Catching Up With the Unabomber. When Does the End Justify the Means?

Kaczynski after his capture in 1996.

Kaczynski after his capture in 1996.

The Unabomber, known as Ted Kaczynski, was not a fan of technology. To expose the world to his anti-technology philosophy, from the years 1978 to 1995, Kaczynski sent 16 bombs to universities and airlines, killing three people and injuring 23, before he was eventually caught and sent to prison. He remains there today. At one time, he was possibly the most famous criminal in the world.

He said of technology’s role:

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. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity.

In his essay Industrial Society and Its Future, Kaczynski argued that while his bombings were “a bit” extreme, they were quite necessary to attract attention to the loss of human freedom caused by modern technology. His book Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber” breaks all of his philosophies down for those of us that just know him through corporate news stations.


Was the Unabomber crazy, or just so sane he was blowing our minds?

I talked to David Skrbina, confidant of Kaczynski, and philosophy professor at the University of Michigan. Skrbina wrote the intro to Technological Slavery.

Can you tell me a bit about how you and Kaczynski began to communicate? Are you still in touch with him today?

Back in 2003, I began work on a new course at the University of Michigan: Philosophy of Technology. Surprisingly, such a course had never been offered before, at any of our campusesI wanted to remedy that deficiency.

I then began to pull together recent and relevant material for the course, focusing on critical approaches to technology. These, to me, were more insightful and more interesting, and were notably under-analyzed among current philosophers of technology. Most of them are either neutral toward modern technology, or positively embrace it, or accept its presence resignedly. As I found out, very few philosophers of the past four decades adopted anything like a critical stance. This, for me, was highly revealing.

Anyway, I was well aware of Kaczynski’s manifesto, “Industrial society and its future,” which was published in late 1995 at the height of the Unabomber mania. I was very impressed with its analysis, even though most of the ideas were not new to me (many were reiterations of arguments by Jacques Ellul, for example—see his 1964 book The Technological Society). But the manifesto was clear and concise, and made a compelling argument.

After Kaczynski was arrested in 1996, and after a year-long trial process, he was stashed away in a super-max prison in Colorado. The media then decided that, in essence, the story was over. Case closed. No need to cover Kaczynski or his troubling ideas ever again.

By 2003, I suspected he was still actively researching and writing, but I had heard nothing of substance about him in years. So I decided to write to him personally, hoping to get some follow-up material that might be useful in my new course. Fortunately, he replied. That began a long string of letters, all on the problem of technology. To date, I’ve received something over 100 letters from him.

Most of the letters occurred in the few years prior to, and just after, the publication of Technological SlaverySeveral of his more important and detailed replies to me were included in that book—about 100 pages worth.

We’ve had less occasion to communicate in the past couple years. My most recent letter from him was in late 2014.

You have said that his ideas “threaten to undermine the power structure of our technological order. And since the system’s defenders are unable to defeat the ideas, they choose to attack the man who wrote them.” Can you expand on that?

The present military and economic power of the US government, and governments everywhere, rests on advanced technology. Governments, by their very nature, function to manipulate and coerce people—both their own citizens, and any other non-citizens whom they declare to be of interest. Governments have a monopoly on force, and this force is manifest through technological structures and systems.

Therefore, all governments—and in fact anyone who would seek to exert power in the world—must embrace modern technology. American government, at all levels, is deeply pro-tech. So too are our corporations, universities, and other organized institutions. Technology is literally their life-blood. They couldn’t oppose it in any substantial way without committing virtual suicide.

So when a Ted Kaczynski comes along and reminds everyone of the inherent and potentially catastrophic problems involved with modern technology, “the system” doesn’t want you to hear it. It will do everything possible to distort or censor such discussion. As you may recall, during the final years of the Unabomber episode, there was very little—astonishingly little—discussion of the actual ideas of the manifesto. Now and then, little passages would be quoted in the newspapers, but that was it; no follow-up, no discussion, no analysis.

Basically, the system’s defenders had no counterarguments. The data, empirical observation, and common sense all were on the side of Kaczynski. There was no rational case to be made against him.

The only option for the defenders was an ad hominem attack: to portray Kaczynski as a sick murderer, a crazed loner, and so on. That was the only way to ‘discredit’ his ideas. Of course, as we know, the ad hominem tactic is a logical fallacy. Kaczynski’s personal situation, his mental state, or even his extreme actions, have precisely zero bearing on the strength of his arguments.

The system’s biggest fear was—and still is—that people will believe that he was right. People might begin, in ways small or large, to withdraw from, or to undermine, the technological basis of society. This cuts to the heart of the system. It poses a fundamental threat, to which the system has few options, apart from on-going propaganda efforts, or brute force.

What do you think of the fact that when our government, or any figure in authority such as a police officer, kills in the name of the established belief system, it is thought of as just. But when a guy like Kaczynski kills in the name of his belief system, he is thought of as a deranged psychopath?

As I mentioned, governmental authorities have a monopoly on force. Whenever they use it, it is, almost by definition, ‘right.’ Granted, police can be convicted of ‘excessive force.’ But such cases, as we know, are very rare. And militaries can never be so convicted.

At best, if the public is truly appalled by some lethal action of our police or military, they may vote in a more ‘pacifist’ administration. But even that rarely works. People were disgusted by the war-monger George W. Bush, and so they voted in the “anti-war” Obama. Ironically, he continued on with much the same killing. And through foreign aid and UN votes, Obama continues to support and defend murderous regimes around the world. So much for pacifism.

Let’s keep in mind: Kaczynski killed three people. This was tragic and regrettable, but still, it was just three people. American police kill that many citizens every other day, on average. The same with Obama’s drone operators. Technology kills many times that number, every day—even every hour. Let’s keep things in perspective.

Kaczynski killed in order to gain the notoriety necessary to get the manifesto into the public eye. And it worked. When it was published, the Washington Post sold something like 1.2 million copies that day—still a record. He devised a plan, executed it, and thereby caused millions of people to contemplate the problem of technology in a way they never had before.

Does the end justify the means? It’s too early to tell. If Kaczynski’s actions ultimately have some effect on averting technological disaster, there will be no doubt: his actions were justified. They may yet save millions of lives, not to mention much of the natural world. Time will tell.

You recently wrote a book, The Metaphysics of Technology. Can you tell us a little about that?

Sure. In thinking about the problem of technology, it struck me that there was very little philosophical analysis about what, exactly, technology is. We’ve had many action plans, ranging from tepid and mild (think Sherry Turkle), to Bill Joy’s thesis of “relinquishment” of key technologies, to Kaczynski’s total revolution. But if we don’t really understand what we’re dealing with, our actions are likely to be misguided and ineffectual. In short, we need a true metaphysics of technology.

On my view, technology advances with tremendous, autonomous power. Humans are the implementers of this power, but we can’t really guide it and we certainly can’t stop it. In effect, it functions as a law of nature. It advances with an evolutionary force, and that’s why we are heading toward disaster.

I see technology much as the ancient Greeks did—as a combination of two potent entities, Technê and Logos (hence ‘techno-logy’). For them, these were quasi-divine forces. Logos was the guiding intelligence behind all order in the universe. Technê was the process by which all things—manmade and otherwise—came into being. These were not mere mythology; they were rational conclusions regarding the operation of the cosmos.

Like the Greeks, I argue that technê is a universal process. All order in the universe is a form of technê. Hence my coining of the term ‘Pantechnikon’—the universe as an orderly construction, manifesting a kind of intelligence, or Logos. Our modern, human technology is on a continuum with all order in the universe. (Harvard astrophysicist Eric Chaisson has argued for precisely the same point, incidentally; see his 2006 book Epic of Evolution.)

The net effect of all this is not good news for us. Technology is like a wave moving through the Earth, and the universe. For a long while, we were at the peak of that wave. Now we’re on the downside. Technology is rapidly heading toward true autonomy. Our opportunity to slow or redirect it is rapidly vanishing. If technology achieves true autonomy—we can take Kurzweil’s singularity date of 2045 as a rough guide—then it’s game over for us. We will likely either become more or less enslaved, or else wiped out. And then technology will continue on its merry way without us.

This is not mere speculation on my part, incidentally. Within the past year, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have all come out with related concerns. They don’t understand the metaphysics behind it, but they’re seeing the same trend.

How has your experience communicating with Kaczynski changed you as a person and as a philosopher?

As a philosopher, not that much. Kaczynski generally avoids philosophy and metaphysics, preferring practical issues. In a sense, we are operating on different planes, even as we are working on the same problem.

As a person, I have a greater understanding of the basis for the ‘extreme’ actions that he took. It’s not often in life that you get a chance to communicate with someone with such a total commitment to their cause. It’s impressive.

Also, the media treatment of his whole case has been enlightening. When his book, Technological Slavery, came out in 2010, I expected that there would be at least some media coverage. But there was none. The most famous “American terrorist” publishes a complete book from a super-max prison—and it’s not news? Seriously? Compare this topic to the garbage shown on our national evening news programs, and it’s a joke. NPR, 60 Minutes, Wired magazine, etc.—all decided it wasn’t newsworthy. Very telling.

One last thing: Expect to hear from Kaczynski again soon. His second book is nearing completion. The provisional title is “Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How.” But don’t look for it on your evening news.

Things are not as simplistic as you think.

Buy Technological Slavery, by Ted Kaczynski, and The Metaphysics of Technology by David Skrbina. Kaczynski does not profit from his book.

Brian Whitney’s latest book is Raping the Gods.