August 1, 2017

Three cool things to know about "Manhunt: Unabomber"

Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski

Tonight the Discovery Channel kicks off Manhunt: Unabomber, an eight-part miniseries on the FBI's search for Ted Kaczynski, the man who killed three people and injured 23 others in a years-long campaign aimed at sparking a revolution against technology. In the course of researching my book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, I studied Kaczynski's campaign and the ideas that drove it. Here are three points to keep in mind if you're tuning in tonight's show.

1. Few would argue that Ted Kaczynski suffered from some serious mental issues. One of them was a fundamental contradiction between his personality and his mission: He was an avowed enemy of technology whose psychological orientation was decidedly technocratic. Thus he pursued his revolutionary goals in ways that were far more consistent with the character of technology than with the natural freedoms he killed to protect.

It's important to remember that, by training and profession, Kaczynski is a mathematician, not a poet. He revered and presumably still reveres logic and rationality, explicitly rejecting the more intuitive perceptions that commonly inspire artists, nature lovers, and other romantics. Ted's brother David told the FBI that he and Ted had argued for years over the sufficiency of science versus the utility of art. David argued that there are “mystic unknowables” that can’t be quantified or understood but that add immeasurably to the depth and meaning of existence. Ted would have none of it. He based his life, he said, on “the Verifiability Criterion.” Facts are all that matter, and a fact is valid only insofar as it can be proved true or false.

One clue that caused David Kaczynski to conclude that Ted had written "Industrial Society and its Future" (aka "the Unabomber Manifesto") was its use of the phrase "cool-headed logicians." David knew that was how Ted often described the superior mindset of scientists. In the manifesto Kaczynski compares their analytical rigor with the ineffectual whining of leftist intellectuals, who Kaczynski says are drawn to "orgiastic" art that encourages "throwing off rational control as if there were no hope of accomplishing anything through rational calculation and all that was left was to immerse oneself in the sensations of the moment." (See sections 17-18 in "Industrial Society and its Future.")

The precautions Kaczynski took to avoid discovery and capture are evidence of his technocratic faith in measurement and precision. Notebooks recovered from his cabin in Montana revealed a four-grade system to classify the sensitivity of his writings and a ten-grade system to classify disposal methods for potentially incriminating waste materials. Detailed maps marked the locations of supply stashes hidden in the hills, should escape into the wilderness become necessary. Diagrams showed where in relation to the surrounding brush the stashes were buried and how deeply, measured to the inch; quantities and types of flour and other foodstuffs stored, calculated to the ounce; inventories of ammunition rounds, sorted by caliber, counted to the grain. 

It took a certain amount of technical skill to construct the bombs Kaczynski used to kill, of course, but his dedication to the task manifested a true technocratic fervor. (And yes, "cool-headed logicians" notwithstanding, technocrats can be fervent in their pursuit of rationality, which is one of the reasons their rationality so often goes off the rails.) In their hunt for the Unabomber, the FBI's profilers noted that the man they sought had assembled, disassembled, and reassembled his bombs so obsessively he must have gotten “some sort of bizarre sexual satisfaction” from the labor.

Kaczynski's mug shot
2. Many readers of Kaczynski's manifesto have found themselves surprised by the perspicacity of its arguments. These include the director and showrunner of tonight's miniseries, Greg Yaitanes. "It's incredibly relevant to today," Yaitanes told the New York Times, adding that the manifesto predicts "exactly" where we've come in the twenty-two years since its publication.

Another admirer of the manifesto is the technology enthusiast Kevin Kelly, who devotes more than ten pages in his book What Technology Wants to Kaczynski's ideas. "I have read almost every book on the philosophy and theory of technology and interviewed many of the wisest people pondering the nature of this force," Kelly wrote. "So I was utterly dismayed to discover that one of the most astute analyses of the technium [Kelly's word for technology as a systemic phenomenon] was written by a mentally ill mass murderer and terrorist."

For one who claims such an encyclopedic knowledge of the philosophy of technology, it's odd that Kelly is unaware of the philosopher who most profoundly influenced Kaczynski, Jacques Ellul. A French sociologist and theologian who died in 1994, Ellul's theories aren't popular among academics in the field, but he's far from obscure. David Kaczynski has said that Ted considered Ellul's masterpiece, The Technological Society, his "bible." In his biography of Kaczynski, Harvard and the Unabomber, Alston Chase quotes Kaczynski as claiming (immodestly) that upon reading the book he immediately recognized "someone who is saying what I have already been thinking." Chase says that Kaczynski corresponded with Ellul, although he provides no documentation of that correspondence.

Kevin Kelly finds common ground with Kaczynski in the latter's insistence that technology is a unified entity that behaves autonomously and aggressively. "It is not mere hardware," Kelly writes; "rather it is more akin to an organism. It is not inert, nor passive; rather the technium seeks and grabs resources for its own expansion. It is not merely the sum of human action, but in fact it transcends human actions and desires." That's a reasonable summary of the major themes in Ellul's The Technological Society, themes Kaczynski echoes in his manifesto.

(Jacques Ellul has been the strongest influence on my own study of technology; I wrote a masters thesis based on his thought and he is cited frequently in my book. For descriptions of his philosophy and his reputation, see my profile of him in the Boston Globe, "Jacques Ellul, technology doomsdayer before his time," and my blog essay, "The Unabomber's Favorite Philosopher (and Mine)." Both pieces make clear that there is nothing in Ellul's work that endorses violence of any kind, much less murder.)
Kaczynski's capture as depicted in Manhunt: Unabomber
3. In their New York Times interview, the producers of Manhunt: Unabomber say that they wanted to avoid portraying Kaczynski as a "monster." Actually, he is, or was, a monster, but I think the point they're making is that there are reasons he turned out that way, reasons the miniseries will explore.  

Dramatic television isn't very good at exploring ideas, so I'll be surprised if Manhunt goes into Kaczynski's theories of technology in any depth. However, the idea that he isn't a monster resonates with a notion that gained surprising traction at the time he was arrested: that a lot of people in the culture, perhaps a majority, sympathized to some degree with his antipathy toward technology. As the journalist Robert Wright said in an essay for Time magazine: there's "a little bit of the Unabomber in most of us." An essay by Daniel J. Kevles in The New Yorker said the same thing, in almost the same words, under a headline reading “E Pluribus Unabomber.”

In his book, Alston Chase argues that "Industrial Society and its Future" failed to arouse as much attention as it might have not because its ideas were so foreign but because they were so familiar. Except for its call to violence, Chase says, the manifesto’s message was “ordinary and unoriginal." Its concerns about technology, he said, "embodied the conventional wisdom of the entire country...It was nothing less than the American creed.”

Chase's book is a fine work overall, but that comment seems a huge overstatement. He goes on to cite a long list of popular books that represent the anti-technological consensus he feels exists, ranging from Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance and E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful to Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. The same message shows up repeatedly, he adds, in contemporary children’s stories and textbooks, reflecting the fact that Americans have long been “gripped by fear of, or revulsion against, the very technology the Unabomber now warned about: genetic engineering, pollution, pesticides, and herbicides, brainwashing of children by educators and consumers by advertising; mind control, cars, SUVs, power plants and power lines, radioactive waste; big government, big business; computer threats to privacy; materialism, television, cities, suburbs, cell phones, ozone depletion, global warming; and many other aspects of modern life."

That’s actually a more comprehensive list of technological worries than Kaczynski provided in his manifesto, but I doubt he'd quarrel with it. The question remains, though: Is Chase correct that these concerns place the manifesto squarely in the mainstream of American thought?

As I argue in my book, Chase is half right. Polls consistently find that Americans are both exhilarated by the latest developments in technology and fearful of their effects. Typically exhilaration has been in the lead, but with the influences of science and technology becoming increasingly powerful and increasingly disruptive, it's quite possible fear may be gaining. In any event, it's safe to say that technology produces—and has historically produced—a deep-seated ambivalence in the national psyche. Kaczynski wrote contemptuously of Americans' inconsistencies toward technology: They want, he said, to have their cake and eat it, too. To which Americans could reasonably reply, Sure we do. Who wouldn't?

I think Kaczynski is right, though, that a degree of fatalism underlies our ambivalence. As he wrote in his manifesto, "The technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown. Many people understand something of what technological progress is doing to us yet take a passive attitude toward it because they think it is inevitable." 

Ted vowed that he, for one, would not go quietly, and he hoped that at least some of us would join him. Despite our reservations, most of us have, so far, declined the invitation. 

 ©Doug Hill, 2017


  1. Doug --- I have managed to watch (thankfully able to jump over the endless advertising by recording in advance!) the first six (or maybe it is now seven) episodes on the Discovery Channel. The dippy acting and dialogue is hard to watch. Far too much focus on and credit to the FBI; it was Ted's sister-in-law and his brother who figured out the author of the published manifesto and had the courage and moral backbone to turn him in. The series portrays Ted more as a wounded child than a mad genius. It hardly acknowledges Ellul's ideas, and grapples with them not at all. Let's make a film called "Not So Fast"!! (BTW fun fact: I was a senior at Berkeley in 1967-68, Ted's first year of two on the math faculty there. I think Langdon might have been there that same year. Not just free speech, not just anti-war, but vigorous protest against the technocratic "multiversity" was a hot topic among many of our 28,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff; needless to say, we didn't get a chance to meet or chat!

  2. I couldn't agree with you more, David. The miniseries sucks. The producers obviously felt they had to have someone to root for, hence the focus on the FBI agent, making him a hero despite the fact that, as you say, it was Ted's brother and sister-in-law who broke the case. The writing of the show is just awful...cliche on top of cliche. Kaczynski hardly appeared on the screen until last week's episode. I was surprised to see a minuscule, bizarre mention of Ellul in that episode -- no one who doesn't know him wouldn't have noticed. Re your time at Berkeley, it fascinates me that Ted would have adopted the 60s understanding of the dangers of technology but at the same time would have developed such a hatred for "leftists" and "intellectuals." He spends as much space in his manifesto deriding them as he does talking about technology -- presumably a legacy of his time at Berkeley.