Industrial Society and its Future by Theodore Kaczynski (1995) (read in 2018)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
The full text of this long essay/short book is available online at Unabomber Special Report (Washington Post). To the Post’s credit, it’s still online after over 20 years. There is very little that is particularly incendiary about this document (if you’ll pardon the phrase). Though his actions were mad—despite his railing against society’s deprivation of freedom, he saw fit to rob several people of their own freedom by killing them—his reasoning is not.
I wanted to see what the fuss was about and what the Unabomber’s actual demands were. His arguments are lucid, if not always convincing. I was expecting a bit more craziness, like in Dianetics, but Kaczynski was much smarter, apparently—he was certainly a better writer.
The essay is basically structured as follows:
- He rails against leftists for about 20% of the essay, discussing their psychology and “oversocialization”. As a university professor without a more rational and less strictly left-leaning tendency, he seems to have felt himself in a minority against which he needed to lash out. Some of the characteristics he pointed out are quite negative, but his inability to nail down who, exactly, he considers to be a leftist—or which modes of thought are the types of leftism to avoid—robs his argument of much of its power.
- He then discusses different types of work, including surrogate activities and a definition of the power process.
- He goes into detail in the Disruption of the Power Process in Modern Society chapter. Here he expands on an idea that the main goal of society is subjugation through disempowerment. He builds up the argument reasonably well, without too much bombast.
- He discusses freedom and the logical tension between freedom and technology/industrial society. Pre-industrial societies are by definition more free because the lack of long-distance communication and travel prevent the overarching, larger systems of control that are inevitably wrought by technology (and those who control it).
- He moves from mind control through propaganda to control via pharmaceuticals and genetic modification (even less far-fetched 20 years later).
- From there, he discusses how technology becomes a self-promulgating end in itself, inevitably leading to a place where humankind is so dependent on it that it no longer matters whether it is in charge because it took over or because the humans capitulated. The dependency implies the control.
- Next up are more predictions, many of which have unsurprisingly come true (or have been much more concretely realized than in the 90s). The world we have, dominated as it is by surveilling corporations and governments and a nearly useless media landscape is not far off from Kaczynski’s nightmare vision.
- Finally, there are concrete action plans and ideas for how to foment the required revolution to devolve society to pre-industry. He also acknowledges that it won’t be easy, regardless of how he’s proven its necessity if we are to survive as psychologically independent individuals with even a modicum of freedom (paraphrased from his ideas, by the way). There is a discussion of revolutionary techniques, how to build an intelligent core with rational argument and then bring the rabble on board with simpler reasoning (that is pitched to inspire the second group without alienating the first group). Any group that inspired such a devolution would necessarily be rejected for the loss in lifestyle that they’d engendered, after which the technological elite would quickly take the reins again.
- In the end, he manages to prove the inevitability of technology, the zero-sum game it has with individual freedom and the near impossibility of freedom winning out.
“Many people who pursue surrogate activities will say that they get far more fulfillment from these activities than they do from the “mundane” business of satisfying their biological needs, but that is because in our society the effort needed to satisfy the biological needs has been reduced to triviality. More importantly, in our society people do not satisfy their biological needs AUTONOMOUSLY but by functioning as parts of an immense social machine. In contrast, people generally have a great deal of autonomy in pursuing their surrogate activities.”
“47. Among the abnormal conditions present in modern industrial society are excessive density of population, isolation of man from nature, excessive rapidity of social change and the breakdown of natural small-scale communities such as the extended family, the village or the tribe.”
“For example, a variety of noise-making devices: power mowers, radios, motorcycles, etc. If the use of these devices is unrestricted, people who want peace and quiet are frustrated by the noise. If their use is restricted, people who use the devices are frustrated by the regulations. But if these machines had never been invented there would have been no conflict and no frustration generated by them.)”
It’s a logically correct point, but hard to call valid. Is he arguing here for picking and choosing technological advances? As we’ll see later, he’s actually working his way toward a complete negation of technology beyond that which is necessary to provide basic physical comforts. He tries to prove that to allow technology a longer leash than that leads inevitably to a complete loss of freedom and enslavement by the system wrought by technological advance.
“Would-be industrial societies that have done a poor job of subordinating personal or local loyalties to loyalty to the system are usually very inefficient. (Look at Latin America.) Thus an advanced industrial society can tolerate only those small-scale communities that are emasculated, tamed and made into tools of the system.”
“In fact, 19th century American society had an optimistic and self-confident tone, quite unlike that of today’s society. ”
He’s all over the place here. Isn’t it just as likely that people in the nineteenth century were just as unhappy as those today, but they didn’t say anything? Or, more precisely, they didn’t have any way of saying it in a way that would be passed down to us? How can we even begin to imagine we can estimate the relative happiness of a culture that never measured such a thing? Even today, we aren’t even close to agreement about what the purpose of life is, or what it means to be happy. Kaczynski implies his definition is axiomatic and that to question it is to give in to “leftist” tendencies. What is a leftist? Oh boy, how much time have you got? Just kidding, he ends his essay by pointing out that he can’t really pin it down either, but he knows one when he sees one. That’s a little unfair to him, actually. He makes quite an effort to define “leftists” but does admit to a bit of hand-waving.
The next chapter, Disruption of the Power Process in Modern Society, is interesting, discussing how people’s power over their own lives is subverted by propaganda and advertising that often masquerades as education programs.
“Advertising and marketing techniques have been developed that make many people feel they need things that their grandparents never desired or even dreamed of. It requires serious effort to earn enough money to satisfy these artificial needs, hence they fall into group 2. (But see paragraphs 80-82.) Modern man must satisfy his need for the power process largely through pursuit of the artificial needs created by the advertising and marketing industry , and through surrogate activities.”
“66. Today people live more by virtue of what the system does FOR them or TO them than by virtue of what they do for themselves. And what they do for themselves is done more and more along channels laid down by the system. Opportunities tend to be those that the system provides, the opportunities must be exploited in accord with rules and regulations , and techniques prescribed by experts must be followed if there is to be a chance of success.”
“Our lives depend on decisions made by other people; we have no control over these decisions and usually we do not even know the people who make them.”
“Our lives depend on whether safety standards at a nuclear power plant are properly maintained; on how much pesticide is allowed to get into our food or how much pollution into our air; on how skillful (or incompetent) our doctor is; whether we lose or get a job may depend on decisions made by government economists or corporation executives; and so forth. Most individuals are not in a position to secure themselves against these threats to more [than] a very limited extent. The individual’s search for security is therefore frustrated, which leads to a sense of powerlessness.”
“But threats to the modern individual tend to be MAN-MADE. They are not the results of chance but are IMPOSED on him by other persons whose decisions he, as an individual, is unable to influence. Consequently he feels frustrated, humiliated and angry.”
“72. Modern society is in certain respects extremely permissive. In matters that are irrelevant to the functioning of the system we can generally do what we please. We can believe in any religion we like (as long as it does not encourage behavior that is dangerous to the system). We can go to bed with anyone we like (as long as we practice “safe sex”). We can do anything we like as long as it is UNIMPORTANT. But in all IMPORTANT matters the system tends increasingly to regulate our behavior.”
“80. People vary in their susceptibility to advertising and marketing techniques. Some are so susceptible that, even if they make a great deal of money, they cannot satisfy their constant craving for the the shiny new toys that the marketing industry dangles before their eyes. So they always feel hard-pressed financially even if their income is large, and their cravings are frustrated.”
“It only remains to point out that in many cases a person’s way of earning a living is also a surrogate activity. Not a PURE surrogate activity, since part of the motive for the activity is to gain the physical necessities and (for some people) social status and the luxuries that advertising makes them want. But many people put into their work far more effort than is necessary to earn whatever money and status they require, and this extra effort constitutes a surrogate activity.”
“Consider the case of Dr. Edward Teller, who had an obvious emotional involvement in promoting nuclear power plants. Did this involvement stem from a desire to benefit humanity? If so, then why didn’t Dr. Teller get emotional about other “humanitarian” causes? If he was such a humanitarian then why did he help to develop the H- bomb? As with many other scientific achievements, it is very much open to question whether nuclear power plants actually do benefit humanity. Does the cheap electricity outweigh the accumulating waste and the risk of accidents? Dr. Teller saw only one side of the question. Clearly his emotional involvement with nuclear power arose not from a desire to “benefit humanity” but from a personal fulfillment he got from his work and from seeing it put to practical use.”
“It is important not to confuse freedom with mere permissiveness (see paragraph 72).”
“95. It is said that we live in a free society because we have a certain number of constitutionally guaranteed rights. But these are not as important as they seem. The degree of personal freedom that exists in a society is determined more by the economic and technological structure of the society than by its laws or its form of government.”
“In part this was because they lacked efficient mechanisms for enforcing the ruler’s will: There were no modern, well-organized police forces, no rapid long-distance communications, no surveillance cameras, no dossiers of information about the lives of average citizens. Hence it was relatively easy to evade control.”
“In any technologically advanced society the individual’s fate MUST depend on decisions that he personally cannot influence to any great extent. A technological society cannot be broken down into small, autonomous communities, because production depends on the cooperation of very large numbers of people and machines. Such a society MUST be highly organized and decisions HAVE TO be made that affect very large numbers of people.”
“There is no conceivable way to remedy this in a technologically advanced society. The system tries to “solve” this problem by using propaganda to make people WANT the decisions that have been made for them, but even if this “solution” were completely successful in making people feel better, it would be demeaning.”
“It is the needs of the system that are paramount, not those of the human being. For example, the system provides people with food because the system couldn’t function if everyone starved; it attends to people’s psychological needs whenever it can CONVENIENTLY do so, because it couldn’t function if too many people became depressed or rebellious.”
We find this situation in many places in our society—that the cottage industry or parasite grows to control the system. Recruiting is an example where the logical goal of allocating jobs efficiently is completely subverted by poor incentives. Companies would like to have long-lasting relationships with talented, dedicated, interested, engaged and happy employees. Similarly, employees would like to be productive and happy. Optimally efficient is if the relationship is as long as possible. No time and effort is wasted in looking for new employees or jobs. However, we now have a system where the logical middleman runs the show by its own incentives. A company’s main business is not recruitment and hence is happy to use outside experts. Employees are the same: they are only very occasionally involved in the labor market and are happy for expertise to help them navigate the unfamiliar waters. However, the incentive of the recruiter is for each employee to work just long enough that the recruiter gets paid and not one second more. At that point, the employee is worth nothing to the recruiting company and its overriding interest is to get that employee back into the job pool in order to glean another payday. The interest of the recruiter is also to artificially escalate pay regardless of value provided because that also increase the size of the payday. The least economically and societally useful part of the process has given itself primacy in the process, making itself somehow indispensable with its bullshit business practices. But, after a while, employees feel that they can’t get a job without a recruiter and companies are at the recruiters’ mercy because all of the good employees have signed up with one. It’s madness and a nearly inevitable outgrowth of unchecked “improvement” and “capitalization” of a system. The original need is completely subsumed by a cancerous outgrowth.
“[…] employees are never given autonomy as to ultimate goals—their “autonomous” efforts can never be directed toward goals that they select personally, but only toward their employer’s goals, such as the survival and growth of the company.”
“Similarly, in any enterprise within a socialist system, workers must direct their efforts toward the goals of the enterprise, otherwise the enterprise will not serve its purpose as part of the system.”
I’m not sure I agree completely with these two. The argument certainly holds for larger companies—of which there are many. Most people are employed at larger firms, for which this holds. But there is room for success in other models, as well. But one must, of course, jettison most of the conventional wisdom about “how to run a business”. That much is certainly true.
“You can’t get rid of the “bad” parts of technology and retain only the “good” parts. Take modern medicine, for example. Progress in medical science depends on progress in chemistry, physics, biology, computer science and other fields. Advanced medical treatments require expensive, high-tech equipment that can be made available only by a technologically progressive, economically rich society. Clearly you can’t have much progress in medicine without the whole technological system and everything that goes with it.”
“(Note this important point that we have just illustrated with the case of motorized transport: 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.)”
“Educators, humanitarian groups, conservation organizations do not hesitate to use propaganda or other psychological techniques to help them achieve their laudable ends. Corporations and government agencies, when they find it useful, do not hesitate to collect information about individuals without regard to their privacy. Law enforcement agencies are frequently inconvenienced by the constitutional rights of suspects and often of completely innocent persons, and they do whatever they can do legally (or sometimes illegally) to restrict or circumvent those rights. Most of these educators, government officials and law officers believe in freedom, privacy and constitutional rights, but when these conflict with their work, they usually feel that their work is more important.”
“Major social problems, if they get “solved” at all, are rarely or never solved through any rational, comprehensive plan. They just work themselves out through a process in which various competing groups pursuing their own (usually short- term) self-interest  arrive (mainly by luck) at some more or less stable modus vivendi. In fact, the principles we formulated in paragraphs 100-106 make it seem doubtful that rational, long-term social planning can EVER be successful.”
“Take our environmental problems, for example. Here the conflict of values is straightforward: economic expedience now versus saving some of our natural resources for our grandchildren.”
“In effect, antidepressants are a means of modifying an individual’s internal state in such a way as to enable him to tolerate social conditions that he would otherwise find intolerable.”
“an individual whose attitudes or behavior bring him into conflict with the system is up against a force that is too powerful for him to conquer or escape from, hence he is likely to suffer from stress, frustration, defeat. His path will be much easier if he thinks and behaves as the system requires. In that sense the system is acting for the benefit of the individual when it brainwashes him into conformity.)”
“In practice, the word “abuse” tends to be interpreted to include any method of child-rearing that produces behavior inconvenient for the system. Thus, when they go beyond the prevention of obvious, senseless cruelty, programs for preventing “child abuse” are directed toward the control of human behavior on behalf of the system.”
It’s an interesting question: are those who do their work “for the children” doing it for the ethical reasons they espouse or have they been brainwashed into helping society produce conforming individuals?
“Generally speaking, technological control over human behavior will probably not be introduced with a totalitarian intention or even through a conscious desire to restrict human freedom.  Each new step in the assertion of control over the human mind will be taken as a rational response to a problem that faces society, such as curing alcoholism, reducing the crime rate or inducing young people to study science and engineering.”
“When parents send their children to Sylvan Learning Centers to have them manipulated into becoming enthusiastic about their studies, they do so from concern for their children’s welfare. It may be that some of these parents wish that one didn’t have to have specialized training to get a job and that their kid didn’t have to be brainwashed into becoming a computer nerd. But what can they do? They can’t change society, and their child may be unemployable if he doesn’t have certain skills. So they send him to Sylvan.”
“In paragraph 127 we pointed out that if the use of a new item of technology is INITIALLY optional, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional, because the new technology tends to change society in such a way that it becomes difficult or impossible for an individual to function without using that technology. This applies also to the technology of human behavior. In a world in which most children are put through a program to make them enthusiastic about studying, a parent will almost be forced to put his kid through such a program, because if he does not, then the kid will grow up to be, comparatively speaking, an ignoramus and therefore unemployable.”
“Human freedom mostly will have vanished, because individuals and small groups will be impotent vis-a-vis large organizations armed with supertechnology and an arsenal of advanced psychological and biological tools for manipulating human beings, besides instruments of surveillance and physical coercion.”
“And, as nuclear proliferation has shown, new technology cannot be kept out of the hands of dictators and irresponsible Third World nations. Would you like to speculate about what Iraq or North Korea will do with genetic engineering?”
Talk about misplaced concerns. This is totally mainstream thinking. It’s always interesting to see that even someone who has spent so much time coming up with an independent framework, who rails against the conventional wisdom still ends up espousing the most mainstream views that benefit the ruling class the most. It’s kind of surprising to see Kaczynski knee-jerk assume that one of the official enemies of the state would be so much more horrible with technology than the U.S. had already proved itself to be. This makes him no different from those who wonder aloud what Russia would do with their nukes—as if the U.S. had never completely maliciously wiped out two whole cities with them.
“We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all power to the machines. 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 as machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more and more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results 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.”
“Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or to make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they most certainly will not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.”
“Very repellent is a society in which a person can satisfy his need for power only by pushing large numbers of other people out of the way and depriving them of THEIR opportunity for power.”
“Thus people would spent their time shining each other’s shoes, driving each other around in taxicabs, making handicrafts for one another, waiting on each other’s tables, etc. This seems to us a thoroughly contemptible way for the human race to end up, and we doubt that many people would find fulfilling lives in such pointless busy-work. They would seek other, dangerous outlets (drugs, crime, “cults,” hate groups) unless they were biologically or psychologically engineered to adapt them to such a way of”
So, that happened, I guess: Uber, Etsy and Blue Apron.
“However, propaganda of the rabble-rousing type may be necessary when the system is nearing the point of collapse and there is a final struggle between rival ideologies to determine which will become dominant when the old world-view goes under.”
A literal description of the Bolshevik revolution that he disparaged earlier. Kaczynski doesn’t seem to know how to feel about those pesky Russians. He admits that their methods (and those of the French) worked, but is always quick to follow up with relief that the program they wanted to enact never truly came to fruition. Here, too, Kaczynski shows his susceptibility to anti-Communist and anti-Socialist brainwashing (i.e. his hatred of the group of haphazardly thrown-together people he terms “leftists”).
“The line of conflict should be drawn between the mass of the people and the power-holding elite of industrial society (politicians, scientists, upper-level business executives, government officials, etc.). It should NOT be drawn between the revolutionaries and the mass of the people. For example, it would be bad strategy for the revolutionaries to condemn Americans for their habits of consumption. Instead, the average American should be portrayed as a victim of the advertising and marketing industry, which has suckered him into buying a lot of junk that he doesn’t need and that is very poor compensation for his lost freedom.”
“192. But the way to discourage ethnic conflict is NOT through militant advocacy of minority rights (see paragraphs 21, 29). Instead, the revolutionaries should emphasize that although minorities do suffer more or less disadvantage, this disadvantage is of peripheral significance. Our real enemy is the industrial- technological system, and in the struggle against the system, ethnic distinctions are of no importance.”
This is the point being made today: the most important fight is the class war, not the ethnic one. It is the war in which we are all one side. There is no sense in getting equal rights for all, regardless of ethnicity if all you’ve won is the equal right to a be a wage slave. If you win the war against being wage slaves together, then you automatically win the other war as well. Certain people do have it much, much worse but fighting that battle first is a distraction happily promulgated by the elites, most of whom will happily grant minorities more rights as long as the kowtow to the system of which they are the undisputed head.
“Suppose for example that some “green” party should win control of the United States Congress in an election. In order to avoid betraying or watering down their own ideology they would have to take vigorous measures to turn economic growth into economic shrinkage. To the average man the results would appear disastrous: There would be massive unemployment, shortages of commodities, etc. Even if the grosser ill effects could be avoided through superhumanly skillful management, still people would have to begin giving up the luxuries to which they have become addicted. Dissatisfaction would grow, the “green” party would be voted out of office and the revolutionaries would have suffered a severe setback. For this reason the revolutionaries should not try to acquire political power until the system has gotten itself into such a mess that any hardships will be seen as resulting from the failures of the industrial system itself and not from the policies of the revolutionaries.”
“And as long as anyone harbors in some corner of his mind a negative attitude toward some minority, the leftist has to re-educated him. And ethnic minorities are not enough; no one can be allowed to have a negative attitude toward homosexuals, disabled people, fat people, old people, ugly people, and on and on and on. It’s not enough that the public should be informed about the hazards of smoking; a warning has to be stamped on every package of cigarettes.”
It really sounds like Jordan Peterson has stolen quite a bit from the Unabomber’s playbook.
“Because of their capacity for single-minded devotion to a cause, True Believers are a useful, perhaps a necessary, ingredient of any revolutionary movement. This presents a problem with which we must admit we don’t know how to deal. We aren’t sure how to harness the energies of the True Believer to a revolution against technology.”
“The conservatives are just taking the average man for a sucker, exploiting his resentment of Big Government to promote the power of Big Business.”
“For another thing, most of the deregulation affects business rather than the average individual, so that its main effect is to take power from the government and give it to private corporations. What this means for the average man is that government interference in his life is replaced by interference from big corporations, which may be permitted, for example, to dump more chemicals that get into his water supply and give him cancer. The conservatives are just taking the average man for a sucker, exploiting his resentment of Big Government to promote the power of Big Business.”
“If a society needs a large, powerful law enforcement establishment, then there is something gravely wrong with that society; it must be subjecting people to severe pressures if so many refuse to follow the rules, or follow them only because forced. Many societies in the past have gotten by with little or no formal law- enforcement.”