Book Review: Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How by Ted Kaczynski

Anti Tech

Yes. That Ted Kaczynski.

From Wikipedia:

Theodore John Kaczynski (born May 22, 1942), also known as the Unabomber, is an American mathematician, anarchist and domestic terrorist. A mathematical prodigy, he abandoned a promising academic career in 1969, then between 1978 and 1995 killed 3 people, and injured 23 others, in a nationwide mail bombing campaign that targeted people involved with modern technology. In conjunction with the bombing campaign, he issued a wide-ranging social critique opposing industrialization and advancing a nature-centered form of anarchism…

In 1971, he moved to a remote cabin without electricity or running water in Lincoln, Montana, where he lived as a recluse while learning survival skills in an attempt to become self-sufficient. In 1978, after witnessing the destruction of the wild land surrounding his cabin, he concluded that living in nature was untenable and began his bombing campaign. In 1995, Kaczynski sent a letter to The New York Times and promised to “desist from terrorism” if the Times or The Washington Post published his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, in which he argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom and dignity by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization…

Kaczynski was the target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) longest and costliest investigation. Before his identity was known, the FBI used the title “UNABOM” (UNiversity & Airline BOMber) to refer to his case, which resulted in the media calling him the Unabomber. The FBI (as well as Attorney General Janet Reno) pushed for the publication of Kaczynski’s manifesto, which led to his sister-in-law, and then his brother, recognizing Kaczynski’s style of writing and beliefs from the manifesto, and tipping off the FBI. After his arrest in 1996, Kaczynski tried unsuccessfully to dismiss his court-appointed lawyers because they wanted to plead insanity in order to avoid the death penalty, as Kaczynski did not believe he was insane. On January 22, 1998, when it became clear that his trial would entail national television exposure, the court entered a plea agreement, under which Kaczynski pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at ADX Florence, where he remains as of 2017.

I was contacted by the publishers of Ted Kaczynski’s latest treatise Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How after writing a short but positive review of the original 1995 manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future on the website Goodreads. They offered me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Naturally, I was eager to take up their offer.

Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How is an astonishing and, in my opinion, important attempt at analysing and outlining the root causes of modern society’s ills and the potential end result of where advances in technology may take us. A work like Anti-Tech Revolution is not easily reviewed. Since this is not a work of literature it cannot be reviewed based on its narrative flow and style. We must examine ourselves before approaching a political manifesto. Fundamentally, how positive one receives the message contained within Anti-Tech Revolution will very much depend on one’s own pre-existing values and opinions. Kaczynski does an excellent job in outlining what he sees as the situation of our current malaise, but admits himself that certain audiences are more receptive to certain ideas than others and it is a wasteful use of time to try to convince an audience that will never accept the book’s basic premise. It is no use handing a copy of Marx’s Communist Manifesto to a confirmed Libertarian and expecting an overnight conversion to Socialism. So it is with Anti-Tech Revolution. How much you will agree with Kaczynski’s conclusions is most probably already determined before you even open the book.

It is also an unescapable truth that an audience cannot separate the author from the work, no matter how predisposed they may be to his views. The fact of the matter is that Ted Kaczynski did carry out a campaign of domestic terrorism that injured 23 people and killed 3 others. It is also a fact that Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty and is currently serving eight life sentences without the possibility of parole. Is it moral to review a book written by such a person? How you answer that question will very much depend on your own pre-existing sympathies and value system.

I do not normally discuss politics on either this blog or on my related social media feeds. Regular readers will know that apart from the occasional book review I normally confine myself to satire and parody. However, in the interests of disclosure, I will state that I am not unsympathetic to the views of Ted Kaczynski and we both share similar views on phenomena like globalisation, centralisation, bureaucracy, technology and “leftism” (as Kaczynski described his view of the origins and psychology behind mainstream liberal thought in his original Industrial Society and Its Future). That statement alone will also automatically inform any reader on how much their own view of Anti-Tech Revolution might or might not align with mine.

My first thought on reading Anti-Tech Revolution was it quickly becomes apparent that the author’s current incarceration has quite the influence on the sources gathered by Kaczynski to outline his point of view. Jailed and presumably severely limited in access to the internet, Kaczynski’s sources largely come from whatever resources he has access to in his prison library (the Encyclopaedia Britannica is referenced frequently) and assistance he has obtained from his large number of outside correspondents. This has a profound influence over the book’s structure in both positive and negative ways. Millennials may not realise that scholarly books were once written without the aid of the internet and that it was once frequent to quote books from five, fifty, one hundred and even two thousand years ago. This reliance on older sources is quite refreshing to the modern reader and gives the book a wandering style not dissimilar to that of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s when the author makes frequent detours into classical or medieval philosophy and history. It also emphasises that many of the arguments and fears covered by Kaczynski are not confined to our digital age: the consequences of rapid technological progress have been known since ancient times. However, it is admittedly a weakness of a book that discusses technology to be so outdated on recent trends in technology itself (though it does reinforce the argument that technological progress is accelerating faster and faster). The smartphone revolution has passed Kaczynski by while he has been confined to a prison cell; likewise other recent advances are conspicuously absent.

As the title suggests, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How is neatly divided into the “why” and “how” of Kaczynski’s worldview. The book is divided into the following four chapters, with several appendices included at the end:

Part One: The Development of a Society Can Never Be Subject to Rational Human Control

Part Two: Why the Technological System Will Destroy Itself

Part Three: How to Transform a Society: Errors to Avoid

Part Four: Strategic Guidelines for an Anti-Tech Movement

Parts One and Two cover the “why” of what Kaczynski perceives as the reasons for modern society’s problems and why it needs to be destroyed. Parts Three and Four get into detail on “how” to do so. Here I shall outline each section in more detail.

The first part – The Development of a Society Can Never Be Subject to Rational Human Control – is the book’s most accessible. The reader doesn’t have to subscribe to the author’s anti-tech views to understand and agree with the arguments contained within. This is a very rational argument, but one that does need constant emphasising as its lesson does seem to be forgotten again and again by socialists, fascists, utopians, bureaucrats and all others who keep repeating the same mistake. No society can be controlled 100% by a central authority, and no central authority can forecast with 100% accuracy the direction the future will take. The development of human society, because it is composed of those strange irrational creatures called humans, can never be forced to completely follow a model concocted by some central planning theorist. Again, there are many echoes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works on randomness and probability – more than once I wondered if Taleb was aware of Kaczynski’s writing.

Initially, it seems strange for a book dedicated to technology to devote its first section to the fallacies of economists and political theorists, but the logic soon becomes clear. Kaczynski is providing background on the human forces that have given rise to our growing use and dependence on technology. On the one hand we have competing groups throughout history who use technology to gain short-term advantages over their rivals in the eternal scramble for access to resources without consideration to the long-term consequences (though Kaczynski makes the excellent point that this is inescapable: any group that thinks too long-term will inevitably be wiped out by their more short-term thinking neighbours. A good argument as to why China’s current relentless growth may succeed but doom us all in the process). On the other hand, we have central planners who advance technology in an attempt to further control society and make accurate predictions to its future. Kaczynski argues that this is impossible. To even predict with total accuracy what would happen across the entire world in just the next sixty minutes would require an impossible amount of calculations.

We then move onto Part Two: Why the Technological System Will Destroy Itself. This section will be more familiar to readers of Kaczynski’s original manifesto and follows similar themes of self-propagating systems, accelerationism and environmental destruction. Great detail is given in this section – much more detail than can be covered in a mere review – but suffice to say, Kaczynski does not share the same views of people like Ray Kurzweil and other technologists who believe we are heading for a post-Singularity utopia where an all-knowing Artificial Intelligence will advance eternally and transform us into digital immortals. No. Though Kaczynski is unable and unwilling to give a timeline, his very forceful argument is that technology can only continue to accelerate, and we are accelerating to our inevitable ruin. The global spread of the technological system over our now tightly interconnected world means such ruin will also be global (perhaps little pockets like Bhutan may survive; Bhutan incidentally resembling probably the closest real-life example of how Kaczynski views a more sustainable society).

Anti-Tech Revolution doesn’t delve into how technology and “leftism” progress forward together as the original manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future did, but the undertone is there. Shanghai-based accelerationist Nick Land has repeatedly alluded to the metaphor of an increasingly inter-connected, tech-dominated, left-leaning world that has slowly but unstoppably grown through the course of history as something akin to an out-of-control Lovecraftian monster (although Land appears to want the monster to succeed). Fellow neo-reactionary Mencius Moldbug has also coined the succinct epitaph: “Chthulhu may swim slowly, but he always swims left.

The question is: if the technological system is fated to inevitably destroy itself (and us with it), why does Kaczynski wish to bring about its destruction and why bother writing a manifesto explaining how to do so? His argument is simple. It is better to destroy the system now rather than later. Destruction of the world’s technology would be devastating and involve death for a large percentage of the global population, but it will be nothing compared to the total destruction that awaits us when technology is even more advanced and our resources even more depleted.

With that argument, Kaczynski launches into the “how” of his revolution. Parts Three and Four discuss a strategy to create an anti-tech movement and outlines the errors to avoid. Anybody who has ever read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals will know what to expect in these two sections; Kaczynski himself acknowledges his debt to this book, though he shares zero common ground with Alinsky’s objectives. Many references are made to historical revolutions (the Bolsheviks, Mao, Irish nationalists)  and a few short-term and long-term strategies are presented as possible options for anyone who seriously wishes to take Kaczynski’s argument to their logical end. Like the chapter on human irrationality, a reader doesn’t have to share Kaczynski’s worldview to appreciate the detail and thoroughness of his arguments. Incarceration has obviously given the Unabomber time to consider every angle possible, and the steps on how to organise a community are food-for-thought for daily life, not just when organising the downfall of technological civilisation.

Inevitably, the “how” of the book is weaker than the “why” since the “how” is more conjecture than arguments based on empirical evidence. There are a small number of times when it also seems to descend into something akin to Live Action Role Playing, but these few and far between.

Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How was probably one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in the last ten years. It was the first time since university that I actually read through a book with a pen and paper to take notes. There are a handful of books that after reading them have left a deep and lasting imprint on my mind and political outlook – Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Taleb’s Antifragility – and Anti-Tech Revolution will join them on that list. This isn’t the work of a psychotic nutjob: all of Kaczynski’s arguments are backed up with empirical evidence and his writing is both intelligent and highly logical. I can see the truth of what Kaczynski is trying to tell us, though I am personally unable to follow the logic all the way to its conclusion. Who exactly is going to carry out his anti-tech revolution and bring down everything modern society is based upon? Certainly not me. I will be the first to admit that if anybody succeeded in enacting Kaczynski’s grand plan than myself and my family will be amongst the first to be wiped out. Rootless, atomised within urban society, unable to survive without the accoutrements of modern technology and lacking the support network of someone in a more traditional way of life: I and everybody I hold dear would be dead within weeks of a large-scale takedown of the internet, an electromagnetic pulse, blowing up our energy sources or any of the other possibilities that Kaczynski outlines. That’s if the destruction of the technological system didn’t cause a nuclear meltdown or war that wiped me out first. I may be sympathetic to the views of Ted Kaczynski, but I have too much skin in the game to wish to see his vision succeed. Despite this, I agree with his conclusions on where we are heading – and it terrifies me. Culture wars and skirmishes between the alt-left and conservatives are just mere paraphernalia to what is really going on.

Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How by Theodore John Kaczynski is published by Fitch & Madison and available on Amazon. Ted Kaczynski does not receive any remuneration from the sales of the book.

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If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How by Ted Kaczynski

  1. Just started reading it. Of course in similar vein has been those of anarchic bent like Derrick Jensen (End Game, Welcome to the Machine) and his mentor, John Zerzen (Against Civilization, Twilight of the Machines). Interesting take… yea, my interest in Land has been this intersection of technicity and accelerationism… his myth of the equalization of technicity and capitalism, an outgrowth of his involvement and critique of Kant to Derrida…. of course Derrida’s whole influence coming from Heidegger and the erasure of the line between technology and thought which in our time is obviously the rise of AGI. For Land it’s a retroactive insurgency, an advanced AGI has been organizing its own resources toward the Singlularity using humanity and will in its emergence make our species obsolete and obsolesce us in due course, etc.

    I’ll have to return when I have more time and see what else you’ve been up too. C’ya…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes. Land seems to think along the lines of Roko’s Basilisk but with Land being a cheerleader for the Basilisk rather than afraid of it. Thanks for commenting as I wasn’t aware of your blog. I keep this blog mainly for book reviews and China satire but my other interests lie directly in the ground covered by your blog so look forward to reading through your archives.

    Liked by 1 person

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