Arts book review

A neo-Luddite manifesto?

How society should respond to the uncertainty of a technological future

Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How
By Theodore John Kaczynski
Published by Fitch & Madison on Aug. 31, 2016

Theodore Kaczynski has an interesting history. At age 25, he became an assistant professor of mathematics at University of California, Berkeley, the youngest professor ever hired by the university. After resigning at age 26, Kaczynski retreated to a remote cabin in Montana to learn to survive self-sufficiently. Frustrated at finding many natural areas replaced by roads and infrastructure and disillusioned with the current system of societal reform, the former mathematician turned to domestic terrorism.

Kaczynski first published Industrial Society and Its Future in 1995 by mailing out letters to targets and news outlets, proclaiming that he would stop his bombing campaign if they published his essay word-for-word. In 1996, the “Unabomber,” as Kaczynski was called, was finally arrested. He is imprisoned for life.

Even in prison, Kaczynski has continued to write. The ambitious title of latest book Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How would suggest that Kaczynski, after years of deliberating in prison, has found and published the solution to the uncertainty of a technological future. The solution he proposes in this work, however, is not so clear-cut.

He differentiates his book’s arguments from those of an engineering textbook, prefacing: “[a]n engineering textbook provides precise rules which, if followed mechanically, will consistently give the expected results. But no such precise and reliable rules are possible in the social sciences. The ideas in this book therefore need to be applied thoughtfully and creatively, not mechanically or rigidly.” Flexibility and thoughtfulness are themes throughout the book, most prevalent in the first essay, in which Kaczynski argues for continuous, short-term intervention to adapt with societal changes, rather than a stagnant, long-term plan.

Kaczynski treats human society as a self-propagating system, which he defines in his second essay as “a system that tends to promote its own survival and propagation.” From this definition, he proposes that “natural selection will lead to [their] evolution” in complexity and will favor “self-propagating systems that pursue their own short-term advantage.” This evolution, he argues, has led human society to propagate across the globe, fostering a technological system that will eventually self-destruct due to the increased instability arising from greater complexity. Kaczynski counters technophiles through well-reasoned arguments, creating formidable justifications for his beliefs.

The third essay proposes a series of postulates and rules to address problems that past revolutions have perpetrated. Kaczynski’s cautionary advice serves as a warning to how a revolution can become warped without a clear goal. He addresses concerns of acquiring common agreement with the term “democratic fallacy” in his final essay, arguing that it is not the number of people but rather the “dynamics of social movements” that determine the outcome of democratic elections. Although they can read as somewhat idealistic, these postulates are solid arguments backed by historic trends.

The final essay, like the first, emphasizes the importance of “flexibility.” The difficulty in predicting long-term actions means that the “consistent short-term intervention” he brings up in his first essay is crucial for success. What reads as closest to tangible instructions is, ironically, Kaczynski’s prediction of how a successful revolution could be accomplished — that within a society, there will inevitably be a day in which “a failure of the system” gives a group of committed revolutionaries a chance to rise up while the established authorities are left in disarray. Although logical and somewhat clear-cut, the question remains of how feasible this solution is, as it seems idealistic. As it is a reactive rather than a proactive solution, only time will tell if a group of revolutionaries will take on the challenge.

In the end, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How is Kaczynski’s well-reasoned, cohesive composition about how revolutionary groups should approach our mercurial future. His essays are dense with material and references, organized in a format akin to mathematical proofs, with postulates and propositions, reflective of Kaczynski’s background as a mathematician.

His more elaborate arguments focus more on the “revolution” than on the “anti-tech,” distilling ideas based on the flaws and merits of past social movements. If you are expecting an immediate remedy, you may want to give this book a pass. Otherwise, I recommend that you read this compelling perspective on how we can frame our struggles in a technological society, with considerations applicable to any social movement, neo-Luddite or not.