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The Unabomber's Pen Pal (chronicle.com)
74 points by gruseom on May 22, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 63 comments

"The primary concern of Kaczynski's writings is freedom, and he argues that the complex systems required by modern technology necessarily force individuals to give up too much liberty in the bargain."

Wow, where have I heard that before?

There is a common theme, in a number of these rants, whether its Kaczynski, Stallman, or Joy. The theme is that complexity begats obscurity and our inability to predict the behavior of mostly obscured, highly interconnected systems exposes us to an 'unnecessary' risk.

I am not persuaded by the 'enslaving', 'grey goo', or 'police state' scenarios, but I do recognize the potential harm here. Generally however we've been adapting as these challenges have come up and I expect to continue adapting. I have yet to hear a credible argument for going back to living in caves (other than its demonstrable that with population management and technological restrictions one could create a stable non-growing human population).

> highly interconnected systems exposes us to an 'unnecessary' risk

Kaczynski's arguments are not mostly about the risk of technology, they are mostly about how technology forces us into ever narrowing conformist behavior. He makes the point about how it now impractical to function in North America without a car. You are largely denied your freedom to walk. Try to walk through most counties and see how that works out. Similarly, see how it's becoming almost impossible to legally live without owning a computer. You increasingly need one to remain in compliance with the IRS and so forth. Your freedom to forgo computer ownership, or even usage, is being taken.

That's an interesting take on it. As a counter point my adult daughter lives in Portland and has no car, one of her roommates doesn't even have a license to drive, so its not even a 'temporary' thing in that case. They do however have computers, and while my wife's uncle does not, it is certainly becoming like 'not having a phone' was to my generation.

That being said, how much would you say your claim of "impractical to function" includes some pre-defined notion of "function" ? Not trying to be circular here, there are real people who "function" (which I consider the basics, live, eat, work) without either cars or computers. I do not know if they use public transit to cross long distances or not.

Portland is one of very few exceptions. Easily more than 95% of the US population needs a car to get around.

No, more than 95% of the US land area needs a car. Quite a many people are actually living in the packed metro areas nowadays.

The term "metro area" almost belies the argument though--most people who live in any given "metro area" are in the rings of suburban hell, not in the city center. And precious few city centers actually have functional public transportation by first-world standards.

The point is more general and it's not worth getting hung up on specific examples and technologies. The more general issue is population density and industrial society force people to behave in narrow parameters, or the "system" doesn't work.

This is why 200 years ago cultures all over the world varied quite dramatically, but now in the industrial age they are ever more similar, and people behave in increasingly similar ways. Even legal systems have undergone rapid convergence in the last 50 years.

Kaczynski's view seems a bit narrow—he takes a small portion of freedom and complains about how technology eliminates this freedom. But there's more to freedom than just the freedom of not adapting. Sure, it's becoming hard to get by without a computer, so in a way, we're being forced to use computers. But at the same time, computers give us a lot of freedom we didn't have before. Ironically enough, Kaczynski could've probably used this freedom to self-publish his work on the Internet. What Kaczynski fails to realize is that technology creates an increase in net freedom. More tech means more overall freedom, which is what really matters.

You don't at all understand the arguments. Suggest you read, or at least skim, the manifesto.

I've read portions of the manifesto, like the one you mentioned, and I'm not claiming that I have a full understanding of all of Kaczynski's arguments, but I don't think I deserve such a vacuous and condescending response. I'd like to hear what you think is wrong with what I said.

I do know that he specifically focuses on how technologies gradually advance so that we're forced to use them. He refers to this as "control" and describes how technologies don't seem harmful independently, but as each technology forces itself upon us, the combination becomes more and more controlling, until we're completely controlled by the whole. It's as if technology is slowly chipping away at the foundation of freedom through compromise, or something like that.

Now, what I said was that he focuses on the controlling aspect of what were at first seemingly innocent technologies that were absolutely beneficial, but he doesn't see the increase in freedom that the same technologies provide over the long term. Yes, there are stop lights, roads, licenses, and jobs are further away from home, forcing us to own cars—but at the same time, you can go anywhere you want within hours instead of days. Is it controlled? Yes. But even with the control, the total amount of freedom the individual has is now increased, because one is no longer confined to a small area.

Kaczynski uses the neighbor scenario—there are two neighbors, and one is more powerful than the other. This more powerful neighbor asks the other to give him land, to which the weak one says "no." So the powerful one offers a compromise where he only gets half of the land he had asked for. The weak neighbor can't refuse. This goes on and on until the powerful neighbor has all the land. My argument here is that while the powerful neighbor might be taking away land, the big picture is that the powerful neighbor is also offering the weak neighbor lots more land somewhere else. Yes, technology takes our traditional freedom (the already established plots of land), but simultaneously extends our freedom in new directions (new plots of land). Kaczynski only views freedom as something that can be subtracted but not added to.

Perhaps I understand his arguments incorrectly, but this is what I've gotten out of what I've read. If you don't agree, go ahead and explain what's wrong, but don't just make an empty claim like that.

You make a good point that loss of some kinds of freedom might be compensated by gains of another kind. But I think you are incorrect in implying that by making this observation you are exposing a logical flaw in Kaczynski's argument. The things that you view as great about cars and computers (such as their ability to connect us with friends over long distances, say) are viewed with suspicion by Kaczynski. He thinks that, at the end of the day, these things are not fundamental to human freedom or happiness. At the same time, things that he thinks are fundamentally important are attacked in obvious ways by the omnipresence of cars and computers. Thus, his objection to these two technologies takes into account your idea that gains and losses need to be weighed against each other.

Of course, you can reply that Kaczynski is stupidly ignoring the positive effects of these technologies and that he is wrong when he asserts that the things that they give us are not fundamental to human happiness. To argue this, you will have to make certain claims about human psychology. Obviously there are plenty of things that we enjoy but that could be removed from our lives without causing great harm to us (Skyrim, for example). There are other things that are integral to our happiness (the love and respect of our family, for example). Kaczynski is arguing that technology attacks things in the second category while giving us lots of things in the first category. His underlying argument is that modern individuals have, through adoption of advanced technology, lost touch with fundamental sources of happiness. The setting in which to substantively debate Kaczynski is the setting of psychology, I think: what really makes us happy?

>You increasingly need one to remain in compliance with the IRS and so forth

Paper tax forms are still available, and tax payments can still be made with checks. How do you need a computer to stay in compliance with the IRS?

The external costs of staying in compliance with the IRS without those forms are increasing. In both a relative and an absolute sense: they become more inconvenient and hard to even do, and on top of that there's an expectation you can get taxes done in the same amount of time as someone using a computer. Have this happen a thousand different little ways, and not having a computer becomes effectively impossible.

But this argument based on "freedom" is silly.

I am rather sure Ted's argument isn't that it's difficult to pay your taxes. His argument is for "complete freedom" from what he views as technology. Social structures such as taxation are a form of technological innovation.

In his view, you wouldn't be enslaved to technology because it's difficult to pay your taxes with a computer instead of paper now(which, coincidentally, is also technology) but that you are enslaved to technology by virtue of being forced into this structure of taxation and the social contract.

At least that's the way I see it. It's the only way I can reconcile his philosophy. And it sounds like crap.

Is not an unreasonable philosophy to get pissed off with the bullshit of modern life and to go and live in the woods for a bit. Lots of people do that at one point or another.

The unreasonable, or crazy, or just plain mean, miserable and bitter part is his thinking that he needs to save everyone else from themselves and to then try and do it by sending pipe bombs through the post. Whatever the lucidity of his arguments regarding the dangers of technology, they were all well spelled out in myth thousands of years before and are a foundation of our culture, so he is not a founder of some dangerous new philosphy, but rather is an arrogant murderous slave to one of the oldest ones.

The restrictions of freedom here come from the IRS and the government, not computers and technology.

No, his ideas are not worthy of much debate, since they are so deeply flawed. What constitutes "technology", and who gets to decide at which level of progress we say "This far and no further"? The answers to these will necessarily be completely arbitrary, since the scope of the actual problems being solved is so poorly understood.

If a convincing case can be made that particular technologies are causing specific harm, they should be addressed on a case-by-case basis as best we can. Instead, Ted is a modern day Don Quixote who couldn't cope with society and chose to tilt at windmills, at the unfortunate expense of innocent blood and suffering.

His intellectual value is largely cautionary.


Anti-technologists by and large seem incapable of actually understanding technology by any reasonable definition (and being magnanimous, I would even permit something as asinine as, "silicon-based Turing machines", if only to make the point that I don't have to agree with the definition for it to be reasonable). One of the reasons I like Nick Carr is that he argues against particular usages of technology more than technology itself.

My definition is "applied science", which in a broad stroke includes constructed shelters like log cabins and loincloths.

1) Enrolled in Harvard at 16, PhD in mathematics from U of M, assistant professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley at 25 - I think he was more than capable of understanding technology.

2) See my earlier comment - it's not about any specific technology! Your comment and parent comment indicate that you both haven't actually read the manifesto and are thus completely unqualified to discuss it or form opinions on it.


1) Being capable of doing something doesn't mean you've done it. For instance, you're capable of reading comprehension, but you completely missed the fact that I wasn't attacking your damsel in distress. I am actually talking about all anti-tech commentators.

2) Of course it's not about any specific technology. That's precisely my criticism. If they were specific, then a serious discussion could be had. But because they can't quite figure out what they themselves are critical of in a precise fashion, they're unable to get anyone to listen.

You're welcome to provide substance to this by pasting in Kaczinsky's definition of technology.

Have you actually read "Industrial Society and Its Future" without going out of your way to be dismissive about it? If so, why haven't you asked the man himself to answer those criticisms? OK, I don't expect you to do all the legwork, of course, but it's not completely terrible that one out of the thousands of philosophers in this country actually has done that legwork.

I tried and eventually had to stop, as the leaps in logic were too great for me to follow. After that, I had no desire to have any further contact with him whatsoever. Life is too short for bad logic.

Without having read anything, his course of action to address his "felt unease" (if I may borrow from von Mises) was to attack individual innovators whose only crime in his mind was pushing technology forward. He didn't try to convince his fellow man of the rightness of his ideas, he wanted to force it upon us all in his own crusadering way, even going so far as to use the threat of force to gain access to a forum. The FBI only allowed publication because they believed someone would recognize his particular flavor of sociopathy...and they were right.

Criminologists may be interested in him as a case study (like a psychological autopsy), but I wouldn't want to read him for fun.

It's really too bad that Kaczynski was trying to publish his work back in the 1970s and 1980s. These days, he could have just published it on the internet, and that way plenty of people would have been able to read it.

Destroy your computers, after you like and retweet my blog post!

It's the extremist version of the Alt-F4 prank.

Kaczynski addresses this possibility explicitly in his 1995 essay "Industrial Society and its Future":

"Anyone who has a little money can have something printed, or can distribute it on the Internet or in some such way, but what he has to say will be swamped by the vast volume of material put out by the media, hence it will have no practical effect. To make an impression on society with words is therefore almost impossible for most individuals and small groups. Take us (FC) for example. ... Even [if] these writings had had many readers, most of these readers would soon have forgotten what they had read as their minds were flooded by the mass of material to which the media expose them. In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people." [1]

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unabo...

I can see where you are going; an email address, a dropbox account, post onto hostile forums with public links to the latest essay, resulting hullabaloo gives mentally ill but very clever person the feeling of involvement, being the centre of something, action. Perhaps saving some injury and lives. Perhaps the valuable arguments get separated from the odd and obsessive context and get taken up more widely, or at least not associated with destructive acts.

The teacher in the article has certainly got his students interested, they meet before the session to work out the arguments to use. Excellent!

The journalist Gitta Sereny writes about evil people to try to understand where the evil comes from, this struck me as similar.


His last two bombs were in '94 and '95 and both were fatal. So he could have published on the net, but he chose violence. He chose wrong.

Yes, but perhaps he did not see the 'net/Web as natural? Perhaps a new unabomber now would? Technology gets naturalised over time, as the teacher in the original article was saying about Plato and writing. A modern maths textbook is a pretty sophisticated piece of technology.

Which is a very good reason that his argument doesn't make sense. Naturalism is silly, as is separating things as "human-created" or "man-made" versus "natural". It all comes out of the same matter of the universe.

I really don't understand the allure this professor feels for his luddite ideals.

> "It's always around the same theme of, This system is irreconcilable, it has to be ended," Skrbina says. "How can we make this clear? How can we convince people that technology is the root cause of the problem? It's not bad government. It's not the capitalists. It's not minorities. It's not illegal immigrants. He really wants to get away from blaming anything else or anybody else."

Maybe he has difficulty convincing anyone of that because it's not a particularly compelling argument?

"Which is a very good reason that his argument doesn't make sense. Naturalism is silly, as is separating things as "human-created" or "man-made" versus "natural". It all comes out of the same matter of the universe."

And it is part of the human story to use tools/manipulate their environment. However, when you abandon the idea of 'natural' you also loose the reassurance of some kind of limit to our particular random walk. The human journey could lead to our destruction, or to a life among the stars. We have to work on internal evidence and read the data we have effectively.

"Is it even morally or ethically right," he asks, "to be studying the works of a societal criminal."

Clearly this student didn't learn anything from their earlier reading of Phaedrus.

Its fundamentally an ad hominum argument. Many fields study the works of morally questionable people: Richard Wager, Werner von Braun to name a couple. What should matter is the idea/argument, not who made it.

So reading Phaedrus is supposed to automatically turn you into a complete Platonist? I and many others give broad credence to Platonism in the realm of mathematics, but the students question is in the realm of ethics, and Dr. Skrbina (as summarized in the article) brushes this question off all too easily.

I was referring to the fact that the mean character in the book is Socrates, who was put to death for being a 'societal criminal.' This doesn't really have anything to do with Platonic ethics.

edit: Especially since Socrates was put to death for 'corrupting the youth' and 'teaching new gods', which is more or less the usual argument against teaching Kaczynski.

"And there's the chance that a serious consideration of the Unabomber's ideas could encourage others to send bombs to get attention." --> corrupting the youth

"The primary concern of Kaczynski's writings is freedom, and he argues that the complex systems required by modern technology necessarily force individuals to give up too much liberty in the bargain" --> teaching new gods

(In this case 'the bargain' is literally straight out of the Adam and Eve story in the bible, and a direct challenge to western religion/civilization.)


He's not teaching new gods. He's fetishizing the old ones. Western thought of the 20th and 21st centuries is bloody obsessed with "freedom", often (nowadays usually) to its own active detriment.

That was actually the first thing that came into my mind upon your reference to Phaedrus, but I gave you the benefit of the doubt that you were referring to something deeper. Socrates crime in his time was defying the state's moral code. For which he was put to death. He was a soldier in Athens' army, and possibly killed other men in that role (for which most societies forgive to this day), but he never murdered. Kaczynski murdered in cold blood. Comparing him to Socrates in any way is vacuous. This is called ethics.

I agree with Skrbina there, though. If the questions are being dismissed solely because of their source, that doesn't make the question go away and actually seeds the ground for someone else to ask the same question and conclude the same answer.

Refute it, however, and you make it more likely you can stand your ground against the next person who asks the question to push them aside from the same path. Plus, it increases intellectual rigor as a bonus.

A lot of people on here are arguing in favor of technology, which leads me to believe that they haven't actually read the manifesto and are just going by Kaczynski's reputation or bombing targets or the title. It's not about technology! It's about human psychology and the form of society - technology is just an enabler for that. His arguments would be just as valid in ancient Egypt as they would be in the 21st century.

I think this is telling: "In his personal life, Skrbina says he generally tries not to use technology if he can avoid it—he refuses to carry a cellphone, has never owned a microwave oven, and does not have a laptop (though he does use computers for his work)." So he advocates understanding Kaczynski's point of view, but he doesn't attempt to understand technology? That seems rather one-sided.

If he uses a computer for work, it sounds like he understands technology, but makes the choice not to use it.

I think that's a broad leap from "uses a computer for work" to "understands technology". My grandparents use computers for work, but they do not know much about technology.

> "Humanity, the author writes, is at a crossroads, and we can either turn the clock back to a happier, more primitive time or face destruction."

Has anyone else read a book called Ishmael? That's basically the premise except instead of being an opinionated rant, the points are made through dialog (a talking gorilla) and instead of forcing opinions on the reader, it's much more philosophical and nudges you logically toward the conclusion. Pretty enjoyable book.

I actually accidentally discovered Daniel Quinn's work through the Unabomber's Manifesto. I agree with a lot of what the Unabomber and Quinn says - the Unabomber just chose a more violent way to spread this message.

The overall tone of the Unabomber Manifesto is pretty crazy, but substantial parts are rather profound, or at least concise and effective restatements of important ideas.

In particular, Kaczynski's discussion of the Power Process, Autonomy, and Surrogate Activities rings true and explains a lot. I get the impression a lot of this stuff has only been further confirmed in recent years: people without autonomous, difficult, and meaningful tasks are unhappy.


I also thought his discussion of the psychological character of the Left has some value.

It reads like Nietzsche (all that Will to Power & slave morality stuff) updated for century XXI. (I skimmed the text by highlighting the word "goal".) Frustratingly, the Unabomber doesn't give any examples of "real goals". Does helping startups succeed count?

Nietzsche's "will to power" is Darwin's theory of "natural selection" writ large, applied to the whole universe instead of just life forms, presented in Nietzsche's traditional non-scientific metaphorical format. Kaczynski's "power process" has to do with the satisfaction of drives, not the achievement of goals. It's only similar in the sense that you could possibly make the argument that the "power process" is a very small part of the more general "will to power". But this would be about as meaningful as arguing that anger is an emotion.

Furthermore, the achievement of most (societally sanctioned) goals is part of the problem, because they are merely surrogate goals! So it sounds like by attempting to skim the text you got precisely the wrong meaning out of it!

That's not a very helpful comment; if you're going to discuss the text, you'd better read it, and carefully. If you did, you'd know the answer to your questions. It's extremely straightforward.

Oh, that's lovely. I'm sure Professor Skrbina is also pen pals with Eric Rudolph, the abortion bomber:


Every other week, he teaches his adoring young undergrads to understand Rudolph's subtle, nuanced position on the sanctity of human life... not.

FWIW, both Kaczynski's and Rudolph's philosophical opinions are worthy of debate. Their persons, however, are icky. Icky rubs off - even if you're a professor.

You seem to be saying something, but I can never figure out just what it is.

What I'm saying is that it's immoral to play kissy-face, even intellectual kissy-face, with murderers.

Somehow this is controversial. But you can see it easily if you flip the political polarities. Hence, Eric Rudolph.

Something obvious you can't see is called a "blind spot." Is there anything else in your blind spot?

I disagree with both their motives and actions but I still don't "see it easily". OK, it's the right thing to do to lock these people away for the rest of their lives. But if there's some intellectual profit to be gained in corresponding with them, I see no harm in doing so. Your conception of "icky" is reminiscent of that of a five-year-old, and has all the intellectual and moral sophistication of the same.

You don't think you're proving the point of my Eric Rudolph analogy?

Ie: you don't feel perfectly fair, rational, and justified in applying the "icky," simplistic, five-year-old algorithm to Eric Rudolph?

If not: you don't agree that this remarkable tolerance for violent right-wing extremism is unusual among your social and intellectual peers?

This applies to everyone who responded below. Good luck in composing an answer that evades the questionnaire...

> If not: you don't agree that this remarkable tolerance for violent right-wing extremism is unusual among your social and intellectual peers?

I don't worry about being unusual, I worry about being right. Lots of people are intellectual and emotional five-year-olds. That's not my problem, but whether I'm one of them is my problem.

> If not: you don't agree that this remarkable tolerance for violent right-wing extremism is unusual among your social and intellectual peers?

That's an interesting point - could you expound on it? I have a few theories myself, and I'm curious what you think the reason is.

It's pretty simple - Anglophone North America is a left-wing polity and always has been, its deviant and extinct Confederate branch aside. You won't find a single leftist trope that isn't repeated over and over again in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. As Earl Browder put it, "Communism is 20th-century Americanism."

This is why we're all supposed to be all nuanced and shit when it comes to Communist atrocities, but when it's time for the Fascist atrocities everyone has to stand up and yell HITLER HITLER HITLER. Precisely like a five-year-old.

It's just a sort of national lookin' after #1. We naturally ignore the sins closest to us and focus on those of others. Left is "self" and right is "other." Otherwise, we would need to express genuine collective guilt rather than dime-a-dozen collective contempt.

I think Theodore Kascynzki would be insulted by your implication that he is a leftist.

I understand why left-wing violence, lawlesness, etc are tolerated or encouraged - I'm asking why you think corresponding with Kaczynski does not bring the same scorn upon a person as corresponding with Rudolph would. Is it because people don't understand Kaczynski's intentions/thoughts (indeed, as reading the comments on this post would easily demonstrate)? Is it because they fundamentally agree with him, regardless of his contempt for liberals? After all, destruction of technology / industry has traditionally been a left-wing project in the U.S.

The first half of your first sentence answers the second, doesn't it? You could ask exactly the same questions with regard to John Brown - another classic American figure.

The supposed distinction between the "moderate" and "extremist" left is wildly overblown. There's no social exclusion, etc, in either direction. Nobody cares or is surprised about President Obama's association with Bill Ayers. Or, for that matter, Thoreau's with John Brown. Again, there's really nothing new here.

(I do think it's appropriate that in the nation of John Brown, we all need to walk through metal detectors to get on an airplane. Nothing could be more American than terrorism.)

Define "murderers". Depending on how widely you spread that blanket you could cover every government employee in the world. Include "or through inaction" as a modifier to your definition and you and I are just as guilty.

Murder almost always is defined to include premeditation (malice aforethought). So you're in the clear, along with most every government employee in the world.

I'm assuming you refer to the teacher's ongoing correspondence with Kaczynski which one imagines means a lot to the prisoner, and could be seen as some form of 'comfort'.

Do you see the need to examine the arguments at all? Would it be ok for the teacher to discuss the manifesto as a text without the dialogue with Kaczynski?

As far as I can tell, there is a simple and elegant explanation for the discrepancy: Rudolph (and Breivik, and most of the present crop of right-wing terrorists) is an intellectual zero while Kaczynski is not.

If Jack the Ripper or Jeffrey Dahmer had left behind something like Kaczynski's manifesto (and later prison essays), some respectable intellectuals would pinch their noses and study them.

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