On Kaczynski

In a discussion on Hacker News over the sustainability of Silicon Valley-style urban development, 'minikites said:

I agree with the following quote:

A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on. For example, consider motorized transport. A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems. When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one, and anyone who did choose to buy an automobile could travel much faster and farther than a walking man. But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car. Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. In the country, motor traffic makes it dangerous and unpleasant to walk along the highway. (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.)

'minikites opted not to cite the source of this quote, but the style is instantly recognizable to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the writings of Theodore Kaczynski; indeed, the quoted passage is paragraph 127 of Industrial Society and its Future, also known as “The Unabomber Manifesto”.

Given this provenance, it’s not necessarily surprising that the citation was elided; on the other hand, for all that Jamie Zawinski is not at all wrong in regarding Hacker News as “a DDoS made of finance-obsessed brogrammers and manchildren”, and n-gate’s more recent take on the site is trenchantly on point, these are not all that are to be found on Hacker News. For whatever reason, some remarkably insightful people tend to cluster there as well, and the discussions which take place do so under a broad general assumption of civility and charity which is, in my experience at least, rarely to be found anywhere else on the Internet. I mention this to note that, had the quote been given in the context of its author, that would not necessarily have caused anyone to disregard it out of hand.

Which is not to say that anyone would take it at face value, either. In this example, Kaczynski ignores the fact that, while a walking man may indeed go at his own pace, that pace is strictly limited by his muscle power and endurance, and the distance of his travel likewise limited. This omission is no accident; Kaczynski’s entire chain of reasoning originates from the axiom that the past, where the consequences of technological advancement do not exist, is strictly preferable to the present, where they do. It is of no interest to him to acknowledge that those consequences are not entirely negative; the closest thing approaching such a concession is an offhand gesture in paragraph 1, and throughout the rest of the essay he proceeds on the assumption that modern technological society is iniquitous in its entirety, without so much as a glimmer of any sort of offsetting virtue.

In my youth, having first read Kaczynski’s manifesto not long after its initial publication, I considered the man to be an acute observer and reasoner, parting ways with him only as he reached the point of saying, in paraphrase, “and that’s why we have to start blowing shit up and killing people”. I labored under the misapprehension that only here did Kaczynski’s previously acute reasoning fail. Where I erred was in myself failing to realize that “and that’s why we have to start blowing shit up and killing people” was no error in reasoning, but rather a necessary consequence of the postulates from which that reasoning proceeds. If technological development continues indefinitely absent intervention, and if the increase in technological attainment incurs a monotonically increasing level of alienation from everything which makes human life meaningful and worthwhile and satisfactory, then of course any enormity is justified to exactly that extent in which it slows, stops, or reverses the present course of technological increase unbounded by any constraint save those imposed by physical and economic reality. No matter how grievous the action, no matter how high its short-term cost in mutilation, murder, destroyed livelihoods, wrecked families, smashed infrastructure, wounded souls, and disrupted lives – that short-term cost is bounded, and the indefinite lifetime of our species means that, once the counter-technological utopia has been achieved, the long-term payoff bought at that cost is effectively unbounded – however long the species should endure in this utopian state where technology is forbidden and ingenuity viewed with suspicion at best, every day of that time is a brand new victory.

This is hardly a line of reasoning unique to Kaczynski. Revolutionaries around the world have shared it, and we may if we so choose find here an example of the perceptual distortion imposed by a certain strain of politics: that, for so many people, “revolutionary” bears such a strongly positive connotation. One wonders how long such noble connotations might endure in, say, the heyday of Strychnine Hill – which is, make no mistake, exactly the kind of place that this sort of “revolutionary” thought, implemented assiduously enough, necessarily produces: a machine, one among many, for the systematic destruction of human beings at industrial scale and in fashions as grossly horrific as their ingenious implementors could achieve.

Had Kaczynski’s ideas achieved the broad adoption he sought for them, there is no reason to doubt that they would have produced exactly such machines. People will want to keep their cars and their iPhones, and eventually what else is there to do with those so obdurate in their heresy save consign them to the flames? Of course, six hundred years on, we can do so much better than mere fire – just as in so many other realms where ingenuity and industrialization have enabled enormous advances in process efficiency and throughput, the annihilation of insufficiently satisfactory human beings is no different. For all that the previous century saw vast advancements in this monstrous field, no doubt there’s much further still to go; had Kaczynski’s manifesto been broadly adopted, we’d have gone there and would be there even now, and our machines of human slaughter would be the horror and pity of the world. There is a hideous sort of irony here, and I’m glad it’s not one we have had occasion to explore in reality.

It’s not at all wrong to say that the recent and historically unprecedented rate of technological attainment, which we as a species have achieved, has had many deleterious effects which we do not yet know well how to prevent. No doubt it will continue to do so for a while yet. Such an environment makes it even easier to romanticize the past than usual – after all, we don’t live there any more, and our memory of whatever pains it brought us is not equal to the experience of those we suffer in the present.

We therefore face, now and always, a critical choice. On the one hand, we may decide that our necessarily romanticized recollection of the past offers more joy, more hope of human fulfillment, than any possible future. On the other hand, we may decide that, for all the manifold and grievous flaws our present world entails, we nonetheless possess the capacity, individually and in the large, to build for ourselves a future in which tomorrow really does present a reasonable prospect of being better than today – a future in which human fulfillment not only grows more possible of attainment than the past has ever seen, but indeed encompasses possibilities not only unknown to our forebears but entirely outside the scope of what our forebears could imagine. Whether Silicon Valley, at least as commonly conceived, has any critical role in so doing, I cannot say – I tend not to think so, but Scott Alexander has had some interesting points to make in this connection which give me to suspect I fail to fully encompass the reality of the situation. But we have the possibility before us, Silicon Valley or no.

Of course it’s possible that, in seeking to build such a future, we may fail in ways that do more harm than good. Indeed, I suspect it’s inevitable. But history also tells us of the consequences should we decide in failing that the attempt is not worthwhile, that we must instead give up trying for a future and instead make for ourselves a home in our halcyon imagination of the past – and the lesson of history on this point is anything but savory. We can hope to build ourselves a better future; our forebears, after all, have many times done exactly that. We cannot reasonably hope to build ourselves a better past.

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