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Industrial Society and Its Demise: The Unabomber 27 Years On

27 years since the Washington Post first published the Unabomber’s manifesto, technology has advanced rapidly, shaping our modern way of life. But just how accurate were Kaczynski’s predictions about the future?

Credit: Real Crime/YouTube

In 1996, following a 16-year nationwide manhunt by the FBI for the mysterious “Unabomber”, Ted Kaczynski was arrested at his remote cabin in Montana. The arrest came after the publication of Ted’s 35,000-word manifesto titled “Industrial Society and its Future”, which had led to Kaczynski’s brother David notifying the authorities. But what was the message of this manifesto? And, 27 years later, does it stand the test of time?

Kaczynski’s Life

Before delving into the manifesto itself, it is important to understand the story which surrounds it. Theodore John Kaczynski was born in Chicago in 1942. From an early age, he displayed a high intelligence, having tested 167 in an IQ test, and he was a gifted mathematician. His younger brother, David, was seven years his junior, though similarly showed a strong intellect. Although exceptionally smart, Ted was shy as a child. At school, he would skip both 5th and 11th grade due to his intelligence, though this would further isolate him from others as he was bullied by his older peers.

Kaczynski went on earn degrees from Harvard University and the University of Michigan respectively, going on to teach mathematics at the University of California for 18 months. He would resign from this position in late 1969 and move back in with his parents for a short while, before moving back out again to live in a rural cabin he had built in Montana. Here, he intended to become entirely self-sufficient, so he could live independent from society, separated from the outside world. As he became more isolated from the outside world, Kaczynski’s view of technology and industrialisation, as well as society as a whole, grew more and more critical.

Credit: FBI

The Rise of the Unabomber

Ted’s personal rebellion against society would soon transition from passive resistance to active sabotage. Beginning in 1975, he would sabotage developments near his residence in an attempt to hinder their progress – this, however, was not sufficient. On May 25th 1978, Ted would deliver his first bomb to Northwestern University, followed by another one almost a year later to the same location. Neither bomb would prove fatal to anyone, but they would mark the beginning of the Unabomber’s reign of fear in America.

Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski would deliver 16 bombs to various locations, each one targeting individuals he deemed to have contributed to the destruction of nature. By the end of this period, his bombs (made almost entirely out of scrap materials) had injured 23 people and killed 3. Taking more than 17 years, the FBI’s investigation of the Unabomber was the longest in history, as well as the most expensive, costing a little over $50 million. Kaczynski eluded them through the use of misleading clues, as well as being cautious not to leave any forensic evidence.

However, the authorities would finally catch a break in June 1995 when Kaczynski sent several letters to different newspapers, offering to end his bombing campaign if they would publish his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. While initially skeptical as to the moral justifications of complying with the Unabomber’s demands, on September 19th, it was published by The Washington Post in the hopes a reader would recognize the writing.

Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana
Credit: FBI

Industrial Society and its Future

“The industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” This is the opening line to Industrial Society and its Future, and sets the tone for Kaczynski’s main argument in the manifesto – industrialization and the development of technology over the past two centuries have had an overwhelmingly negative impact on society. This impact can be broken down into three points:

The Destabilisation of Society

In an increasingly industrialized state, the needs of society have gradually impeded more and more on the freedom of the individual. In order for the system to function, humans are required to be regulated and comply with whatever society demands of them. For example, the rapid development of technology in recent decades has allowed law enforcement to become increasingly efficient in tracking down and capturing criminals. This, however, is a double-edged sword, as without limitations it will create a society in which privacy is non-existent and the individual’s freedom is constantly in the hands of the state. We have seen examples of this most prominently in Hong Kong, as the Chinese government used surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, and radio frequency identification chips to suppress the 2020 riots. Kaczynski defines freedom as control, specifically the ability for an individual to control the circumstances of their life. The ever-expanding usage of technology in our current society directly challenges this autonomy.

Lack of Purpose

Kaczynski argues that in modern society, people spend their time almost entirely on “surrogate” activities – activities that hold no real meaning or value, and contribute nothing towards humanitarian progress. In a society where our primary needs are all met, humans will pursue “artificial goals” in order to gain a false sense of fulfillment in life. One form of surrogate activity would be that of political/social activism – Kaczynski condemned left-wing liberals as over-socialized groups of people, plagued with feelings of inferiority, who seek minor reforms rather than wholescale change. These liberals want the state to solve everyone’s problems for them and take care of them, to essentially treat them as children. As collectivists, they oppose individuality and autonomy, instead pushing for state control over society, all under the guise of social “progress”.

Psychological Suffering

Technology, in Kaczynski’s eyes, has increased psychological suffering for individuals within a society. Humans have the basic need for a cycle which he calls the “Power Process”. This “power” consists of four main elements; goal, effort, attainment of goal, and autonomy. Simply put, people need to have goals that require effort to reach. If an individual has everything they need or want they become bored and demoralized. Through technology, individuals can attain whatever they desire (consumerism of clothing, devices, items, entertainment) with ease. Without goals that require effort to work towards, the result is feelings of “defeatism, low self-esteem or depression”. Technology has also made certain issues too difficult for individuals to challenge, such as the invasion of privacy or damage to the environment, both caused by the rapid development of the industry. This helplessness in the face of expanding industrialization further contributes to these feelings.

Ted’s Solution

To Kaczynski, the only way to counter the effects of industrialization and technology would be for society to collapse in on itself through revolution, allowing them to return to its pre-industrial state. Reform is limited by the fear of going “too far”, whereas revolution, while violent, provides an opportunity for society to be uprooted entirely, bringing radical change about quickly. Ted’s bombing campaign was done both to promote his manifesto and gain attention to his ideas, but also to speed up the process of this societal collapse through fear and destruction.

Kaczynski’s Arrest

Following the publication of the manifesto, thousands of people sent in suggestions to the FBI of possible suspects. The most promising lead, however, came from one David Kaczynski, who suspected his older brother. David provided letters and documents which Ted had written, which showed many similarities to the manifesto in both the writing style and the themes/subjects presented.

Kaczynski was arrested on April 3rd, 1996, at his cabin in Montana. As well as numerous bomb components, and over 40,000 journal pages, federal agents discovered a live bomb that Ted presumably intended to send out. During his trial, Ted refused to plead insanity in fear of his work being discredited, leading him to plead guilty to 10 counts of transportation, mailing, and use of bombs, as well as three counts of murder. Ted was sentenced to eight consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

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