Reflections on Kaczynski

Content warning: excessive quotation.

Within the context of a given society, technological progress can never be reversed. Once an innovation has been introduced, … not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but the system becomes dependent on it.

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.



Kaczynski’s thesis is that industrial society trades individual agency for systems complexity. Like free-range livestock, modern humans are allowed to eat and sleep wherever they want as long as they follow society’s easy rules: accept debts in order to live, work in order to repay debts, and do what you’re told while you’re at work (Regulated bureaucracy falls under “accept debts”. Paperwork, registration fees, taxes: debts of time, money, etc). According to Ted, one of society’s most egregious sins is the disruption of the power process , in short: setting, striving for, and achieving goals, with an optional “autonomy” dimension describing one’s attitude toward authority. Without cycling through this process in our daily lives - that is, with all our survival needs seen to by technological society - we moderns are left listless, yearning for something more. As a result, we turn to vicarious pursuits to get our existential fix:

We use the term “surrogate activity” to designate an activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that people set up for themselves merely in order to have some goal to work toward, or let us say, merely for the sake of the “fulfillment” that they get from pursuing the goal.

Here is a rule of thumb for the identification of surrogate activities. Given a person who devotes much time and energy to the pursuit of goal X, ask yourself this: If he had to devote most of his time and energy to satisfying his biological needs, and if that effort required him to use his physical and mental faculties in a varied and interesting way, would he feel seriously deprived because he did not attain goal X? If the answer is no, then the person’s pursuit of goal X is a surrogate activity.

… For many if not most people, surrogate activities are less satisfying than the pursuit of real goals. Thus the money-maker constantly strives for more and more wealth. The scientist no sooner solves one problem than he moves on to the next. The long-distance runner drives himself to run always farther and faster. Many people who pursue surrogate activities will say that they get far more fulfillment from these activities than they do from the “mundane” business of satisfying their biological needs, but that is because in our society the effort needed to satisfy the biological needs has been reduced to triviality.

The end result of this obsessive need for meaning is that larger and larger groups of humans work to preserve and expand technological society, either directly (through politics, etc) or indirectly (developing tech used to extend hegemony or perhaps prolong lifespan so that society’s workers can contribute more value), because society is an ends in itself . It is the secular religion. It is the winning team; it is always the good guys. Society is power incarnate. Remember back to the first ripple: the status quo is a power equilibrium between the inertia of the present social-political infrastructure and the disruptive capacity indirectly granted to the masses by that infra’s technology.

As society advances, the freedom of the individual naturally retreats as the outcome of every choice is redirected and sanded down to further benefit the system. Symbiotically, society creates incentive playgrounds for its members to run around in, and while every person believes they are making their own decisions, each opportunity they receive was selected long ago by the immeasurably vast State machine.

Today people live more by virtue of what the system does FOR them or TO them than by virtue of what they do for themselves. And what they do for themselves is done more and more along channels laid down by the system. Opportunities tend to be those that the system provides, the opportunities must be exploited in accord with rules and regulations, and techniques prescribed by experts must be followed if there is to be a chance of success.

Little of this is intentional - the contemporary “globalists” wish they were as good as mass-scale emergent order - but all of it is compelling, in the sense that society always gives you a good reason to follow along with everybody else. Billions of vehicles hit the road every day and drive at more or less the same speed as those around them, a nonstop ritual of multidimensional harmonic synergy. Watch the interstate from a plane. Each human a blood cell in a racing Heart, tar and exhaust and skyscraper limbs. Lovecraft’s gods, red and white eyes blinking on concrete tentacles.

When the system becomes sufficiently stressed and unstable, a revolution against technology may be possible. The pattern would be similar to that of the French and Russian Revolutions. French society and Russian society, for several decades prior to their respective revolutions, showed increasing signs of stress and weakness. Meanwhile, ideologies were being developed that offered a new worldview that was quite different from the old one. In the Russian case, revolutionaries were actively working to undermine the old order. Then, when the old system was put under sufficient additional stress (by financial crisis in France, by military defeat in Russia) it was swept away by revolution. What we propose is something along the same lines.

Kaczynski’s prophecy of the future is eerily similar to what we’ve seen of 2016: a world so accelerated into widespread technology that industrial society itself has been strained to the breaking point. (I will cover this in more detail later.) In times like these, Kaczynski calls for society itself to be destroyed, technology walked back, and the human race made whole again, back in unity with its sacred agency.


At this point the discussion bifurcates. Either society collapses at some point in the future, or it does not. If it does, likely we achieve Ted’s vision of a primitive, individually powerful world once again, at least until we start to fall down the market well again. (That is, a gravity well where the attraction force is market dynamics.) If it does not, humanity becomes the Borg, and the Netflix-sedated underclass clicks sponsored content and sips Coffiest 25/8 until heat death or universal IPO, or whatever else might happen.

We could make a judgment on which destiny to fight for. Instead, let’s bifurcate again: we will outline a judgement framework to propose two different values, each of which justifies a different destiny.

1. Kaczynski’s Advocate

Let’s entertain the idea that modernity sucks. And it does: those urbanites aware enough to raise their eyes from their screens once a month despise urbanity, and ruralites without access to alcohol, antidepressants, and suicide pistols cannot stand to live in rurality. The unfeeling market siphons capital relentlessly from field to firm to slush fund, frontend to friendly user to venture capitalist. There is no place for most of humanity at the terminus of an optimized economy, which we are rapidly approaching. You wouldn’t put crude oil into your car. The market won’t accept anything but the most concentrated value: today, that’s programmers, data scientists (another term for “market whisperers”), and CEOs. These three are the hands, eyes, and brain of the corporate organism. Everyone else has the choice to either feed this organism or be fed to it. And what a choice!

This is an affront to human dignity. We have democracy, Dancing with the Stars, and Hostess mini donuts to get us through the weekends, but our news headlines read like a Gibson novel. Sockpuppets of the state dispatch 140-character propaganda posters on social media. The national zeitgeist is closer to a limbic system than a coherent ideology. Trillions exchange hands at secluded international summits. Scheming shadows shuffle millions of lives across borders like poker chips. Everyone sees everything, yet no one knows anything. It would be simpler just to do away with it all.

Ask anyone on the street when in history they would want to have lived. Some people want a quiet farm, others dream of sailing the high seas or marauding in untamed lands. Universally, though, you’ll hear one sentiment echoed in just about everyone you ask: a longing for a simpler life. We might dismiss these feelings as blind nostalgia for a time modern people have never experienced. But if we look back at history, its myths and artwork and annals of past peoples, we witness this reactionary sentiment arise every time society shifts, almost universally. But to keep enjoying the benefits of society, these people had to silence their objections, sacrifice their freedom, and assimilate.

This is an atrocity. We demand liberty, or death. And we will fight until we claim one or the other.

And yet...

2. Facebergian Bargain

Between death and Netflix, most people would choose Stranger Things. That isn’t bad, per se. Animal species need a baseline life-preference to maintain biological fitness, although this propensity does leave us open to some pretty brutal exploitation techniques. It’s one of the many levers that modern society pulls to entice us through its many chutes and ladders.

But on balance, is that really so bad? Are industrial games like mortgages and postdoctorates in literature so much worse than berserker raiding parties and ice-fishing in furs? We are more civilized now, with more people living comfortably than ever before. Life expectancy is up and we have eliminated dozens of diseases. All information worth knowing is available via the internet, or through one of our many state-sponsored education institutions, which it is legally compulsory to attend for all citizens of learning age. Members of our society are capable, literate, and learned. In many ways we are already a utopia.

The future holds a great mystery for us, of course: there is the artificial intelligence question, and that of extraterrestrial life. But controlling for edge-case X-risks, humanity is likely to continue to accelerate and integrate with its technology until we (even moreso than now) resemble individual neurons in a planet-sized brain chugging along through the galaxy converting matter into computational power. The mechanism of this transformation is almost inconsequential: whether it’s Google, SpaceX, or Facebook that acquires the bioaugmentation startup in 2027, the Borginization of humanity happens eventually. Every action that benefits or preserves society is, in some remote way, a movement toward this goal. The capitalist demigods know this. Thiel, Musk, Zuck: They would rather ride the tiger than kill it, because once one beast is slain another will always rise and take its place. That is the iron law of market entropy: there is no stopping technology. Even Kaczynski downplays this risk:

[Once it has been destroyed,] would society EVENTUALLY develop again toward an industrial-technological form? Maybe, but there is no use in worrying about it, since we can’t predict or control events 500 or 1,000 years in the future. Those problems must be dealt with by the people who will live at that time.

By its end, the reader wonders why Ted wants to knock down humanity’s sand castle if we’re just going to end up building another one once we get bored of dysentery and infant mortality. I have great sympathy for Kaczynski, don’t get me wrong: modernity is insufferable. (“Imagine a society that subjects people to conditions that make them terribly unhappy, then gives them drugs to take away their unhappiness.”) But the man is daydreaming if he thinks that any instantiation of industech can be prevented, much less stopped once it’s got going. The demigods are not building doomsday devices; they’re building Mars colonies and seasteads. The best way out is through. We can only “escape” industech by diving further within, and hastening society to its next phase. Otherwise, if we try to unseat civilization every time it approaches technological capacity, we’ll just keep nuking each other in successive societies over and over. (Imagine if we started finding fossils of nuclear reactors.) This is why I have high hopes for Mars: in a big way, it represents the latest and greatest incarnation of manifest destiny, which indicates a civilizational metamorphosis is incipient. The last time we threw that phrase around was the beginning of something just as big.


Ted’s vision of anarchoprimitivist traditional society will never come to pass. Barring nuclear war, it’s difficult to conceptualize a catastrophe powerful enough to unseat the global hypernet and metamarket. Small-scale disruptions like the ‘08 crisis have only strengthened its foundations against such shocks: the biggest fish in the sea are if anything better at redirecting and absorbing risk into collateral damage. The bailout - the largest in written history - was but a symptom of the entwined governmental-economic network of capital, legal, and political infrastructure that sits atop the fleshworld directing its human member cells to the correct organs in order to keep the corpus functioning. The individualist dream of unseating this monster was respectable in 1996, but in so little time the system has evolved defenses against even that remote possibility. As to which of these is more defensible, I can only study the methods of better men. And the demigods, as we’ve seen, have chosen the system. I don’t like those odds.

It’s up and out.