ÁD Studio

Blurring the lines between business strategy
and software engineering.

The Future according to Ted Kaczynski

An analysis of the Unabomber's predictions about our time.
(1046 words)

Jules Verne, author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and From the Earth to the Moon, is the embodiment of the hope, awe and fascination of the nineteenth century society with modern science. They acted as if the future was happening too fast, rapidly becoming distant past in the blink of an eye. These new steam-powered machinery were just exactly what we needed to get rid of poverty and suffering. No goal was ambitious enough; everything was a matter of time.

"The exit of the opera in the year 2000", a 1902 painting by Albert Robida
"The exit of the opera in the year 2000", a 1902 painting by Albert Robida

Wherever you looked, you saw the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, the Teslas and the Edisons, "benefactors of the age"1 making life easier and easier. All of humanity, relentlessly building an unsinkable ship in order to cruise to paradise.

Needless to say, this naiveté broke down in a very Titanic-esque fashion with World War I. But it could have been worse: it could have happened.

The main thing you have to understand about Theodore Kaczynski is that he is a terrorist in the purest sense of the word: he used terror to propagate his message. As a side effect, most people have focused on what's terrorific about his actions, rather than the content of the message. Reading The Industrial Society and its Future, you are constantly juggling what you're reading with the thought that the person who wrote it had killed people in order for you to read.

In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people.

Theodore Kaczynski

One of the most interesting parts of the essay is, of course, a section titled "The Future". The essay has been, up to that point, a historical analysis of how technology has been "a disaster for the human race". Among the consequences of the increasing dependence on technology, our society is more unstable, our lives are unfulfilling, and most people spend their time engaged in "surrogate activities", artificial goals such as consumption of entertainment, political activism and following sports team. He wrote that in 1995, but might as well be talking about yesterday.

On top of that, Kaczynski has a pessimistic view of what the future holds for us. Unless we do something, quickly, technology is going to become so essential to our lives that there won't be a chance for human freedom, or dignity.

The human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machine's decisions.

Theodore Kaczynski

For many people, he argued, their future is unemployment. Nowadays, thinking we are in an era of technological unemployment that is increasingly making skilled workers obsolete is not lunacy; it's a prevailing opinion. And the most popular solution suggested has been some form of basic income by which virtually everyone is to some degree dependent on the state: the ultimate loss of freedom.

On those who are employed, the system will demand increasing specialisation, and their work will be also increasingly out of touch with the real world. That is a form of freedom loss: Like an ant, being specialised is fragile, dependent on the rest of the cogs in the machine to survive. Machines will take over, and human beings will be kept busy by being given relatively unimportant work. Read that as the gig-economy.

Individuals [...] will be more dependent than ever on large organizations; they will be more "socialized" than ever and their physical and mental qualities to a significant extent [...] will be those that are engineered into them rather than being the results of chance.

Theodore Kaczynski

Kaczynski took what he saw to its ultimate consequences: that technology is creating for human beings a new environment, one that is ver different from what nature has adapted us. If we don't adjust, we will be forced to.

You can see method in his madness. It's not very far from what environmental activists have been saying for quite a while: that we are close to disaster, and we need to dump this system and face the consequences, or something even worse will happen.

So let me end with an idea of why he is wrong.

Along with the idea that human design is counter to our nature runs the notion that human beings have evolved in a similar manner to any other species on the planet. That is, to a great extent, true. But there is something that humans have that pretty much any other species doesn't, which is culture. And what some anthropologists2 have been arguing lately is that relatively early in our evolutionary history, we crossed an evolutionary Rubicon, at which point cultural evolution became the primary driver of our fate as species.

For example, as our cooking techniques developed, we didn't have to rely on large teeth, our bodies have coevolved with culturally transmitted knowledge related to cooking. Chopping, scraping, and pounding meat replaced some of the functions of teeth, mouths and jaws. My parents are fond of saying that digestion starts in the mouth, but perhaps it's more accurate to say that digestion starts at the butcher's shop.

As a result, humans can no longer survive without cooking. Our ability to process food acted as a force of natural selection, and our bodies save a lot of energy by doing away with excessively long intestines. This very energy savings became one in a confluence of adjustments that allowed our species to build and run bigger brains. Technology may even be the key factor by which we are now Homo sapiens.

Kaczynski is wrong, not because technology isn't changing our environment; it is. He's wrong because he didn't fully grasp the reach of the technological changes. He offered a pessimistic version of our future without taking into consideration that it's exactly what culture has been doing to us since the beginning. We are more socialized than we were millions of years ago. And that isn't simply gone by going back to a pre-industrial era. The future according to Theodore Kaczynski happened a very long time ago, and made us humans.

  1. As Kierkegaard described them.
  2. Joseph Henrich, among others.