creates an embedded sense if dependency that grows more acute the more we incorporate it into our daily lives. Far from being truly free agents, we are merely slaves living in an pleasurable illusion. This makes us anxious, although we may not be full cognizant of the fact. Kierkegaard referred to this phenomenon as the ‘sickness unto death.’
Of particular interest to me is Kaczynski’s understanding of the dichotomy between how technological advancements are presented to the public versus how they actually function in reality. That is, new technology is almost always presented to society as being a servant; an additional tool that we can use to help us to what we were already doing more effectively. It’s also sold as offering an essential ‘benefit to humanity’, a notion dismissed by Kaczynski as false (S.87). The suspension of critical assessment under the overarching dogma of ‘progress’ is for Kaczynski the greatest deception here. Under what category of a ‘benefit to humanity’ should we place the creation of the H-Bomb? Moreover, it appears woven into the DNA of technology that as soon as we start using it it quickly becomes our master. Our lives are then re-arranged around technology, not vice versa. This trend appears to be an inevitable feature of post-industrial society.
Yet the problem facing anyone attempting to offer a balanced interpretation of Kaczynski lies in the fact that he is, of course, a calculating, shrewd murderer. The emotional devastation caused to surviving victims and families must always be remembered as the primary location of our sympathy. The fusion of biography and ideology, however, has perhaps never been as complex as it is in this case, making it difficult to merely dismiss the man as a raving lunatic. Whatever one makes of the psychological impact of his repressed and abusive life, Kaczynski’s Manifesto deserves a response, least of all because its issues are so pertinent to our own digital age. It’s in this spirit that I offer the following observations and criticisms:
- Despite the pertinent insights of the Manifesto, the reality is that Kaczynski sought to spread his ideology in a fraudulent manner. Instead of legitimising one’s ideas through rigorous research and dialogue, Kaczynski opted to instead use the terror created by his crimes to garnish an audience he would not have received otherwise. Aside from the tragedy inflicted on victims, this cheating method is insulting to those thinkers and intellectuals who actually have to work hard to ensure their voices are heard.
- Kaczynski’s understanding of freedom is naive and contradicted by his own actions. It’s unlikely that individuals within any given era of history have enjoyed the freedom to embody the values of a full autonomy that Kaczynski advocates in the Manifesto. The incorporation of individuals into wider communities is a core feature of our humanity. With community comes culture, structure and organisation. Above all, community results in the inevitability of hierarchy. (2) To a greater or lesser extent, hierarchy will always restrict personal autonomy. More important is Kaczynsnki’s own betrayal of his own principles. In choosing to blow-up innocent people, Kaczynski violated the autonomy of other individuals. The irony of this is apparently lost him. Instead of considering the impact of his ideas on the freedom of others, ideology took precedence over short-term violence. In his justification of this violence as a servant of a greater cause, Kaczynski embodies the very instinct (present in individuals as well as organisations) of restricting the freedom of others under the guise of some greater ‘ethical’ purpose.
- My final point is more of a philosophical observation. In my view, Kaczynski does not take the problem of individual evil seriously enough. Kaczynski appears to locate evil solely within the power structures of organisations and institutions, which is of course true enough. However, these institutions are made up of individuals, and the evil expressed by the collective will always find its origins in the corrupt desires of the individuals who contribute to and influence the whole. On this point I cannot help but be reminded of the Biblical narrative of Cain’s murder of Abel in the book of Genesis. What is striking about this story is the arbitrary nature of evil. Cain’s motives for the murder are not explicitly stated, although jealousy was probably the likely trigger. Whatever the reason, the narrative highlights the potential for evil that lies in all of us. It’s not just about an evil ‘out there,’ but is also about the evil within our own hearts.
- Like many revolutionary ideas, the broad aims might be clear but the devil is in the details. It’s not at all clear from the Manifesto exactly how Kaczynski defines ‘technology.’ Is it just computers and the internet? What about medical science? Does technology include the typewriter upon which the Manifesto was written? What about the bicycle Kaczynski rode into the town library? The bombs themselves- were they examples of technology? The lack of clarity on these points weakens his overall argument.
Kaczynski’s opinions on the totalitarian and destructive nature of technology are forcefully argued, but not unique. Orwell, Huxley, Postman and others have, in their own ways, warned us about the dehumanising nature of modern life. What makes Kaczynski unique is his the journey of own life, and how this interacted with is ideology. For me, Kaczynski’s Manifesto is uncomfortable reading, resulting in a sort of inner tension between sympathy and condemnation. I agree with much of what he writes, yet I am continuously confronted with the realities of what he chose to do with his life. The ultimate tragedy of Kaczynski’s Manifesto is that it had the potential to speak to a generation lost in a technological haze, but through his own actions is now tarnished by darkness.
1. Donna Rosenberg. World Mythology, 2nd Edition (Illinois: NTC, 1994), 205.
2. See: Harold J. Leavitt. Top Down: Why Hierarchies Are Here To Stay and How To Manage Them More Effectively (Harvard: Harvard Business School Press, 2004)