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Summary: Industrial Society and Its Future (The Unabomber Manifesto) – Love Your Work, Episode 279
Industrial Society and Its Future, is otherwise known as “The Unabomber Manifesto,” written by Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynsnki is a terrorist who killed three people, and injured twenty-three others, by sending bombs through the mail, between 1978 and 1995. He used his terror campaign to exploit the negativity bias of media and pressure the Washington Post and New York Times into publishing his 35,000-word anti-technology manifesto.
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Obviously, what Kaczynski did was horrible, but his manifesto is a thought-provoking, albeit extreme, perspective on technology. And so here is my summary of Industrial Society and Its Future.
Leftism creeps towards totalitarianism
The manifesto begins with a seemingly out-of-place rant about leftism creeping toward totalitarianism: According to Kaczynski, leftists have low self-esteem, are defeatist, and hate themselves. They hate success, and feel the groups they try to protect are inferior. They are overburdened by guilt over their natural drives, and so want to turn into issues of morality things that don’t have anything to do with morality, such as policing the use of words to which they themselves have applied negative connotations.
Anti-left is not far-right
When people hear anti-leftism, they tend to assume the person with those views is far-right. But it’s worth noting that’s not Kaczynski’s view. A quote, for example:
[Leftists] want to preserve African American culture. But in what does this preservation of African American culture consist? It can hardly consist in anything more than eating black-style food, listening to black-style music, wearing black-style clothing and going to a black- style church or mosque. In other words, it can express itself only in superficial matters. In all ESSENTIAL respects most leftists of the oversocialized type want to make the black man conform to white, middle-class ideals.
In sum, Kaczynski is anti-left, because ultimately leftists still work to preserve the industrial system.
This appears to come out of “left-field,” but the meat of the manifesto is more coherent, and later we’ll better understand why he brought up his views on leftism.
Industrial society robs us of the “Power Process”
As industrial society progresses, Kaczynski says, people lose more and more freedom. This makes them miserable, because it robs them of what he calls the “power process.”
The power process consists of four main elements:
- A goal
- Effort put forth toward that goal
- The attainment of that goal
- Autonomy in pursuit of that goal
To be happy, a person needs goals that require effort, a reasonable rate of success in achieving those goals, and personal control throughout that process.
We replace the power process with “surrogate activities”
You might think we, in industrial society, have many goals we pursue and attain through effort, but Kaczynski says we merely pursue what he calls “surrogate activities.” Surrogate activities are artificial goals, because they aren’t for the purposes of meeting our basic biological needs, and so aren’t totally fulfilling.
He says we merely think surrogate activities, such as our jobs, are fulfilling, because we have to do very little in industrial society to meet our basic biological needs – such as eating, or having shelter. So, we’ve never felt true fulfillment.
All we do is either easy or impossible
He says there are three kinds of drives we experience in the pursuit of goals: 1) minimal effort, 2) serious effort and 3) impossible. The power process, he says, is more about group two, or serious effort.
Our surrogate activities require minimal effort. But at the same time, many other things are impossible in industrial society, because we don’t have control over them. For example, our security depends upon decisions made by others, such as safety standards at a nuclear power plant, how much pesticide is in our foods, and how much pollution is in our air. Somebody else makes these decisions for us, and in many cases we can’t even know if what we’re being told is true.
As technology grants freedoms, it takes them away
He points out that technology seems to grant us freedoms, but it really takes them away. As each advance in technology is collectively accepted, we lose control in some new area.
Cars have become so ubiquitous you can’t walk in many places. So you need to get further integrated into the industrial system by getting a drivers’ license, insurance, and registration. Or, you can take the bus and have even less freedom.
As we’re increasingly able to alter our genes, it will become harder to enforce a code of ethics. First, genetic engineering will be used to treat genetic diseases, then further alterations will be seen as “good.” The upper class will decide what’s good or not, until we have a genetically-engineered upper class, and a distantly-lower class taking genetic rolls of the dice. (This is already happening, as gene splicing is being used to treat diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, meanwhile a scientist in China crossed the agreed-upon ethics line and genetically-engineered children.)
We’ll outsource decisions to computers, until we no longer understand ourselves the decisions the computers are making. So we’ll keep them running to keep the system afloat. At that point, the machines will be in control.
Kaczynski thinks mood-altering drugs are over-prescribed, often just to deal with the psychological stress of living in industrial society. If more people need, say, antidepressants to tolerate living in a depressing world, that world is then allowed to get even more depressing, until the drugs are a requirement. (This reminds me of the soma everyone in modern society takes in the dystopian science-fiction book, Brave New World. That book has also been made into a series.)
My thoughts: Coronavirus and the power process
I couldn’t help but think about this loss of control Kaczynski describes as I watched people’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic. While I personally chose to follow protocols and get a vaccine, it was an interesting moment when industrial society clashed with individual autonomy.
To sustain industrial society – which is so ubiquitous it’s impossible to “opt-out” – institutions deemed it necessary to make blanket decisions on the behalf of individuals. Some people weren’t cool with that. Whether their reasoning made logical sense was irrelevant – the emotional roots of their reactions were understandable.
Industrial society and the gig economy
One thought-provoking quote from the manifesto sounds like a prediction of the gig economy.
It has been suggested, for example, that a great development of the service industries might provide work for human beings. Thus people would spent [sic] their time shining each other’s shoes, driving each other around in taxicabs, making handicrafts for one another, waiting on each other’s tables, etc. This seems to [me] a thoroughly contemptible way for the human race to end up, and [I] doubt that many people would find fulfilling lives in such pointless busy-work. They would seek other, dangerous outlets (drugs, crime, “cults,” hate groups) unless they were biologically or psychologically engineered to adapt them to such a way of life.
Industrial society makes us fear mortality
Your immediate reaction might be that industrial society is worth the lack of control. It increases average lifespan, and prevents early deaths from infant mortality, disease, or relatively easy fixes, such as an appendicitis.
Kaczynski says our obsession with longevity and staying youthful is a symptom of our lack of fulfillment, due to the disruption of the power process. If we lived lives full of autonomous struggle toward goals that directly met our biological needs, we would be more at peace with aging and death. A quote:
It is not the primitive man, who has used his body daily for practical purposes, who fears the deterioration of age, but the modern man, who has never had a practical use for his body beyond walking from his car to his house.
Activism is a surrogate activity
He then ties the disruption of the power process back to his criticism of leftism. He says leftists’ surrogate activity is activism, or joining social movements. They have a goal, and struggle toward achieving that goal, but they’ll never be satisfied. This, he says, is how leftism creeps toward totalitarianism. Once one goal is achieved, another will be invented.
The proposed plan: let the system destroy itself
His entire manifesto is written from the perspective of “we.” He poses as a group of people called “FC,” standing for “Freedom Club,” and presents a strategy for his goal of destroying industrial society, and replacing it with primitive society.
Kaczynski points out that modernity separates us from our local communities. We break ties to family and move, so we can work a job, in the name of efficiency. He advocates for living in small groups, and growing his anti-technology movement by having as many children as possible.
The conflict line: masses vs. power-holding elites
Interestingly, he says to draw the conflict line in this movement between the masses and the power-holding elites, and cautions specifically against turning it into a conflict between those who are revolutionaries and those who are not.
This is some impressive strategic thinking, as it was also mentioned in the book, Blueprint for Revolution. I interviewed the author, Srdja Popovic, on episode 179. Popovic pointed out, for example, that Occupy Wall Street was a poorly-branded movement, because it drew a conflict line between those who could participate by camping out in the financial district, and those who could not. Calling it “the 99%” would have drawn a more effective conflict line.
Don’t strive for political power
Counterintuitively, Kaczynski advises to not try to gain political power. He says that if the “green” party were to get voted into office, it would cause massive unemployment, they would get voted out of office, and it would turn people off to the party. He supported free trade agreements such as NAFTA, because he felt it would further integrate the industrial system, making it more likely it would collapse, and causing such a collapse to be more widespread.
He says to be anti-left – and this is where we start to see the motives behind his seemingly-out-of-place opening rant. He doesn’t want to see leftists take over his movement, because he thinks they would replace the goal of eliminating modern technology with their own goals. He says leftists will never give up technology because ultimately they crave power.
Basically, he doesn’t want to work within any existing structures of industrial society. He instead wants to see living in industrial society get so bad that the hardships can only be blamed on the system.
Small-scale technology is more robust than large-scale
He says small-scale technology is robust to shocks – local things such as planting crops, raising livestock, or making clothes. He points out that when the Roman Empire fell, people in villages could still make a water wheel or steel. But the aqueducts were never rebuilt, their road-construction techniques were lost, and urban sanitation was forgotten.
Media manipulation, aka, why the Unabomber killed people
Many people these days are surprised to find out that the Unabomber Manifesto contains intelligent and coherent ideas. They merely think of Ted Kaczynski as a mentally-ill murderer. If he’s so intelligent, why did he kill people?
In the manifesto itself, Kaczynski explains that he felt this was the only way to get his message out. He reasons that if he had merely submitted his writings to a publisher, they would have been rejected. If they had been published, they wouldn’t have attracted readers, because everyone is too distracted by entertainment. So, he says, “In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.”
Our obsession with violence caused violence
As explained in my Trust Me, I’m Lying summary, humans have a negativity bias, and so media has a negativity bias. Ironically, this is a case where our paranoia about negative events apparently caused negative events. Newspapers and news shows covered Kaczynski’s terror campaign for more than fifteen years, until he sent his manuscript, typed on a typewriter, to several newspapers, essentially saying: Publish this, and I’ll stop killing people.
What Kaczynski did to get coverage makes the tactics Ryan Holiday confessed to look like actions of a saint. His bombings were “pseudo-events” with very real consequences.
Assuming this was truly Kaczynski’s strategy – and not a backwards-rationalization he came up with after doing what he simply wanted to do – was it an effective strategy? His reputation precedes him, such that people resist taking his manifesto seriously, given what he did. While he got his words published, even nearly thirty years after his last bombing, it’s hard to see his words through the dark cloud of his crimes.
The manifesto helped catch the Unabomber
Publishing the manifesto was an effective strategy for law enforcement in catching Kaczynski. Attorney General Janet Reno gave the okay for the Post and Times to publish the manifesto. This put it in front of enough people the FBI was finally able to identify the anonymous killer. Kaczynski’s brother’s wife recognized him from what he said in the manifesto.
Was this the explosion before the implosion?
Reading Kaczynski, I can’t help but wonder, If he could have held off a little longer or been born in a different time, might he might have been able to tolerate society?
Kaczynski’s terror campaign spanned a peak in what Marshall McLuhan calls “mechanical technology.” As his campaign was ending, in 1995, the internet was proliferating – an “electric technology.”
This was a world where having a job meant commuting to an office, following a dress code, and working within a hierarchical organization. Once you were home, your only contact with others besides your family or people you called on the phone was media fed to you through your television or radio, or through objects that had to be transported, such as paper books, magazines, records, or VHS tapes.
The internet has de-mechanized our world
But the internet has further de-mechanized our world. More creators, such as myself, work with near-complete autonomy, outside of traditional hierarchies. People connect with one another around interests. We communicate without borders.
As Marshall McLuhan described in Understanding Media (which I summarized on episode 248), mechanical technology “explodes” our world – an unfortunate but apt metaphor in this context. Mechanical technology compromises our individuality to turn us into cogs that fit together, while electric technology “implodes,” allowing our individuality to once again blossom.
In 1998, the Washington Post reported that Kaczynski nearly confessed to a psychologist, in the late 60s, that he fantasized about being a woman. He didn’t confess, and later cited that as the moment he decided to become violent. Maybe if his gender dysphoria had been more acceptable, his path may have been different?
Today’s society may not be the small-scale society Kaczynski envisioned, and this electric implosion certainly has its problems, especially as it conflicts with the structures in place from the mechanical world. But, maybe it would be just a little less pressure, so as to prevent trying to blow up the place.
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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »
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