A misguided manifesto

Nearly 20 years ago, the national media was abuzz with the publication of the Unabomber’s manifesto. The editors at the St. Paul Pioneer Press wanted someone to read and analyze it, but the task proved to be beyond the ability of its columnists and journalists. Then the Technology Editor had the bright idea of having their twenty-something games columnist have a look at it, thereby resulting in the only time my name appeared on the Pioneer Press Op/Ed page.

I found this when I was digging through some of my old game review columns that I’ve been gradually scanning and putting up at Recommend. I thought perhaps it might be of interest to the sort of hardcore readers who will swing by today as well as those who used to read my WND column to see how my thought processes have been fairly consistent over the years.

Unabomber misses how technology aids freedom
St. Paul Pioneer Press
October 4, 1995

While the Washington Post’s publication of the Unabomber’s treatise, “Industrial Society and its Future,” has attracted much attention and commentary, it is unfortunate that most of the discussion has revolved around the question of publication rather than the manifesto itself.

The publication issue is not only of little interest to anyone outside the newsrooms, but also will resolve itself soon, as Unabomber imitators will either begin to crawl out from under their rocks, or they will not.

But the treatise is not worthy of attention so much for the macabre means through which it reached the mainstream media as for the concepts it contains. The Unabomber’s discussion of modern leftist psychology is not only thought-provoking but insightful, while his indictment of the evils brought about by industrial society carry more weight than the critiques put forth by latter-day Marxists. Nevertheless, when it comes to the issue of technology and human freedom, the Unabomber goes astray.

The manifesto traces many of the psycho-social problems of modern society to the Industrial Revolution. Since technology has made it unnecessary or impossible for humans to support themselves independently, it prevents them from exercising the natural Power Process of goal setting and attainment. (The “Power Process” is a concept that psychologists say is necessary for human mental health. The “Power Process” is the natural need of humans to exert some degree of control over their own destiny.) This inability to exercise the Power Process leads inevitably to the loss of dignity and human autonomy. The central point of the treatise thus revolves around the inherent conflict between technological development and individual freedom.

The Unabomber sees the seductive nature of technology as a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom. While each new technology appears desirable by itself, the totality of societal-technological advance slowly envelops us, whether we actively choose to accept it or not. As we become dependent on the new technologies, government steps in and regulates access to them, removing even limited opportunity to exercise the Power Process and eventually resulting in the reduction of human beings to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine.

What this theory ignores is that technology is a double-edged sword. Far from being the inevitable tool of government repression, technology has historically shown itself to be a primary force in providing freedom and power to the people. The monopolistic power of the medieval Catholic Church could not have been broken without the printing press, just as the omnipresent television cameras recently helped Boris Yeltsin and the infant Russian democracy movement survive the last reaction of the Soviet hardliners.

Governments and other would-be oppressors may use technology, but they are also afraid of it in the people’s hands. Witness our own government’s fear of high-level encryption software and its tawdry attempts to force the Clipper encryption chip on us. The Clipper chip would have allowed the FBI and other government agencies to read any data supposedly encrypted by the public. God forbid that we should send e-mail without the FBI being able to read it!

And the Chinese government has a tiger by the tail as it learns how difficult it is to allow free technological development and still keep the masses under control. The point is that technology can be a force for freedom as well as a weapon against it.

To prevent us from being turned into cogs in the techno-industrial machine, the Unabomber’s manifesto prescribes a return to a more natural state where our time would be spent exercising the Power Process by surviving via primitive methods, so we would no longer need to find surrogate means of exercising the Process. By “surrogate means,” he meant art, science, sports and anything not immediately related to survival. One wonders where the dignity and autonomy are to be found in the primitive life that Hobbes once characterized as nasty, brutish and short.

This regressive longing for a return to the natural state is nothing new. At the very least it echoes back 200 years to Rousseau. But human nature is very much a part of nature too, and like the Left he disdains, the Unabomber argues his way into the totalitarian corner of making choices for people in order to preserve their freedom to choose. George Orwell would have been proud.

But truly autonomous freedom, the freedom to choose and to exercise the Power Process also means the freedom to choose poorly. If Americans are working harder and longer than before, it is not because technology forces them to do so, but because many of us have decided to work more in order to pursue the larger TV, the BMW or the second home. These decisions to pursue things we do not need may well be foolish, but they are not the Unabomber’s to make. They are ours.

Day writes a Sunday technology column for the Pioneer Press.