The Technium

The Unabomber Was Right


Ted Kaczynski, the convicted bomber who blew up dozens of technophilic professionals, was right about one thing: technology has its own agenda. The technium is not, as most people think, a series of individual artifacts and gadgets for sale. Rather, Kaczynski, speaking as the Unabomber, argued that technology is a dynamic holistic system. It is not mere hardware; rather it is more akin to an organism.  It is not inert, nor passive; rather the technium seeks and grabs resources for its own expansion. It is not merely the sum of human action, but in fact it transcends human actions and desires. I think Kaczynski was right about these claims. In his own words the Unabomber says: “The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity.”

I too argue that the technium is guided by “technical necessity.” That is, baked into the nature of this vast complex of technological systems are self-serving aspects – technologies that enable more technology, and systems that preserve themselves — and also inherent biases that lead the technium in certain directions, outside of human desire. Kaczynski writes “modern technology is a unified system in which all parts are dependent on one another. You can’t get rid of the ‘bad’ parts of technology and retain only the ‘good’ parts.”

The truth of Kaczynski’s observations does not absolve him of his murders, or justify his insane hatred. Kaczynski saw something in technology that caused him to lash out with violence, but despite his mental imbalance, he was able to articulate that view with surprising clarity his sprawling, infamous 35,000-word manifesto. Kaczynski murdered three people (and injured 23 more) in order to get this manifesto published. His despicable desperation and crimes hide a critique that has gained a minority following by other luddites. The center section of his argument is clear, remarkably so, given his cranky personal grievances against leftists that bookend his rant. Here, in meticulous, scholarly precision, Kaczynski makes his primary claim that  “freedom and technological progress are incompatible,” and that therefore technological progress must be undone.

As best I understand, the Unabomber’s argument goes like this:

  • Personal freedoms are constrained by society, as they must be.
  • The stronger that technology makes society, the less freedoms.
  • Technology destroys nature, which strengthens technology further.
  • This ratchet of technological self-amplification is stronger than politics.
  • Any attempt to use technology or politics to tame the system only strengthens it.
  • Therefore technological civilization must be destroyed, rather than reformed.
  • Since it cannot be destroyed by tech or politics, humans must push industrial society towards its inevitable end of self-collapse.
  • Then pounce on it when it is down and kill it before it rises again.

In short, Kaczynski claims that civilization is the disease and not the cure. He wasn’t the first to make this claim. Rants against the machine of civilization go back as far as Freud and beyond. But the assaults against industrial society speed up as industry sped up. Edward Abbey, the legendary wilderness activist, considered industrial civilization to be a “destroying juggernaut” wrecking both the planet and humans. Abbey did all he could personally to stop the juggernaut with monkey wrenching maneuvers – sabotaging logging equipment and so forth. Abbey was the iconic Earth Firster who inspired many fire throwing followers. The luddite theorist, Kirkpatrick Sale, who unlike Abbey, railed against the machine while living in a brownstone in Manhattan, refined the idea of “civilization as disease.” Kirk Sale and I had a public debate which led to public bet of $1,000 on whether civilization would collapse by 2020 (me nay, he yay). Recently the call to undo civilization and return to a purer, more humane primitive state has accelerated in pace with the supposed advent of the Singularity. In 2008 John Zerzan published an anthology of contemporary readings focused on the theme “Against Civilization”. Derrick Jensen penned a 1,500 word treatise on how and why to topple technological civilization, with hands-on suggestions of the ideal places to start – power and gas lines and the information infrastructure.

Kaczynski had read earlier jeremiads against industrial society and arrived at his hatred of civilization in the same way many other nature lovers, mountain men, back-to-the-earthers have. He was driven there in a retreat from the rest of us. Kaczynski buckled under the many rules and expectations society put up for him. He said, “Rules and regulations are by nature oppressive. Even ‘good’ rules are reductions in freedom.” He was deeply frustrated at not being able to integrate into professional society, which he groomed himself for. His frustration is echoed in these words from his manifesto:

Modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations… Most of these regulations cannot be disposed with, because they are necessary for the functioning of industrial society. When one does not have adequate opportunity to go throughout the power process the consequences are …boredom, demoralization, low self-esteem, inferiority feelings, defeatism, depression, anxiety, guilt, frustration, hostility, spouse or child abuse, insatiable hedonism, abnormal sexual behavior, sleep disorders, eating disorders, etc. [The rules of industrial society] have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering. By “feelings of inferiority” we mean not only inferiority feelings in the strictest sense but a whole spectrum of related traits: low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, depressive tendencies, defeatism, guilt, self-hatred, etc.

Kaczynski suffered these indignities, which he blamed on society, and escaped to the hills where he perceived he could enjoy more freedoms. In Montana he built a cabin without running water or electricity. Here he lived a fairly self-sustained life – away from the rules and the reach of technological civilization. (But just as Thoreau did at Walden, he came into town to restock his supplies.) However his escape from technology was disturbed around 1983. One of the wilderness oases Kaczynski loved to visit was a “plateau that dated from the Tertiary Age” a two-day hike from his cabin.  The spot was sort of a secret retreat for him. As Kaczynski remembers, “It’s kind of rolling country, not flat, and when you get to the edge of it you find these ravines that cut very steeply into cliff-like drop-offs. There was even a waterfall there.”  The area around his own cabin was getting too much traffic from hikers and hunters, so in the summer of 1983 he retreated to his secret spot on the plateau. As he tells an interviewer later in prison,

“When I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it” His voice trails off; he pauses, then continues, “You just can’t imagine how upset I was. It was from that point on I decided that, rather than trying to acquire further wilderness skills, I would work on getting back at the system. Revenge. That wasn’t the first time I ever did any monkey wrenching, but at that point, that sort of thing became a priority for me.”

It is easy to sympathize with Kaczynski’s plight. You politely try to escape the squeeze of technological civilization by retreating to its furthest reaches, where you establish a relatively techno-free lifestyle and then the beast of civilization/development/industrial technology stalks you and destroys your paradise. Is there no escape? The machine is ubiquitous! It is relentless!  It must be stopped!


The Unabomber cabin in lower left.

Ted Kaczynski, of course, is not the only wilderness lover to suffer the encroachment of civilization. Entire tribes of indigenous Americans were driven to remote areas by the advance of European culture. They were not running from technology per se (they happily picked up the latest guns when they could), but the effect was the same – to distance themselves from industrial society, to remove themselves from the advancing culture.

Kaczynski argues that it is impossible to escape the ratcheting clutches of industrial technology for several reasons. One, because if you use any part of it, the system demands servitude; two, because technology does not “reverse” itself, never releasing what is in its hold; and three, because we don’t have a choice of what technology to use in the long run. In his words, from the Manifesto:

The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function. At work, people have to do what they are told to do, otherwise production would be thrown into chaos. Bureaucracies HAVE TO be run according to rigid rules. To allow any substantial personal discretion to lower-level bureaucrats would disrupt the system and lead to charges of unfairness due to differences in the way individual bureaucrats exercised their discretion. It is true that some restrictions on our freedom could be eliminated, but GENERALLY SPEAKING the regulation of our lives by large organizations is necessary for the functioning of industrial-technological society. The result is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the average person.

It is not possible to make a LASTING compromise between technology and freedom, because technology is by far the more powerful social force and continually encroaches on freedom through REPEATED compromises. Another reason why technology is such a powerful social force is that, within the context of a given society, technological progress marches in only one direction; it can never be reversed. Once a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation. Not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but, even more, the system as a whole becomes dependent on it.

When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it. 

Kaczynski felt so strongly about the last point that he repeated it once more in a different section of his treatise. It is an important criticism. Once you accept that individuals surrender freedom and dignity to “the  machine” and that they increasingly have no choice but to do so, then the rest of Kaczynski’s argument flows fairly logically:

But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that 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 machines decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decision for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better result than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide. .. Technology will eventually acquire something approaching complete control over human behavior.

Will public resistance prevent the introduction of technological control of human behavior? It certainly would if an attempt were made to introduce such control all at once. But since technological control will be introduced through a long sequence of small advances, there will be no rational and effective public resistance.

I find it hard to argue against this last section. It is true that as the complexity of our built world increases we will necessarily need to rely on mechanical (computerized) means to managing this complexity. We already do. Autopilots fly our very complex flying machines. Algorithms control our very complex communications and electrical grids. And for better or worse, computers control our very complex economy. Certainly as we construct yet more complex infrastructure (location-based mobile communications, genetic engineering, fusion generators, autopilot cars) we will rely further on machines to run them and make decisions. For those services, turning off the switch is not an option. In fact, if we wanted to turn off the internet right now, it would not be easy to do if others wanted to keep it on. In many ways the internet is designed to never turn off.

Finally, if the triumph of a technological takeover is the disaster that Kaczynski outlines – robbing souls of freedom, initiative, sanity, or the environment of its sustainability – and if this prison is inescapable, then the system must be destroyed. Not reformed, because that will merely extend it,  but eliminated.  From his manifesto:

Until the industrial system has been thoroughly wrecked, the destruction of that system must be the revolutionaries’ ONLY goal. Other goals would distract attention and energy from the main goal. More importantly, if the revolutionaries permit themselves to have any other goal than the destruction of technology, they will be tempted to use technology as a tool for reaching that other goal. If they give in to that temptation, they will fall right back into the technological trap, because modern technology is a unified, tightly organized system, so that, in order to retain SOME technology, one finds oneself obliged to retain MOST technology, hence one ends up sacrificing only token amounts of technology.

Success can be hoped for only by fighting the technological system as a whole; but that is revolution not reform. …While the industrial system is sick we must destroy it. If we compromise with it and let it recover from its sickness, it will eventually wipe out all of our freedom.

For these reasons Ted Kaczynski went to the mountains to escape the clutches of the civilization and then later to plot his destruction of it. He would make his own tools (anything he could hand fashion) while avoiding technology (stuff it takes a system to make). His small one-room shed was so well-constructed that the Feds later moved it off his property as a single intact Lego-like piece, and put it in storage (it now sits reconstructed in the Newseum in Washington, DC.) His place was way off the road; he used a mountain bike to get into town. He dried hunted meat in his tiny attic, and spent his evenings in the yellow light of a kerosene lamp crafting intricate bomb mechanisms. The bombs were strikes at the professionals running the civilization he hated. It was evident that while the bombs were deadly, they were ineffective in achieving his goal since no one knew what their purpose was. He needed a billboard to announce why civilization needed to be destroyed. He needed a manifesto published in the major papers and magazines of the world. Once they read it a special few would see how imprisoned they were and they would join his cause. Perhaps others would also start bombing the chokepoints in civilization. Then his Freedom Club (FC) would be a real club of more than himself.

The attacks on civilization did not materialize in bulk. Occasionally an Earth Firster would burn a building in an encroaching development or pour sugar into a bulldozer’s gas tank. During the otherwise peaceful protests against the G7, some anti-civilization anarchists (who call themselves anarcho-primitivists) broke fast-food store-front windows and smashed property. But the mass assault on civilization never happened.

The problem is that Kaczynski’s most basic premise, the first axiom in his argument, is not true. The Unabomber claims that technology robs people of freedom. But most people of the world find the opposite. They gravitate towards venues of increasing technology because they recognize they have more freedoms when they are empowered with it. They (that is we) realistically weigh the fact that yes, indeed, some options are closed off when adopting new technology, but many others are opened, so that the net gain is a plus of freedom, choices, and possibilities.


The gray hoodie under the plastic bag appeared on his police sketches.

Consider Kaczynski himself. For 25 years he lived in a type of self-enforced solitary confinement in a dirty (see the photos and video) smoky shack without electricity, running water, or a toilet – he cut a hole in the floor for late night pissing. In terms of material standards the cell he now occupies in the Colorado Admax prison is a four-star upgrade: larger, cleaner, warmer, with the running water, electricity and the toilet he did not have, plus free food, and a much better library. In his Montana hermitage he was free to move about as much as the snow and weather permitted him. He could freely choose among a limited set of choices of what to do in the evenings. He may have personally been content with his limited world, but overall his choices were very constrained, although he had unshackled freedom within those limited choices. Sort of like, “you are free to hoe the potatoes any hour of the day you want.” Kaczynski confused great latitude within limited choices as superior over modest latitude in an expanding number of choices.


His workbench where he made bombs.

I can only compare his constraints to mine, or perhaps anyone else’s reading this today. I am plugged into the belly of the machine. Yet, technology allows me to work at home, so I hike in the mountains, where cougar and coyote roam, most afternoons. I can hear a mathematician give a talk on the latest theory of numbers one day, and the next day be lost in the wilderness of Death Valley with as little survivor gear as possible. My choices in how I spend my day are vast. They are not infinite, and some options are not available, but in comparison to the degree of choices and freedoms available to Ted Kaczynski in his shack, my freedoms are overwhelmingly greater.

This is the chief reason billions of people migrate from mountain shacks – very much like Kaczynski’s – all around the world. A smart kid living in a smoky one-room shack in the hills of Laos, or Cameroon, or Bolivia will do all he/she can to make their way against all odds to the city where there are – so obvious to them – vastly more freedom and choices. They would find Kaczynski’s argument that there is more freedom back in the stifling hut they just escaped from plain crazy.

The young are not under some kind of technological spell that warps their mind into believing civilization is better. Sitting in the mountains they are under no spell but poverty’s. They clearly know what they give up when they leave. They understand the comfort and support of family, the priceless value of community acquired in a small village, the blessings of clean air and the soothing wholeness of the natural world. They feel the loss of immediate access to these, but they come to the city anyway because in the end, the tally favors the freedoms created by civilization. They can (and will) return to the hills to be rejuvenated.

My family doesn’t have TV, and while we have a car, I have plenty of city friends who do not. Avoiding particular technologies is certainly possible. The Amish do it well. Many individuals do it well. However the Unabomber is right that choices which begin as optional can over time become less so. First, there are certain technologies (say sewage treatment, vaccinations, traffic lights) that were once matters of choice but that are now mandated and enforced by the system. Then, there are other systematic technologies, like automobiles, which are self-reinforcing. Thousands of other technologies are intertwined into these systemic ones, making it hard for a human to avoid. The more that participate, the more essential it becomes.  Living without these embedded technologies requires more effort, or at least more deliberate alternatives. This web of self-reinforcing technologies would be a type of noose if the total gains in choices, possibilities and freedoms brought about by them did not exceed the losses. I argue that our continued embrace of more technology is further proof that we have made the calculation as we head for the greater good.

Anti-civilizationists would argue that we embrace more because we are brainwashed by the system itself and we have no choice to but to say yes to more. We can’t say no to more than a few individual pieces, so we are imprisoned in this elaborate artificial lie.

It is possible that the technium has brainwashed us all, except for a few clear-eyed anarcho-primitivists who like to blow up stuff. I would be inclined to believe in the anarchy if the Unabomber’s alternative to civilization was more clear. After we destroy civilization, then what?


From Green Anarchy Primer

I’ve been reading the literature of the anti-civilization collapsatarians to find out what they have in mind after the collapse. Anti-civilization dreamers spend a lot of time devising ways to bring down civilization (befriend hackers, unbolt power towers, blow up dams), but not so much on what replaces it. They do have a notion what the world looked like before civilization. According to them it looks like this (from the Green Anarchy Primer):

Prior to civilization there generally existed ample leisure time, considerable gender autonomy and equality, a non-destructive approach to the natural world, the absence of organized violence, no mediating or formal institutions, and strong health and robusticity.

Then came civilization and all the ills (literally) of the earth:

Civilization inaugurated warfare, the subjugation of women, population growth, drudge work, concepts of property, entrenched hierarchies, and virtually every known disease, to name a few of its devastating derivatives.

Among the green anarchists there’s talk of recovering your soul, making fire by rubbing sticks, discussions of whether vegetarianism is a good idea for hunters, but there is no outline of how groups of people go beyond survival mode, or if they do. We are supposed to aim for “re-wilding” but the re-wilders are shy to describe what life is like in this re-wild state. One prolific green anarchy author, Derrick Jensen, dismisses the lack of alternatives to civilization and says simply, “I do not provide alternatives because there is no need. The alternatives already exist, and they have existed – and worked – for thousands and tens of thousands of years.” He means of course tribal life, but not modern tribal; he means tribal as in no agriculture, no anti-biotics, no nothing beyond wood, fur and stone.

The great difficulty of the anti-civilizationists is that a sustainable desirable alternative to civilization is unimaginable. We cannot picture it. We cannot see how it would be a place we’d like to move to. We can’t imagine how this primitive arrangement of stone and fur would satisfy each of our individual talents. And because we cannot imagine it, it will never happen, because nothing has ever been created without being imagined first.

Despite their inability to image a desirable coherent alternative, the archo-primitivists all agree that some combo of being in tune with nature, eating low-calorie diets, owning very little and using only things you make yourself, will bring on a level of contentment, happiness and meaning we have not seen for 10,000 years (literally). 

But if this state of happy poverty is so desirable and good for the soul why do none of the anti-civilizationists live like this? As far as I can ell from my research all self-identifying anarcho-primitivists live in modernity. They compose their rants against the machine on very fast desktop machines. While they sip coffee. Their routines would be only marginally different than mine. They have not relinquished the conveniences of civilization for the better shores of nomadic hunter-gathering.

Except one: The Unabomber. Kaczynski went further than other critics in living the story he believed in. At first glance his story seems promising, but on second look, it collapses into the familiar conclusion: he is living off the fat of civilization. The Unabomber’s shack was crammed with stuff he purchased from the machine: snowshoes, boots, sweat shirts, food, explosives, mattresses, plastic jugs and buckets, etc. – all things that he could have made himself, but did not. After 25 years on the job, why did he not make his own tools separate from the system? It looks like he shopped at Wal-mart. The food he scavenged from the wild was minimal. Instead he regularly rode his bike to town and there rented an old car to drive to the big city to restock his food and supplies from supermarkets. He was either incapable of supporting himself without civilization, or unwilling to.


Unabomber shack attic.

Besides lacking a desirable alternative, the final problem with destroying civilization as we know it is that the alternative, such as it has been imagined by the self-described “haters of civilization”, would not support but a fraction of the people alive today. In other words, the collapse of civilization would kill billions. Ironically the poorest rural inhabitants would fare the best, as they could retreat to hunting gathering with the least hurdle, but billions of urbanites would die once food ran out and disease took over. The anarcho-primitives are rather sanguine about this catastrophe, arguing that accelerating the collapse early might save lives in total.

Again the exception seems to be Ted Kaczynski, who reckons with the die-off in this post-arrest interview:

For those who realize the need to do away with the techno-industrial system, if you work for its collapse, in effect you are killing a lot of people. If it collapses, there is going to be social disorder, there is going to be starvation, there aren’t going to be any more spare parts or fuel for farm equipment, there won’t be any more pesticide or fertilizer on which modern agriculture is dependent. So there isn’t going to be enough food to go around, so then what happens? This is something that, as far as I’ve read, I haven’t seen any radicals facing up to.

Presumably Kaczynski personally “faced up” to the logical conclusion of taking down civilization; it would kill billions of people. He must have decided that murdering a few more people up front in the process would not matter. After all, the techno-industrial complex had snuffed out the humanity from him, so if he had to snuff out a few dozen humans on the way to snuff out the system that enslaves billions, that would be worth it. The death of billions would also be justified because all those unfortunate people under the grasp of technology were now soulless, like he was. Once civilization was gone, the next generation  would be really free.

The ultimate problem is that the paradise the Kaczynski is offering, the solution to civilization so to speak, is the tiny, smoky, dingy, smelly wooden prison cell that absolutely nobody else wants to dwell in. It is a paradise billions are fleeing from. Civilization has its problems but in almost every way it is better than the Unabomber’s shack.

The Unabomber is right that technology is a holistic, self-perpetuating machine. He is wrong to bomb it for many reasons, not the least is that the machine of civilization offers us more actual freedoms than the alternative. There is a cost to run this machine, a cost we are only beginning to reckon with, but so far the gains from this ever enlarging technium outweigh the alternative of no machine at all.


© 2023