A Great Passing:
Reflections on 20 Years with the Unabomber
Theodore J. Kaczynski died at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina on June 10, 2023. He had been serving multiple life sentences, without parole, in a “Super-Max” facility in Colorado for his role in the Unabomber crimes between the late 1970s and 1995, in which he killed three people and injured 23 with mail bombs. He was 81 years old.
I won’t elaborate here on his crimes; such material can easily be found online — and indeed, this is virtually all that the mainstream media want to discuss about Kaczynski: his bombings, his murders, his mental health, his “terrorism.” The last thing they want to discuss is the reason why he conducted his bombings: because of the mortal threat posed by industrial technology, and the need to destroy it.
Ted understood the dangers of modern technology better than most, and he eventually constructed a solid and compelling argument against it and against the ability to “reform” or fix it. He outlined his case in a lengthy essay, Industrial Society and Its Future (ISAIF), which he felt had to reach many people in order to have an effect. He therefore determined that only by acquiring sufficient notoriety and leverage could he ensure a high-visibility publication. For him, a campaign of mail-bombings did the trick. In September 1995, he — one man, working alone — effectively defeated the entire United States government, including the FBI, and forced them to print his entire manifesto in the Washington Post. It is an astonishing story.
Sadly, his own brother recognized the text as Ted’s work, and turned him in to the FBI. Six months later, they arrested him at a small cabin in rural Montana. After a year of comical legal proceedings, the government negotiated a plea deal: life in prison without parole. This was 26 years ago. After 24 years in Colorado, he developed cancer, was sent to the facility in North Carolina for extended treatment, and died there last week.
I have a special interest and special connection to this man. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy, but my earlier degree work in mathematics and science gave me an excellent grounding in technology, and I was blessed to have a great philosopher of technology, Henryk Skolimowski, as my friend and mentor for many years. I met Henryk when I was an undergrad student at the University of Michigan — incredibly, Ted’s own alma mater, where he earned his doctorate in math in 1967. Henryk was an early and prominent critic of modern, industrial technology, and he put me on to the substantial and compelling writings of the French theologian Jacques Ellul, whose own book, The Technological Society (1964; French original 1954), was a landmark work. It was this very book that also prompted Kaczynski to his initial skeptical ideas. Eventually, I became Ted’s most famous “pen pal” — more on that below.
I should note that I was a technology critic from around 1980, well before anyone had heard of a “Unabomber.” I knew there were solid, well-grounded arguments against advanced technology. I knew about the thesis of ‘technological determinism,’ in which technology is seen as a primary driver behind social and political change. And I knew that only radical solutions were likely to have any effect. Ted knew these things, too, and he had already concluded that rebellion, in some form, might be able turn the tide, before the system was able to utterly crush human dignity and destroy the natural world — as it evidently was doing.
Thus, I was highly intrigued when stories began emerging in the early 1990s that a person or group with an “anti-tech ideology” was behind a string of mailbombs. I awaited each new little snippet of Unabomber text that was teasingly leaked out by the media. I could quickly see that this person was intelligent and serious, and had a real driving motive for what he was doing. The government could see it, too, and that’s why they were so worried.
Then came the bombshell release of the manifesto, in full and unedited, on September 19, 1995. “He won,” was my immediate reaction; “he beat the US government.” No matter what happened after that, the manifesto was out in the world, for millions to read. Ted had won.
I purchased two copies of the Post that day: one went into my personal files (where it stands today), and the other was to use as a cut-up for my wife and I to type the entire thing into my PC. It seems weird now, but there was functionally no real Internet at that time, no online source to copy-and-paste from. So we typed the whole thing, by hand, into our simple home computer, just to put it into a form that could be worked with, drawn from, and shared. (Yes, there was irony in digitizing an anti-tech manifesto, but such is the nature of a technological society; it forces us all into compromises and ‘hypocrisies’ in order to function as members of society.)
There followed Ted’s capture, the yearlong trial process, and the years of incarceration. For a while, the media loved to talk about Ted: his upbringing, his genius IQ, his troubles at Harvard, his alleged run-in with “MKUltra,” his mental health, his homemade bombs, and so on — everything except the manifesto. Odd, I thought; his anti-tech philosophy was what drove him to his actions, and it addressed a global threat to all humanity, and yet no one — I mean, no one — wanted to talk about that. Wow. That was a major eye-opener for me, into media deceit: They would talk about trivial issues galore, but real and substantive things that threatened the very system that they were a part of, forget it. Never think that the media is about truth-telling, or “shining a light,” or holding the powerful accountable. No — they are about profits, self-preservation, and defense of their chosen ideology, nothing more.
I went on to complete, firstly, my Master’s degree in mathematics (at Michigan), and then my Ph.D. in philosophy, in 2001. By 2003 I was an adjunct faculty in philosophy at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, teaching, among other things, the Philosophy of Technology. Since I created this course from scratch, I was free to compile new reading material for the students, including parts of the manifesto. This was paired with a pro-tech piece by Ray Kurzweil, for contrast. But since it had been six years since his incarceration, and the media had dutifully said nothing about Ted in that time, I decided to write to him directly: to get his latest thoughts, both on the manifesto and on any new ideas he might have. I expected no reply, but sure enough, some four weeks later a hand-written letter appeared in my university mailbox. The return addressee: Theodore Kaczynski, Super-max prison, Colorado.
Thus began a long, detailed, interactive dialogue with Ted that spanned some 12 years, resulting in around 150 letters from him to me, and leading to his first book, Technological Slavery (first published in the US in 2010). It seems that I was the only person with any academic credentials willing to carry on a serious discussion with him. This was shocking to me; it really showed the complacency of American academics; their unwillingness to tackle serious, controversial issues; and frankly, their cowardice. And even though I was a fellow “Luddite,” it’s not like I was mindlessly buying every argument by Ted. Much of our correspondence consisted of my challenges and push-back: “what about this . . .,” “did you think about that . . .,” “a critic might say this . . .” One can see this in Technological Slavery, where about a quarter of the book is “Letters to David Skrbina,” in which Ted defends himself against my critiques. It was a fascinating and fruitful dialogue.
Over time, I published my own anti-tech books. First, the reader Confronting Technology (the latest edition of which was published in 2020), giving a look at anti-tech views throughout history. And most importantly, my own monograph, The Metaphysics of Technology (Routledge, 2015), in which I lay out a metaphysical basis for technological determinism, and where I analyze the long history of technology skepticism in Western thought. From the mass media, one would think that the only stout anti-techies in history were the original Luddites, and then Kaczynski himself. This is far from the truth. There has been ample warning — dire warning — by many of our most brilliant thinkers. If we don’t know that, the blame falls to ignorance, censorship, and cowardice.
Since the publication of Technological Slavery, events have proven Ted right. Things are as bad, or worse, than he forecast. The Internet and social media have imposed a terrible psychological cost on people, especially children and teens. We have killer drones buzzing around the planet, in the hands of militaries and individuals alike. Most of the industrial West is saturated with electromagnetic radiation (think 5G), dangerous chemicals, and toxic wastes. The moral and cultural quality of society continues its long decay. We have “lab-leaked,” and maybe lab-created, pandemics such as Covid, which is nothing if not a high-tech construction — let alone those clever, high-tech “cures,” the mRNA vaccines. Super-AI creations such as ChatGPT threaten to run amok with our social infrastructure, leading, in the worst scenarios, to literal human extinction. And people spend hours and hours per day, every day, on office computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Lest we think that technology is under our control and works for us, consider this: If technology is getting ‘better’ everyday, as it surely is, and if it is intended to promote human wellbeing (how could it be otherwise), then why aren’t people doing better? Are we getting stronger, healthier, and happier as technology progresses? No — in fact, precisely the opposite: People are worse off, year by year, in nearly every way. And yet technology is supposedly under our control, and serves us. How can that be?
If technology is getting better every year, why isn’t the health of the planet improving? With better technology, species should be thriving, waters and forests regenerating, the skies becoming cleaner and clearer. And yet, precisely the opposite is happening — by nearly every measure, the planet is getting worse. How can that be, if technology is under our control?
The answer is this: Technology is not under our control; it is not a “neutral tool” to be used for good or ill; it is not something that we correct or reform as we like. Technology drives itself. It is an autonomous process, something like a law of nature. It needs us, for now, but soon it will not. And then all bets are off.
In my Introduction to Ted’s Technological Slavery, I explained that he was being badly maligned, woefully misunderstood, and that one day he would seem prophetic — perhaps even a kind of savior. But this would occur only if we grasped and acted on the implications of his ideas . . . ideas that belonged to the likes of Ellul, and Mumford, and Illich, and Orwell, and Whitehead, long before they were “the Unabomber’s” ideas.
For years, we didn’t want to “give a terrorist a platform.” For years, we didn’t want to grant Ted any “satisfaction.” Now those excuses are gone. Will we now, in our own self-defense, reexamine those issues that he raised years ago? Or will we continue to thrust our heads in the sand, as the timebomb ticks away?
David Skrbina, Ph.D. is the author or editor of 11 books and over two dozen academic articles and chapters, on a variety of topics. All his work can be found at www.davidskrbina.com.
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