by UnHerd
Wednesday, 19
May 2021
Idea
07:00

Is anti-tech terrorism the wave of the future?

The Unabomber's ideas are spreading from the online world to the real one
by UnHerd
Meet the Karl Marx of anti-tech radicalism

Theodore John Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, is still alive. He was a maths prodigy who abandoned academia in 1969. He moved to a remote cabin in the Montana woodlands, there to return to a more primitive life. In horror, he watched as his personal Eden was invaded by developers and tourists.

He began a terrorist campaign. Bombs, increasingly sophisticated, in parcels and letters that were sent to airline headquarters, university labs, computer stores. Three people were murdered, others were maimed. Like any academic he had big ideas and he wrote a manifesto — Industrial Society and Its Future. He posted it to newspaper editors: publish this or more people will die. In 1995 the Washington Post published the entire thing. Kaczynski’s brother recognised the tone, and the FBI found the Unabomber with his help.

The Unabomber, committed to eight life sentences, has become a pop cultural icon, in the way only infamous American killers can be. There have been movies and documentaries; the ideas of Industrial Society and Its Future have found a home among communities of anarchists, primitivists, neo-Luddites, and ecofascists.

Now the first extensive study of Kaczynski’s ideology has been undertaken by the University of Cambridge’s Sean Fleming. The study is full of revelations. Fleming demonstrates that Kaczynski’s ideas have been misunderstood by his green anarchist and neo-Luddite followers on the Left, and fans on the far-Right, like the Norwegian Anders Brevik and the fascist party Golden Dawn, which translated Industrial Society into Greek in 2018.  According to Fleming:

Kaczynski has a Nietzsche-like quality: because he defies easy categorisation, he is a magnet for radicals of different stripes. But Kaczynski is more than a source of ideas for pre-existing radical groups. He has also created his own strand of radicalism and inspired an array of anti-tech radical groups. The most prominent of these is the Mexican terrorist group Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje (ITS – roughly, Individualists Tending towards the Wild), which picked up where Kaczynski left off and began sending bombs to scientists in April 2011. ITS and its offshoots have since claimed responsibility for attacks in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Greece, as well as many more in Mexico. Kaczynski’s own bombing campaign was a harbinger of things to come — and ITS may be only the beginning.
- Sean Fleming, University of Cambridge

Fleming argues that Kaczynski’s ideas are drawn from three well-known academics: French philosopher Jacques Ellul, British zoologist Desmond Morris, and American psychologist Martin Seligman. Industrial Society and Its Future makes the following arguments:

(1) Modern technology constitutes an indivisible, self-perpetuating ‘system’ that is not under human control; (2) human beings are biologically and psychologically maladapted to life in a technological society; (3) the continued development of the technological system will inevitably lead to catastrophe (i.e. the destruction of humanity or its total subordination to the system); (4) since the technological system cannot be controlled, and hence cannot be reformed, a revolutionary overthrow of the system is necessary to avert catastrophe; and (5) leftist activism is a form of pseudo-rebellion that serves to distract attention from the problem of technology
- Sean Fleming, University of Cambridge

The spread of these ideas, for Fleming, makes Kaczynski more than another lone wolf terrorist. He has become “the leader of a pack”:

Just as he had hoped, his Manifesto has spawned an ideology – a public discourse of anti-tech – and inspired a cluster of anti-tech radical groups. Kaczynski is not just an extreme example of an anti-tech radical, but also the founder and lodestar of a new form of anti-tech radicalism.
- Sean Fleming, University of Cambridge

Fleming believes that the novel ‘anti-tech radicalism’ that Kaczynski inspired will continue to grow and spread in the future. Fears about biotechnology, automation, mass surveillance, artificial intelligence, climate change, and nanotechnology will lead some radicals back to Kaczynski’s manifesto.

There are terrorism scholars and futurists who’ve already predicted a wave of ‘technophobic’ terrorism in this century. Fleming warns that:

As today’s most infamous anti-tech radical, and as the one with the most detailed blueprint for a revolution, Kaczynski may well become the ‘Marx’ of anti-tech.
- Sean Fleming, University of Cambridge

Join the discussion


  • Gunther Anders, the great German philosopher and an activist against the nuclear bomb, called our age of the 3d Industrial revolution “post-civilizational cannibalism”. Anti-technocracy is not “back to the woods”, it is not a return to savagery – on the contrary, technocracy is a culmination of Western savagery and ignorance. To fight technocracy, all is needed is true culture, true education, true philosophy, true Word, true intellect. Gunther Anders wrote in 1956, in his book The Obsolescence Of Man (which is as good as banned in the US or in English in general), providing a portrait of the technocratic terror: “In order to stifle any revolt in advance, one must not use violence. Methods like those used by Hitler are outdated. You need only develop such powerful collective conditioning that the very idea of revolt will not even cross people’s minds.
    Ideally, individuals should be conditioned by limiting their innate biological abilities from birth. Then, we would continue the conditioning process by drastically reducing education in order to bring it back to a form of integration into the world of work. An uneducated individual has only a limited horizon of thought, and the more his thoughts are confined to mediocre concerns, the less he can rebel. Access to knowledge must be made increasingly difficult and elitist. The gulf between people and science must be widened. All subversive content must be removed from information intended for the general public.
    Above all, there should be no philosophy. Here again, we must use persuasion and not direct violence: we will massively broadcast entertainment via television that always extols the virtues of the emotional and instinctive. We will fill people’s minds with what is futile and fun. It is good to prevent the mind from thinking through incessant music and chatter. Sexuality will be placed at the forefront of human interests. As a social tranquilliser, there is nothing better.
    In general, we will make sure to banish seriousness from life, to deride anything that is highly valued and to constantly champion frivolity: so that the euphoria of advertising becomes the standard of human happiness and the model for freedom. Conditioning alone will thus produce such integration that the only fear – which must be maintained – will be that of being excluded from the system and therefore no longer able to access the conditions necessary for happiness.
    The mass man produced in this way must be treated as what he is: a calf, and he must be kept a close eye on, as a herd should be. Anything that allays his lucidity is good socially, and anything that could awaken it must be ridiculed, stifled and fought. Any doctrine questioning the system must first be designated as subversive and terrorist, and those who support it must then be treated as such.”

  • You agree with (2), that we are “biologically and psychologically maladapted to life in a technological society,” but think reversion is unlikely, so we must alter ourselves to accommodate technology. In what ways?

  • I think some of that is already happening. Because of technology we now see ourselves in ways we never have before, and that creates feedback loops – humans eventually alter themselves in reaction when confronted with information, especially about themselves, and being altered then allows us to alter some more. For example I now work in ways totally different to 20 years ago, because I have instant access to facts and data (which I don’t need to memorise anymore), and access to other peoples ideas and suggestions to improve mine – it’s like having a somewhat whimsical enormously powerful personal djinn, but it cannot be denied that I’m fitting in around the way the djinn operates, and it’s then difficult to decide who is the master and who the slave.

    And moreover, we are now on the verge of getting hitched pretty directly to technological and biotechnological systems so boundaries between us and algorithmic processors and human created wetware biotech will blur soon enough. I believe such tech is no more than a decade away.

    This all stems from the fact that there is an impedance mismatch between biological systems (us) and electronic algorithmic processors we created (computing systems), which are many orders of magnitude faster. And as we can replicate much of human decision making on computers, it’s a one way street – you eventually get to the point where machine decisions first are indistinguishable from human ones, and then outdo humans – through sheer brute processing power if necessary, even if human thinking processes themselves cannot be fully replicated. The issue of ‘real intelligence’/sentience becomes an irrelevance if you cannot tell them apart from algorithmic decisions. For humanity the only route to survival is to incorporate the machines within us. All other routes lead to demise or zoodom. There are dangers of course, huge ones, but there isn’t really a choice.

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