By 2017 standards, a bearded man ranting in his manifesto about how “one of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world is leftism” might, at best, have a chance ending up name-checked by Alex Jones. Most likely, he’d become the hero of a thousand faceless message board posters. His 35,000-word diatribe against technology titled “Industrial Society and Its Future” might be suitable for a personal blog, but a national newspaper? Surely not.
Of course, more than 20 years ago, when Ted Kaczynski mailed out what would come to be known as the “Unabomber Manifesto,” it was huge news. After over a decade spent living as a recluse without electricity or running water in a cabin in Montana – sending mail bombs to university academics and corporate airline executives – Kaczynski sent letters to the New York Times and the Washington Post demanding they publish his manifesto and agree to print an annual follow-up for three years. If they did, the bombings would cease. If not, the Unabomber hinted at more bombings to come.
It had started in May of 1978, when a package exploded and injured a Northwestern University security officer. A year later, another bomb was sent to the same college, injuring a graduate student. Also in 1979, Kaczynski snuck a bomb into the cargo hold of an American Airlines flight. It went off mid-flight, causing an emergency landing and afflicting 12 passengers with smoke inhalation. In 1985, he switched things up, and sent a shrapnel-loaded bomb to a computer store in Sacramento, California, claiming the owner as his first victim. By the mid-1980s, the Unabomber had become a real-life American boogeyman. A killer who would strike without warning, and without much reason. Why was he doing what he did – and when would he do it again?
The publication of the manifesto would end up being his undoing. Members of Kaczynski’s family had a slight suspicion Ted could be the person behind the terror campaign. His brother David was one of the thousands of people who called the FBI tip-line after the manifesto was published and a million-dollar reward was offered for information leading to the capture of the Unabomber. After a long search, FBI agents arrested an unkempt Kaczynski in his Lincoln, Montana cabin on April 3rd, 1996. They found bomb making components, over 40,000 journal pages and the manifesto’s original typed manuscript.
There’s no defending the actions of a person who mails bombs with the intent to do serious harm. But Andrew Sodroski, executive producer of the new Discovery mini-series, Manhunt: Unabomber, thinks there is plenty to take away from Kaczynski’s words. As he said in a phone conference with reporters leading up to the show, “What the manifesto has to say about our relationship with technology and with society is more true right now than it was when Ted published it.”
Not many domestic terrorists convicted of murder get called prophetic by television producers – and there are scholars from different sides of the political spectrum who agree that the the Unabomber’s anti-technology stance was ahead of its time. “His work, despite his deeds,” wrote Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team, “deserves a place alongside Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, and 1984, by George Orwell.” Ray Kurzweil, noted author, computer scientist and futurist, quoted a passage from the manifesto in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Some believe he’s a murderous modern-day Henry David Thoreau, while others say he’s a genius and a prophet. So what, exactly did he get right?
Kaczynski opens his manifesto with, “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” The technology he goes on to rail against, keep in mind, was mid-1990s – before smartphones, before Twitter, before “Likes” on Facebook and algorithms helped pick out things for you to buy and experience. Although the word “dystopia” never shows up throughout the essay, Kaczynski believed (and you have to assume still does so from his prison cell) that the future wasn’t some Philip K. Dick or Handmaid’s Tale scenario; the dystopian future started happening a long time ago. Computer networks, the mass-communication media, the modern health care system, pesticides and chemicals, all products of the Industrial Revolution, are destroying the planet, he writes. As one portion of the manifesto is sub-titled, “The ‘Bad’ Parts of Technology Cannot be Separated From the ‘Good’ Parts.”
In point number 49 the manifesto, Kaczynski writes, “In the modern world it is human society that dominates nature rather than the other way around, and modern society changes very rapidly owing to technological change.” One of the big problems, he believed while writing his manifesto, was the inevitable growth of artificial intelligence and how humanity will cope with it. “First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them.” As one Wired article explained in 2015, “A manufacturing device from Universal Robots doesn’t just solder, paint, screw, glue, and grasp – it builds new parts for itself on the fly when they wear out or bust.” From checking you out at the grocery store to flipping burgers, robots are being designed to integrate into the labor force and cut costs.
He goes on to write in point number 172, “In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.” When Kaczynski’s thoughts were published, we were still dealing with the Terminator version of the robots overtaking humanity and destroying it – it was a nightmare scenario, fiction. But Kaczynski wasn’t writing speculative fiction; he was stating, from an academically-trained point of view, where he saw technology headed.
Technology overtaking humanity was only one of the scary possibilities. The rise of the “one percent” super rich and corporations controlling everything, was another. “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,” he wrote.
Tech companies have untold amounts of data on every person that logs online for everything from shopping for cat litter to ranting on Twitter. How to understand that data – and what to use it for – is an industry in itself. Could it be used to manipulate us? See the 2016 U.S. election and the rise of fake news spread through Facebook. “Hyperpartisan Facebook Pages Are Publishing False And Misleading Information At An Alarming Rate,” as one 2016 BuzzFeed article put it, showed up in feeds even if the people didn’t follow those groups. Some of the false news was spread the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth; but, as John Herman of the New York Times explained, misinformation on the social media service thrives or dies, “at least in part, on Facebook’s algorithm.” As Kaczynski believes, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All of this seemed farfetched when Kaczynski’s words were put in front of a mass audience. In 1994, audiences were being told suave cyberterrorists like the ones in the movie The Net were the ones looking to steal your information online and do whatever they please with it.
After all this, however, calling Kaczynski a prophet might be a stretch. He’s a highly intelligent person who wanted to try and stop where he saw humanity headed by any means necessary – including murdering people. Yet he routinely points out throughout his manifesto that there very well might be no stopping the inevitable. The entire point of his manifesto, as he states, is revolution, anarchy: “Its object will be to overthrow not governments but the economic and technological basis of the present society.” Kaczynski, who has stated admiration for the eco-anarchist movement (“but I think they could do it better,” he also said in an interview in 1999), takes aim at both leftists, including “socialists, collectivists, ‘politically correct’ types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like”). He also writes, “conservatives are fools,” and that they’re, “just taking the average man for a sucker, exploiting his resentment of Big Government to promote the power of Big Business.” Kaczynski even engages in some gaslighting: “Feminists are desperately anxious to prove that women are as strong and as capable as men. Clearly they are nagged by a fear that women may NOT be as strong and as capable as men.”
All of this reiterates the point that Kaczynski is no hero whatsoever. The person who wrote “Industrial Society and Its Future,” is a fanatic. And as is sometimes the case, fanatics can take things to the tragic extreme. Yet there is something to be taken away from his words if you read closely; it’s that we give up a piece of ourselves whenever we adjust to conform to society’s standards. That, and we’re too plugged in. We’re letting technology take over our lives, willingly. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t take a madman dressed up like a prophet to tell us; it’s all too evident. Kaczynski, to steal a phrase from the tech world, was just an early adopter of these thoughts. Yet his warning will probably forever go unnoticed because of the horrific deeds he carried out to get his message across.