book-reviews

Technological Slavery

by Theodore Kaczynski

Rating: ★★★★

The subtitle explains what this book is: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a "The Unabomber". For people who live under rocks, the Unabomber was an ex-mathematics lecturer who retreated from civilisation and later sent a lot of bombs via the US mail, killing and injuring people. He evaded the FBI for 18 years and got turned in by his brother shortly after getting the Washington Post to publish his manifesto -- which makes up the core of this collection.

During his trial, Kaczynski's lawyers (against his wishes) tried to plead insanity. Kaczynski fought this portrayal to the utmost -- trying to dismiss his lawyers, and finally taking a plea bargain rather than allow it -- but unfortunately the public seem to have agreed with this view, and he's often portrayed as crazy. Reading his writing, it's hard to agree with this portrayal, he's highly coherent and occasionally insightful, and his depiction of modern technologically-enhanced life as deeply harmful is easy to sympathise with. It seems far more likely that popular attention can only conceive of people who kill for a cause as mentally disturbed, a dangerous falsehood. As Gary Greenberg, a psychologist in communication with Kaczynski wrote:

A society unaccustomed to understanding individuals' behaviour as anything other than the result of the psychological states -- their childhood traumas and neurochemical imbalances, say -- cannot account for the political dimensions of everyday life. It cannot, for instance, raise the question of exactly what is wrong with what Kaczynski did. We perhaps could stand to be reminded of the public agreements that stipulate why we aren't supposed to kill, no matter the cause, and then perhaps we could decide what other people and practices are falling short of the standard he violated. But the Unabomber case can't force this much-needed conversation if Kaczynski is merely a madman. Then it's enough to know that he is not one of us. But he is.

Of course, stating that the man was not mad does not mean that I agree with him, nor does finding him insightful on some points mean I'm in convinced by them all. Logical and orderly though most of his argumentation looks, there are leaps of faith needed: for example, to accept his suggestion that abandoning technology now will be a lesser disaster than what comes -- as he himself says, it is easier to predict that a plan for the future won't come to pass than predict one that will. Similarly, a gaping logical flaw in the plan to revert to a pre-technological age is that we were once there and are no longer -- even if technology can be shed from humanity, it will just grow again, and with no means of informing the people of the future of the perils, it is sheer faith to imagine they too would cast it off, so why attempt to delay rather than finding a way to bring the system into line with the goals he outlines?

The various essays and letters attached alongside the central manifesto paint the picture of a committed and abrasive revolutionary attempting to prevent his message from being diluted. His rebuttal of the anarcho-primitivists (a group most inclined to support him) is particularly amusing (I mean not that it is wrong, and it's admirable that he holds accuracy over favourable reception, but you do wonder if he's capable of retaining any friends). Several times it seems he has been asked similar questions on some issues, some even seeming to be answered in his manifesto. A jarring piece of censorship is evident in the collection regarding his essay Hit Where it Hurts, wherein he describes (with humorous appellations of 'through legal means' to get it past his prison guards) suitable targets for enemies of technological progress to strike -- thankfully a full copy is available online.

An interesting collection with some valid and insightful points, Technological Slavery deserves examination mostly for the central manifesto, but the additional documents do add extra perspective.