The Death of An Idea By Association

I’ve been reading “The Unabomber’s Pen Pal,” an article about Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber (a former professor serving a life sentence for mail bombing), and David Skrbina, a professor of philosophy trying to make Kaczynski’s voice and manifesto heard.

Kaczynski espouses the philosophy that technology has had disastrous effects on the human race, as he writes in his manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future (PDF). Skrbina communicates with Kaczynski about the effects of technology and the negative implications of it on the world at large, and published a collection of Kaczynski’s writings in a book called Technological Slavery.

One thing that jumped out was this question: is it right to study—and, in Skrbina’s case, disseminate—the views and work of the Unabomber? Purely intellectually, I think the answer is a definitive yes. Regardless of who espouses an idea, it should be considered, even if the person with the idea was a terrorist.

However, not everyone holds the view that ideas should be truthfully considered, even though the person behind is a terrorist. If Skrbina’s goal is to push forward Kaczynski’s anti-technology manifesto and make him be heard, especially to the general public, it may actually be detrimental for the anti-technology philosophy. Since these views would be tied to Kaczynski, people would be able to point to him and say that the views are simply the result of a crazy murderer, and refuse to give the views any consideration outside of an ad hominem attack.

The article quotes Langdon Winner, a “vocal critic of technology,” who fears this result:

…he [Winner] admitted that “there are glimpses of insight” in the manifesto. He wrote that it is “sad,” however, that the ideas Kaczynski put forward would now be linked with a perceived madman, making them easier for some to dismiss.

These ideas are not original, either: Winner goes on to describe others who have also questioned the effects of technology’s meteoric rise.

Winner tells me that plenty of other thinkers have provided similar arguments without taking them to murderous extremes. Jacques Ellul’s seminal book The Technological Society, for example, argues that the technological system will overwhelm and absorb anything that doesn’t sustain its basic logic, and that it risks corrupting human values. Winner lists other like-minded authors, including William Morris, Lewis Mumford, and Ivan Illich. Those thinkers, not Kaczynski, are the ones scholars should focus on, he says, adding that they are more original than Kaczynski.

These won’t be the people we’ll be hearing about, though. We’ll be hearing about Kaczynski: former professor, mail bomber, and questioner of the detrimental effects that technology has had on humanity.

Scrutiny on the disadvantages of technology is growing, especially in the general public. But if these views are associated with Kaczynski, it becomes much easier to dismiss them as the views of a terrorist and an anarchist against the status quo, a reaction that is especially appealing to the general public. It is already the popular choice to dismiss arguments against technology, given what technology has done for us. The fact that Kaczynski is the one pushing these ideas makes it easier to exclude scrutinizing the negative effects of technology from serious consideration.

And it makes it easier for these ideas—and the call to stop looking at technology as something that’s unquestionably good—to die, by association with Kaczynski. And that’s dangerous, because the development of technology is one of the most important forces of the past few hundred years, and there is little scrutiny, especially in the general public, on whether the effects of technology are all good.

Technology in medicine has been instrumental in saving lives and preventing diseases. In other cases, it’s not as clear. Has public dependence on technology resulted in a higher attention to mass media? Has it made interpersonal relationships better, or do we interact with other people on more shallow levels today?

Regardless of what we think now, greater scrutiny on the effects of technology is worth serious thought. However, if this greater scrutiny on technology becomes increasingly associated with Kaczynski, the ideas, marred by its association with Kaczynski, may never receive the attention and serious consideration that they deserve, especially with the general public.

  • Jeremy Y

    There are a number of issues that have difficulty divorcing themselves from stigma-causing events. The discussion of Islam in America will forever be influenced by 9/11, for example.

    In this case, it’s probably unrealistic to think that in the public eye one can be separated from another. Maybe it’s best to fold Kaczynski’s views into the discussion and take it for what it was, and iterate further while still condemning his actions.

  • You write that “technology in medicine has been instrumental in saving lives and preventing diseases.” Fact is, the biggest factor by far in public health, in enabling us to generally live longer, healthier lives, is not medical technology but public health measures like cleaner water and air, better food, better housing, and safer, less back-breaking jobs. Sure, medical technology makes possible seeming miracles – face transplant, anyone? – and we are told about these amazing feats every evening on the TV, ad nauseum, but that doesn’t mean this technology has done much for the average person. If anything, as Illich argues quite persuasively in his book ‘Limits to Medicine,’ the intensive application of medical technology has, by making people live longer and live more dependently on professionals, aka doctors, caused more pain and suffering than it has cured. People live longer in more pain, unable to suffer in their own cultural way or make sense of their death, encouraged to struggle for every last bit of medical “care” they can afford. Illich would have us live deeper and richer lives, not focus so intensely on longer. The medical system promises to delver health, but just as schools make knowledge scarcer, the medical system makes health scarcer, defining it in terms of the services it alone can provide. After all, it’s a business, and it has every interest in finding new areas for growth.

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