Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Unabomber's Trojan Horse

Most of the people today who have integrated high technology into their lives without question, and indeed, may even be unwittingly enslaved by it, were born around the time the turn-of-the-Millennium's original neo-Luddite was caught and convicted in 1996. Thus, they would not necessarily grasp the fact that a brilliant young Harvard-educated mathematician foresaw their intimate attachment to high tech and violently opposed it in the name of protecting this younger generation. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ted Kaczynski veered from the then-popular back-to-the-land movement towards anti-tech terrorism. Incidentally, in his teens as a young Harvard prodigy, he had volunteered for psychological tests at the university to earn pocket money; these turned out to be traumatic mind control experiments. These experiences likely caused deep psychological damage and not unreasonably, fostered in Kaczynski a high level of paranoia and a distrust of authorities.

Kaczynski's story became a bizarre, real-life version of the Terminator sci-fi film franchise. In our fantasies, a neo-Luddite time-tossed nuclear family like Kyle Reese and Sarah and John Conner are heroes, misunderstood saviours who are humanity's last hope against sentient machines. But in our reality, someone who acted as these fictional heroes would is marginalized, crazy, murderous, isolated, and incarcerated.

It is remarkable that Baby Boomers who breathlessly and optimistically predict the Singularity's utopias, such as futurists Michio Kaku or Ray Kurzweil, and the Singularity's original architects, such as the late Steve Jobs, never anticipate/d that high tech could inspire a backlash before the Singularity might arrive. Nor have they widely considered that the Singularity may be a harmful event.

It is also intriguing that Kaczynski's adherence to the back-to-the-land movement, once incredibly popular with the Boomers, is barely discussed today. In that sense, Kaczynski's was a Boomer's voice that was almost completely silenced, even though he ironically came to embody some of the very radicalism once associated with violent wings of Boomer activism. In the 1980s, rather than sweep 1970s' ideals under the floorboards, as many Boomers did, Kaczynski relentlessly followed one line of Boomer thinking to its dark end.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Kaczynski became the harbinger of the potential backlash against high technology. He was a radical dystopian futurist, a polar opposite of the utopian futurists of his generation, but he was (and is) a Boomer futurist all the same. His predictions remain all the more ominous because he chose a deadly path. He began mailing bombs to computer pioneers similar to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, although he never specifically targeted Jobs or Gates.  He began picking off the very figures who would build the reality we now inhabit; these were America's computing tech engineers as they were before they reached fame, wealth, power and prominence. He also penned a screed against tech, which his crimes were meant to highlight. These facts were not lost on his targets. A publicity blurb for his more recent writings, Technological Slavery, quotes a famous interview with Wired:
"Like many of my colleagues, I felt that I could easily have been the Unabomber's next target. He is clearly a Luddite, but simply saying this does not dismiss his argument. . . . As difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw some merit in the reasoning in [Kaczynski's writing]. I started showing friends the Kaczynski quote from Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines; I would hand them Kurzweil's book, let them read the quote, and then watch their reaction as they discovered who had written it." - Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, in "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Wired Magazine.
Kaczynski's manifesto is entitled, Industrial Society and its Future (1995); he also published another collection of pieces, the above-mentioned Technological Slavery (2010).

For his crimes, Theodore Kaczynski was imprisoned in USP Florence ADMAX, or Colorado Supermax, along with the World Trade bombing and 9/11 Al-Qaeda operatives, the Oklahoma City bomber, and Aryan Brotherhood, neo-Nazi and notorious gang leaders. This month, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on David Skrbina, Lecturer in Philosophy at Kaczynski's alma mater of Michigan; Skrbina has been writing to Kaczynski since 2003.  He incorporates the correspondence into his classes on the philosophy of technology. Skrbina feels that Kaczynski's crimes overshadow the latter's ideas about technology, which "aren't as radical as they seem." That's a dicey argument, considering Kaczynski punctuated his lucid tracts with mail bombs and Kaczynski's victims, living and dead, testify to the wrongness of his actions.

Skrbina talks about Kaczynski's ideas. Video Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Nonetheless, Skrbina's attention and the interest of neo-Luddites are slowly rehabilitating the Unabomber's image. As platforms like Facebook show darker designs behind their happy, friendly exteriors, there is curiosity about their altenatives. What would have happened if tech had followed a different core philosophy? What would have happened if it had followed a different path on the way to our immersion in total virtual reality? Could we really unplug now if we wanted to? People are revisiting Kaczynski, in spite of, or in some cases, because of his crimes. Like a dangerous radical exiled from ancient Greece or Rome, his ideas have attracted a new hearing and new acolytes as the dangers he predicted have partly come to pass.

From The Chronicle report on Skrbina's Unabomber correspondence and university classes:
[T]he Unabomber's warnings about the dehumanizing nature of technology are popping up in more and more serious books and articles these days—even if most of the writers don't cite Kaczynski directly. ...

Several students are curious to learn what the prisoner has told their professor. Did Skrbina ask the Unabomber what he thinks of the computer hackers who call themselves Anonymous? What does he define as technology, and would things like eyeglasses count? Skrbina answers by quoting points from the letters or speculating on what Kaczynski might say, based on his other writings.

At one point an older student in the back with gray hair and a denim shirt suggests that it's wrong to be having this discussion. "Is it even morally or ethically right," he asks, "to be studying the works of a societal criminal—in this case a social terrorist?" ...

[Skrbina] reads a series of passages that essentially lay out the Unabomber's justification for a violent rebellion. "If it was acceptable to fight World War II in spite of the severe cruelty to millions of innocent people that that entailed, then a revolution against the techno-industrial system should be acceptable too," says one of the letters he reads aloud.

"We actually firebombed women and children; we did firebombing raids," adds Skrbina. "Kaczynski is saying this is a far greater threat and enemy that you're facing in a technological system, so why not go to war against the technological system even if innocent people have to die?" ...

The Unabomber's argument, Skrbina points out, is that not overthrowing the system will cause an even greater number of deaths than a revolution would, as a result of man-made climate changes or other potential catastrophes caused by our high-tech way of life.

For the most part, the scholar is reluctant to say whether he agrees or disagrees with Kaczynski's extreme conclusions. He is clear in condemning Kaczynski's bombing campaign, though. In his introduction to Technological Slavery, he says: "His tactics were deplorable, and I for one do not endorse such actions." ...

Like Kaczynski, Skrbina started his scholarly career in mathematics, earning a master's degree in the subject from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. While there, he befriended a philosophy professor named Henryk Skolimowski. Skrbina never took a course from Skolimowski, but he began hanging out at his office hours and attending gatherings at his house to discuss the professor's vision of "eco-philosophy." It posits that modern technology is debasing human nature and destroying the planet, and calls for a new mind-set for viewing the world. As Skolimowski, who is now an emeritus professor living in his native Poland, explains it to me, "it's a way of looking at the world as a sanctuary, not the world as a machine."

Much of Skolimowski's argument stems from a frustration with what he sees as an uncritical view of technology in society. "When I first came to the U.S. I realized that everyone was saying hallelujah to the wonders of technology, but no one was looking deep into it," Skolimowski tells [The Chronicle]. ...

In his scholarly work, too, Skrbina explores the margins, trying to revive a notion in philosophy called "panpsychism." It's an antimaterialist view that posits that everything has a sort of consciousness—including animals, plants, and even inorganic things. "The idea is that mind is in everything," Skrbina explains to me. "It's a philosophically rigorous version of animism."

In Panpsychism in the West (MIT Press, 2005), he acknowledges that the notion can appear ridiculous in the current cultural environment, which puts "reason and rational thinking into a position of pre-eminence." But he argues that shifts in the collective psyche have happened before, and that we are due for one in light of current environmental degradation and other problems caused by technological society.

"We as a civilization need only summon our collective wisdom and courage; learn the lessons of history; and transcend the crude, destructive, and ultimately dehumanizing materialist worldview," Skrbina writes in the book's conclusion. ...

Many scholars and writers taking a critical look at technology's role in society seem to have avoided quoting Kaczynski.

Just after the manifesto came out, Langdon Winner, a vocal critic of technology and a professor of political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote an e-mail to a colleague with his reactions to the work. The scholar started by saying he condemned the killer's actions, even if he espoused ideas "some of whose substance I endorse." That said, he admitted that "there are glimpses of insight" in the manifesto. He wrote that it is "sad," however, that the ideas Kaczynski put forward would now be linked with a perceived madman, making them easier for some to dismiss.

In an interview, Winner tells ... [The Chronicle] that plenty of other thinkers have provided similar arguments without taking them to murderous extremes. Jacques Ellul's seminal book The Technological Society, for example, argues that the technological system will overwhelm and absorb anything that doesn't sustain its basic logic, and that it risks corrupting human values. Winner lists other like-minded authors, including William Morris, Lewis Mumford, and Ivan Illich. Those thinkers, not Kaczynski, are the ones scholars should focus on, he says, adding that they are more original than Kaczynski.
Yes, they are more original, perhaps, although they did not necessarily envision high tech as the ultimate Trojan Horse. In online reviews of the Unabomber's latest book, one reader dismissed the Unabomber as a "right-wing crank," rather than what the reviewer expected, "a radical hippie." In truth, the terrorist is neither. Imagine the renegade mathematician, self-cast as the turn-of-the-Millennium's Cassandra, gripped by a vision of the future. Imagine him going to any length to stop humanity's rush towards seemingly benevolent (but potentially malevolent) Net-worship, cyber-obsessions, Web addictions, gadget enthrallment and tech raptures. Turned in by his younger brother, the Unabomber discredited himself through his own dark actions and was rendered powerless. Brutal and tragic, it is the stuff of epics.

The thinkers recommended by Langdon Winner did not foresee humanity at war with technology in a terrifying future. It is a future that the Unabomber saw and still sees himself fighting to prevent, regardless of the immediate cost in the now-past and the present. Ironically, he will only gain future credit if the high tech dystopia he feared (and fears) comes to pass. But he plainly believed completely in that premonition. A remarkable and gifted man chose, in the grip of this vision of the future, to become terrorist killer. He did everything he could to prevent his contemporaries from building the foundations of the coming Singularity. And he failed.

For my earlier posts on Kaczynski, go here, here and here.

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