Fringe — 10 May 2013

Recently, I went back and read Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” in its entirety. There is a particularly illuminating passage in the book, one famously discussed by Bill Joy in his well-known essay, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”:

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. 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.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite – just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.

Reduced to the status of domesticated animals. Sheep, in other words. No matter what you think about Kaczynski’s methods (and I object to them wholeheartedly, killing people with bombs simply to draw attention to yourself is misguided and immoral, in my opinion) he has a serious point. Have we become so reliant on machines that our humanity is rapidly slipping away from us? Do we not sublimate our desires into mindless, meaningless, and harmless hobbies (I am looking at you NBA, NFL, video games, Dancing with the Stars, etc.). Do we not engineer and re-engineer our moods, our consciousness through the use of mind-altering drugs (so that we may bear the unbearable, tolerate the intolerable, and generally just carry on?)

Kaczynski argues that no half-measures will ever suffice to put a halt to industrial society, and instead argued for the total destruction of the machine, returning mankind to a hunter-gatherer type existence on the planet. In other words, it’s off to the Singularity or back to the Stone Ages, there is no middle ground. I tend to agree with him here, but ultimately the neo-Luddites like Kaczynski have little chance to rise up and destroy industrial society and its companion social mores and consequences. The gig, as it were, is up.


About Author


Trained in anthropology and the history of science at the University of Arkansas, MIT, and Harvard University, I am drawn to stories about emerging technologies and humanity's future. I am also a permaculture designer, and when I am not thinking about the Singularity, I like to pick berries and tend to my goats. Follow me on Twitter: @happydrones

  • TapiocaTundra

    I’ve been thinking an awful lot about this essay, which I read last year, since this NSA thing blew up.

    • the happy drone

      Yeah, I actually read Industrial Society and Its Future again a couple of days ago. On a Kindle, of all things. Kaczynski warned about pervasive surveillance and the rise of the machines and was called a paranoid schizophrenic. Well, we’re there now, and nobody really cares (except for those few people who are actually paying attention, a small minority.) Most people are simply taken in by surrogate activities, another point of his. So I think that he is right about a lot of things. But I don’t think that it is possible to turn back.

      When buffalo see that a big storm front is coming over the prairie, they race into it, knowing that they’ll get through it sooner than they would if they ran away or stood still. Just a thought.

      Thanks for checking in.

      • TapiocaTundra

        Funny, that’s where I read it. The entire time I was thinking about how ironic it was to read this work on a Kindle.

        Speaking of his “schizophrenic” label… he also warned about how psychiatric diagnoses would be used to confine, drug, or otherwise do away with people who didn’t fit The System.

        Lately, this essay seems to apply to everything! It’s creepy!

      • Scotty

        Maybe shouting into a boundless empty star chamber… Disqus, is OUR “hobby” in this technological world. Eons into the future, they will discover these conversations recorded somewhere, as a virulent minority railed against the machine they couldn’t stop.

  • doom

    How can you say you disagree with his methods? He only killed people who deserved it, bombed people who deserved it, the mengele’s creating this sick and twisted world in which we now live. His methods if practiced by billions would make us free. An article written by a sheep with a nice little disclaimer at the end, grow a pair.

  • ccf inc

    I think he wasn’t taking about machines, but elite society that will control blind society. As he was studying in place for elite only, but he was such genius that incidentally got there he saw that very clearly, later his attacks ware directed to this who have decision making positions and execute will of elite. We can see clearly that gradually middle class disappear and space between very wealthy and very poor is starting to appear in every country. He had a chance to see who does that to secure their position forever and in his opinion they ware criminals of civilization.