The madness and the genius of the Unabomber
How everything from Neuralink to Sylvan Learning Centers are destroying humanity
“Technology presents clear-cut material advantages, whereas freedom is an abstraction that means different things to different people, and its loss is easily obscured by propaganda and fancy talk.”
In 1995, the Washington Post received a document outlining what Ted Kaczynski believed were the ills of modern society and his recommended cures. Kaczynski threatened that if the Post did not publish his 35,000-word manifesto, he would send mailbombs to unspecified people with the intent of killing whoever opened the packages. Upon discussion with the FBI and Attorney General, the Post published the manifesto in part to try and avoid that outcome, but with the real intent of hoping someone would be able to identify him. This gambit proved effective because Kaczynski’s brother identified him to the authorities upon reading the manifesto.
At the time, neither the Post, the FBI, nor anyone else knew the name, Ted Kaczynski. Still, they did know that he had been sending mailbombs to people since 1978, when he sent his first to Northwestern University Professor Buckley Crist, Jr. From there, Kaczynski would go on to send 17 bombs over nearly two decades, killing three people and injuring 23.
Because Kaczynski’s bombs primarily targeted universities and airlines, the FBI gave him the moniker he would come to be known by: UNABOM (UNiversity and Airline BOMbing), and so the Unabomber was born. Kaczynski identified these targets (along with others associated with the computer industry) because he fundamentally distrusts technology and its interplay with human liberty. In sum, he was a Luddite.
I had not read the manifesto in quite some time, so I decided to give it a re-read and was reminded of how rich of a discussion point it is. Some of it is madness. However, much of it demonstrates how prescient Kaczynski was, so here I am to discuss it. Buckle up…
Before getting too far into this, a few critical points about Kaczynski’s biography should be noted because I believe it provides essential context for what would come later in his life.
First, Kaczynski's brilliance (167 IQ) was a significant source of pride for this father, and in turn, he pushed Kaczynski very hard. This included skipping two school grades and being accepted to Harvard at 15 years old. Kaczynski had few friends due partly to his youth compared to his high school classmates. So the pressure at home and his isolation in high school made him bitter.
Second, in a 2019 article in The Atlantic, Alston Chase confirmed that as an undergraduate at Harvard, Kaczynski was part of a human experimentation project (likely part of the CIA’s now exposed mind-control project “MK Ultra”):
…from the fall of 1959 through the spring of 1962, Harvard psychologists, led by Henry A. Murray, conducted a disturbing and what would now be seen as ethically indefensible experiment on twenty-two undergraduates. To preserve the anonymity of these student guinea pigs, experimenters referred to individuals by code name only. One of these students, whom they dubbed “Lawful,” was Theodore John Kaczynski, who would one day be known as the Unabomber.
Later in the article, Chase provides a more in-depth description of the experiments:
Through research at the Murray Center and in the Harvard archives I found that, among its other purposes, Henry Murray’s experiment was intended to measure how people react under stress. Murray subjected his unwitting students, including Kaczynski, to intensive interrogation—what Murray himself called “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive” attacks, assaulting his subjects’ egos and most-cherished ideals and beliefs.
Chase explains that the version of the testing Kaczynski underwent was the last and most elaborate of the series.
Finally, Harvard was testing a new type of living arrangement for their best and brightest students, which some felt would better nurture their unique gifts. While most Freshmen at Harvard lived in large dorms to help them socialize with their new classmates, the students in this experimental living arrangement lived in a victorian style house at 8 Prescott Street. The house had 16 bedrooms, with six of them being single occupants. Kaczynski was one of these isolated students with a single room at 8 Prescott, leading to further isolation.
But did these factors drive Kaczynski to a mental break that would lead him to become the Unabomber? Was he “crazy” at all? Before the Unabomber trial, many people thought his worldview portrayed in the manifesto was reasonable, though his methods to obtain his desired outcome were not. It was not until his trial that his family and attorney played up a mental illness angle to save him from the death penalty. And as an additional benefit, doesn’t it make us all more comfortable if his views are of an insane person rather than entirely rational?
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I will not comprehensively cover the 35,000-word manifesto here but limit the discussion to the parts I think are most relevant today. If you want to read the manifesto for yourself, you can find it here. I’ll remind you of a critical point I mentioned earlier and want to emphasize because it will be an essential consideration in my analysis…the manifesto was published in 1995, so it likely started around 30 years ago.
NOTE - to not confuse the two, from this point forward, I will put my summaries of the manifesto in standard text and my commentary in italics.
I. Despair in Modern Society
The crux of the manifesto is that modern technological society (note- I am going to abbreviate “Modern Society” as MS because it will be a recurring theme, but it is not one that Kaczynski used) brought on by the Industrial Revolution is fundamentally at odds with human freedom because it makes most humans (non-elites) simply cogs in the wheel of a system over which they have no control, and therefore become, essentially, slaves to the system. This, in turn, makes people unhappy and unfulfilled in their lives. As technology advances MS, human despair will also increase, as there is a linear connection between the two. Specifically, people’s suffering is brought on by:
Excessive population density
Isolation from nature
Society is changing too rapidly
Breakdown of small-scale communities
The current use of anti-depressants in the US has been documented extensively. In 2016, Business Insider reported on a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that showed the US had the most significant percentage of its people on anti-depressants, with roughly 1 out of every 11 people on one. Only Iceland comes anywhere near us.
However, more disturbingly, in November of 2021, Berkeley Political Review reported that the rate of anti-depressant usage has skyrocketed to 1 in 6 people, a 45% increase in just five years. To be sure, a significant percentage of this increase is COVID-response related, but the growth is staggering nonetheless.
It also bares mentioning that pharmaceutical companies spend a massive amount of money promoting their drugs. The precise amount they spend is opaque. However, a Vox article from 2015 cites a source that claims nine out of the ten largest pharmaceutical companies spend more on marketing than on R&D (more on Kaczynski’s view of marketing later).
Needless to say, our society is mentally unwell and getting unwell-er by the day.
From the manifesto:
Instead of removing the conditions that make people depressed, modern society gives them anti-depressant drugs. In effect, antidepressants are a means of modifying an individual’s internal state in such a way as to enable him to tolerate social conditions that he would otherwise find intolerable
Kaczynski was not only correct but being proven more so by the minute.
II. The Effects of Modern Society on Humanity
Kaczynski explains that it is the “privileged strata of society,” and precisely “leftists” who primarily suffer the causes of MS. Specifically, they suffer from:
"Feelings of inferiority”
Development of “Surrogate Activities”
We’ll hit on each of these as they are all important concepts to understand.
The “feelings of inferiority” come from low self-esteem, powerlessness, depression, defeatism, etc. This, in turn, leads them to activism, where they become hypersensitive to every perceived slight because it gives them a sense of control over something in their lives. What activism do they choose? Overwhelmingly they decide to help groups that they claim need their activism, but in reality, they are simply projecting their weaknesses onto these groups who they perceive as inferior. They hate any group they perceive as strong because it forces them to come face-to-face with their lack of strength.
It is this feeling that totalitarian regimes (such as Nazis and Communists) exploit to get people to follow their movements.
“If our society had no social problems at all, the leftists would have to INVENT problems in order to provide themselves with an excuse for making a fuss”
Once they are settled on their activism, to avoid feelings of guilt, they have to reverse engineer their motives to find a moral centering rather than the immoral, self-centered reality that is truly at the root of their actions. Kaczynski defines this as “Oversocialization.”
In addition to the need to find a moral centering for their activism, those who are Oversocialized also feel guilt for having thoughts that they believe are outside the morality of their clique. However, due to their inability to assert control (stemming from their feelings of inferiority) and their inability to think unique thoughts (due to their Oversocialization), they will take a moral principle, which is already widely accepted by the group, claim it for themselves, and accuse society of violating it.
Finally, in return for obedience to the system, MS provides all the basic human needs to its citizens (more on how this plays into Maslow's hierarchy of needs later). Hence, people developed a second way to claim control, called “Surrogate Activities.” As Kaczynski writes, “…power is not enough. One must have goals towards which to exercise one’s power.” So, activities with artificial goals are created for people to have something to work towards, thus "Surrogate Activities.” Things like running marathons to see who can beat and if they can improve their times, painting to see if they can improve their work or get it up in a gallery, or maybe writing Substack columns to see if anyone wants to read them (ok, that was my example).
Interestingly, Kaczynski argues that since sitting at a desk is unnatural for humans, no one would naturally want to be a mathematician or scientist, but rather do it because the system programs them to do so (reminder - Kaczynski was a Ph.D. mathematician).
There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with his claim that the “privileged strata of society” suffer from these mental illnesses more acutely and that these folks are the leftists who express their perceived lack of power through activism.
I am not a psychologist, so I will avoid that part of his analysis, but from the standpoint of the activities which manifest from the upper-middle classes/upper-classes of society, I think that it’s reasonably hard to dispute that activists predominantly come from this milieu, and can be directly mapped onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
As previously noted and conceded by Kaczynski, it is precisely the delivery of our basic human needs which makes MS so attractive (though with a price on our sovereignty). Having achieved the base physiological needs (housing, heating, clothing, etc.) and safety needs (emotional, financial, and physical), we then move on to the need for a sense of belonging, which is defined as “a human emotional need for interpersonal relationships, affiliating, connectedness, and being part of a group.” There are many ways in which we can feel a sense of belonging… through family, neighborhoods, religious groups, sports, knitting circles, etc… Still, to be accepted into that group, we must align with that group's core beliefs (shared family values, neighborhood standards, religious dogma, a desire to win).
Of course, this tends to lead to groupthink which, contrary to popular belief, isn’t necessarily bad. However, the groupthink represented by the “oversocialized” group is an instance where it is detrimental because they are constantly looking for people who violate their group’s norms so that that person can be shamed (i.e., canceled), which will further ingratiate the oversocialized person into their group.
Moving on to the Surrogate Activity piece…anything you do which doesn’t directly prevent you from dying is a Surrogate Activity. I find this silly and, in some cases, circular logic. First, even in societies and classes of people who live in grinding poverty or under dangerous circumstances (abusive governments, threats from animals, food scarcity, etc.), they have hobbies and play games. For example, the Bontoc tribe from the Philippines, who specifically shun modernity, plays a game called Fagfagto, where they hurl rocks at each other and even play in an intertribal sports festival against a rival tribe. Closer to home, the Native Americans invented lacrosse and a wide variety of different games. These were Surrogate Activities from pre-industrialized societies, so it would seem the need not to spend all your time on basic survival is likely innate to humanity, though admittedly, MS provides considerably more time for these things.
Secondly, many people have found relief from debilitating pain or mental illness through what Kaczynski would argue are Surrogate Activities (running, lifting weights, writing, etc.). In those cases, wouldn’t those play a fundamental role in survival by making you physically and/or mentally healthy? And, in turn, wouldn’t those inherently become NON-Surrogate Activities? I think he would argue that it is MS that is causing those mental issues, and that is fair enough. However, I still believe there is sufficient evidence that activities that refocus your mind on other “non-serious” topics are critical across humanity.
Finally, I find the argument about people not wanting to go into sciences without the system pushing them there to be silly. Humans are problem solvers…always have been, always will be. Discipline-specific sciences are just the most modern evolution of that problem-solving desire. Does society push some people into sciences who wouldn’t have otherwise been there? Possibly, but remember that less than 7% of working adults in the US work in STEM fields, so it is not overly pervasive. With the recent focus on getting girls into STEM fields, it will be interesting to see how those figures change over the next few decades, but the proverbial jury is still out on that.
He also claims that scientists don’t do their work for the benefit of humanity, but instead, they do it as a moral-centering activity. His proof of this is that they don’t get involved with all other humanitarian causes (he uses Edward Teller, the creator of the nuclear power plant, as an example). If this is difficult to get your head around, don’t worry, it’s nutty. It is irrational to think that the only way someone could prove their desire to help humanity is to be involved in every cause. The attempt to do that would be the worst-case scenario because you would be ineffective in all areas. This exemplifies Kaczynski trying to prove himself right through a self-fulfilling prophecy.
III. Manipulating Your Brain
Kaczynski believed that freedom was inherently constrained when people were not allowed to go through the power process with real goals (as opposed to Surrogate Activities) without interference, manipulation, or supervision from anyone, especially from large organizations. However, MA gets around the loss of freedom through the modern version of mind-control…marketing, and mass entertainment.
To fool people into the belief that both their despair comes from someplace other than MS and the solution to that despair is to keep working to promulgate the MS system, modern society uses marketing and mass media as a self-reinforcing mechanism to create fake needs and Surrogate Activities, to fool people into believing they have needs which they don’t. The entertainment industry serves the dual purpose of providing a means of escape for people from their unhappy lives and reinforcing the marketing to sustain the false needs narrative. Initially, marketing plants ideas into our minds.
There is something very Fight Club, “the things you own, end up owning you,” about this sentiment, and I agree with it wholeheartedly (though not with the conspiratorial angle).
A short story- a close friend of mine, let’s call her Shauna, is an executive at a large enterprise, and she recently bought a new, very expensive Mercedes SUV (I’m not a car guy, so that’s about as detailed as I can get). The car is sweet - it has these color-adjustable LED lights that light up the interior, projects on the dashboard onto the windshield…the whole nine yard, kitten kaboodle, ball of wax, pick your idiom that implies pimped out shit. Even with what I assume to be a large salary, Shauna tends to be pretty frugal, so this purchase was outside of her normal buying behavior. I asked her why she purchased it, and she said, “I wanted something that said "‘mom-boss.’” I think I responded with a deep philosophical response like “cool,” but what I wanted was to be obtuse and ask was, “where does it say that”?
Well, it says that in the luxury car manufacturers’ advertising. But you know what the crazy thing is? It doesn’t. Instead, through years of social conditioning, both directly from the car companies and reinforcement from Shauna’s social circles, she (and countless others) have accepted the implication that cars with these features (and associated price tag) tell the world I am a mom and I am someone’s boss, thus, “mom-boss.” Further, and more importantly, Shauna has come to believe that it matters.
I am confident that I have similar blind spots, so I am not passing judgment in any way, but it’s interesting that Kaczynski had the marketing piece partially correct but missed the critical reinforcement mechanism…the marketing is the gasoline on the consumerism wood; but social reinforcement is the match.
IV. Taking the Reins of Control
The system is currently engaged in a desperate struggle to overcome certain problems that threaten its survival, among which the problems of human behavior are the most important. If the system succeeds in acquiring sufficient control over human behavior quickly enough, it will probably survive. Otherwise, it will break down. We think the issues will most likely be resolved within the next several decades, say 40 to 100 years.
As a reminder, this manifesto was published in 1995, so Kaczynski likely started writing it several before that…so we are probably approaching thirty years since he began its writing. When we start to consider all the various attempts at controlling the global population from organizations like the World Economic Forum (ESG initiatives, forced reduction of nitrogen fertilizers which will reduce food supplies, global digital currencies to control who can spend what money & where, based on their behaviors, “you will own nothing and like it”) or western governments trampling fundamental freedoms, like in Canada, we start to see that the system is indeed trying to strangle fundamental, enlightenment values for people. We have seen a major regression from the significant advancement of human liberty over the past several centuries.
Kaczynski goes on to explain that if the system is successful, many humans will become superfluous to the system’s needs, and they will want to slow or stop human reproduction (see - abortions, putting children on hormone blockers, and underage hysterectomies for girls, not having children because of global warming).
Some leftists seem to oppose technology, but they will oppose it only so long as they are outsiders and the technological system is controlled by non-leftists. If leftism ever becomes dominant in society, so that the technological system becomes a tool in the hands of leftists, they will enthusiastically promote its growth [emphasis added]
Once, Silicon Valley was seen by leftists as a cesspool of Libertarian values, a place where anything goes; however, we now see governments fully embracing these technologies and companies because it is now a valuable tool for them to control public messaging. We need to look no further than the left-wing governments’ collusion with social media companies to silence dissenting voices on covid as definitive proof point of this. One of the most egregious cases is that of Alex Berenson, who blew the whistle on much of the government covid “non-science” and was in turn banned from Twitter because, as we now know, the government was putting pressure on them to do so, even though he had broken none of their rules (the courts recently forced Twitter to reinstate him).
Kaczynski has painted a bleak and somewhat prescient picture of the current state of affairs, so where do we go from here? This is where there are no clear answers, but some being more palatable than others, and where I find him veering off into an area that starts to undermine the entire position of the manifesto.
V. The Ugly
I know most of what I’ve written thus far has agreed with or provided mild criticism of Kaczynski’s position. Still, his laissez-faire attitude to the downstream effects of throwing off the entire system undermines his previous claims of wanting to benefit humanity.
He concedes that the breakdown of MS would result in a sudden mass casualty event because the world is overpopulated and can not feed itself without food technology (I would argue that the world is definitionally not “overpopulated” if it can support the people living in it, so his theory is false on its face).
Later he claims people will have to balance “struggle and death against the loss of freedom and dignity,” and that to many, the latter is more important than the former because it is better to die fighting for a cause.
“As for the negative consequences of eliminating industrial society- well you can’t eat your cake and have it too. To gain one thing you have to sacrifice another.”
He makes other similar claims in the manifesto, but you get the point…this is where we start to get into some dark shit.
When I read this section, I thought of this as a sort of demented version of the conclusion of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop speech.” Where he concludes with:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
MLK claimed he was willing to accept death because he knew the road he had paved for black people in America led to freedom. But a key distinction here is that he was addressing his own death. In the manifesto, Kaczynski says he is ok with YOUR death. The former is among the noblest things anyone could offer, to lay down their life in service of others; the latter is demented and is the sign of someone who has not seriously thought through their positions or is a sociopath…I assume the latter is the most likely scenario in this case.
I want to ask Kaczynski how many deaths would be acceptable to reach his preferred outcome. What if all humans on earth died aside from the bare minimum to repopulate? Would he be ok with that? And what if everyone on earth agreed with his proposition, except one person? Would it be acceptable to kill that one person?
This went on WAAAAAAY longer than I had anticipated, but there was so much to dive into here. I originally had 2-3 more topics to cover but figured it was getting ridiculous, and I hit on the highlights as I saw them.
His means aside (a VERY big aside), the manifesto hit on many issues surrounding MS, which have become prominent flashpoints for discussion and conspiracy theories around the globe. From consumerism, our throwaway society, the desire to control people (both from governments and activists), and our mental health crisis, it is difficult to argue that MS has had some effect on all of these detrimental conditions…I would argue it has much to do with them. But what do we do about it? Is it possible to put the “genie back in the bottle” without the horrific downstream effects he foresees?
I don’t think there is, and I don’t want it turned back, even with all the negative consequences associated with it. The key for each of us is to do our best to take the parts we want out of MS and leave the rest. Do you want to be a hermit in the woods with solar panels and a septic system? Go for it; people do it all the time! Want to drive your “mom-boss” car? Sure, why not?
Gee, governments and powerful elites are trying to control us? No shit…many despotic regimes existed throughout history, and the vast majority of them never had iPhones and dishwashers. MS is just providing them with a new way to do it, but it is not fundamentally altering human nature.
Kaczynski suffers from the same God delusion many people of high IQs suffer from…they think the world is simply a ball of clay that they can mold into their desires without limits and that their logic is not only the correct one but is the only one a rationale thinking person could use.
As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “you spent so much time wondering if you could, you never stopped to" think if you should.”
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts!