Segment from Man vs. the Machine

The Terror of Technology

From 1978 to 1995, Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, was the most wanted criminal in America. Nathan talks with scholar Steven Jones about the Unabomber’s deadly anti-technology crusade and how it represents an expression of the close linkage between technology and terror.

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Brian Balogh: From 1978 to 1995, Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, was the most wanted criminal in America. His reign of terror finally came to an end after evading the FBI for almost 18 years, when his own brother turned him in to the police.

Ed Ayers: A promising young University of California at Berkeley math professor turned bread baking backwards hermit, was in Helena’s jail Thursday night while agents searched his Montana mountain shack for proof he is the anti-technology serial killer called the Unabomber. About 20 agents returned to the tarpaper shack Thursday to seek evidence that Theodore John Kaczynski, 53, carried out a nearly 18 year string of bombings around the country, including five in northern California that killed three and injured 23.

Nathan Connolly: After the Unabomber’s arrest, the country breathed a collective sigh of relief, but many were left with the same burning question, how did Kaczynski go from promising math professor to anti-technology terrorist. Scholar Steven Jones says it might have something to do with an experiment he participated in at Harvard.

Steven Jones: It’s been suggested in fact that his, that some of his troubles, his attitude toward technology may have its roots in experience he had in Harvard. He was part of an experiment there on undergraduates that’s now widely viewed as unethical and cruel, where the students were subjected to all kinds of verbal abuse and had to write essays and then have them critiqued in public and so on, over the course of many months, often without knowing the details of what was going on in the experiment. This between 1959 and 1962, so a long ways back.

Steven Jones: But in general I think you’re right that he’s a product of that post-war, Cold War era and you see signs in the so-called manifesto of his interest in psychology, and particularly behaviorism. And there is a sense in which his, maybe his experiences at Harvard shaped his later rhetoric.

Nathan Connolly: Kaczynski goes on to graduate from Harvard and continues his studies at the University of Michigan, eventually becoming a math professor at Berkeley in 1967. A few years later, he quits his career in academia and withdraws from society to a remote cabin in Montana.

Steven Jones: He pretty soon begins to build these handmade bombs, symbolically made of wood and then inscribed often with F C, which apparently stood for Freedom Club. So that becomes his signature. And he delivers some by hand, he posts a number of others, and writes. He has a typewriter in his cabin, and he writes a number of things, including the document that led to his arrest, which was called by the press and by the FBI the Unabomber manifesto.

Nathan Connolly: There’s obviously a great distance between withdrawing from one’s career, moving into a cabin, buying a typewriter, and becoming someone who’s actively building bombs. What’s your sense about where this transition happened and who he chose to target?

Steven Jones: You know, ultimately I don’t know, I think that the decision to commit that kind of violence is mystery whenever it happens … sometimes glibly referred to as radicalization that covers a lot of territory actually, psychologically and personally, I think, in people’s lives.

Steven Jones: But what we do know is that his targets were people who were in contact with or promoting what he saw as technological society from different angles. So academics in research, but also, for instance, sometimes people who were just in retail stores who were selling personal computers.

Steven Jones: And then he did have a kind of vendetta against the press, which you know, rings ominously today. He referred to as the propaganda machine and suggested this was another, a big piece in the puzzle of the problem with technological society.

Nathan Connolly: One year before his arrest, the Unabomber publishes Industrial Society and Its Future, a radical manifesto that reflected a broader anti-technology trend popularized by the neo-Luddites in the 1990s. But to truly understand the manifesto, Jones says it’s crucial to note the difference between the historical Luddites of the 19th century in Britain and neo-Luddism, a movement that formed in America much later.

Steven Jones: The original Luddites, you know, were textile workers mostly. They were in these proto-unions that were descended from the guilds, and they were very much interested in very specific kinds of machinery and in restricting the use of those because they were putting them out of work. So they were a labor movement they were focused on economic justice and they were themselves technologists, that is they were machinists, they used machines in their work all the time, they just wanted to use their machines, not the newfangled labor saving devices that the owners were bringing in. So that’s very very different from the neo-Luddites that really surfaced and made a big splash in the 1990s in this country.

Nathan Connolly: Were they not workers like the originals?

Steven Jones: Yeah, often they were white collar workers or academics, intellectuals. They were people who were interested in a kind of individualized lifestyle Luddism or a kind of anti-capitalist movement in some cases, or anti-globalization movement that had a kind of neo-Luddite side to it. Sometimes they were eco activists who saw in the Luddites a kind of historical antecedent although I think that’s a distortion of the original Luddites.

Nathan Connolly: Although not affiliated with the movement in any official capacity, the Unabomber’s manifesto is tinged with neo-Luddite themes. These include technology and it’s adverse relationship to personal technology as well as technology as a kind of Frankenstein, a human creation that has become both malevolent and out of control.

Steven Jones: For me it epitomizes the neo-Luddism of the 1990s in a couple of ways. In its focus on personal psychology and making the rejection of technology an almost, a kind of spiritual decision, or personal decision. But also, the manifesto is about a generalized psychological problem, a kind of malaise. It has to do with things like a lack of self esteem, oddly enough. And he attributes a lot of this especially to leftists. There’s this whole section of the manifesto attacking what he calls leftism and political correctness, which he sees as an impediment to the coming revolution.

Steven Jones: And the other way that it seems to me to epitomize the neo-Luddism of its time is its focus on technology as something abstract the notion that there’s a kind of force outside of humanity that has taken on a life of its own, that is out to get us, even though we made it. And over which we have no more control, is a very sort of modern idea, and that’s emphasized throughout.

Steven Jones: For me part of what’s problematic about that is it suggests a kind of relinquishing of our responsibility or authority over what it is we’ve made, including the messes that we’ve made of the ecology for instance. So here in the midst of the Anthropocene, you know, we’re all cursed with what technology has wrought, but we’re all responsible for it and the danger of a kind of monster of technology with a capital T is that it externalizes that and makes it no longer a human problem but something that we have no control over.

Steven Jones: So, besides being abstract, the other thing is that he suggests that that technology is ubiquitous, that it’s everywhere, it permeates the system, it’s the basis for the entire modern system of society and he uses this to argue for example that you can’t relinquish just part of it. You can’t separate the good technology from the bad technology, so the entire system is corrupt and has to be taken down.

Nathan Connolly: So this is a fascinating set of conclusions, I mean this idea that technology is going to in effect destroy humankind, that it is a monster out of control. I mean I certainly see your point about, within the arguments there being a certain kind of recklessness about whether you can just let go of the wheel, so to speak. But there are a lot of other pieces of American popular culture that are making these kinds of arguments, you think of a film like The Terminator or any of the dystopian films like Mad Max, you know, The Matrix. I mean this is an argument that actually quite widespread.

Steven Jones: Absolutely, in fact I think that that’s, that is neo-Luddism and that it’s extremely widespread, although the term’s not as popular as it was in the 1990s. And that you know, after 1945, the sense that technology is bigger than we can handle is a perfectly legitimate initial response to what we have made, to what humans have unleashed.

Steven Jones: And in popular culture, you see all sorts of aversions to this. A journalist recently attempted to cut all the major platforms out of her life, tried to perform an experiment where she eliminated Facebook and Google and Amazon and failed. She admits that it’s impossible. I really took on the kind of lifestyle she had in any way by doing that.

Steven Jones: And we’re all becoming a little more sensitive I think in recent years to the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance, of big data, but that’s precisely the point. It’s a question of who controls that data, to what ends and what interests are being served by these technologies and those are the specific important questions that are elided or that are overshadowed by a kind of neo-Luddite ideology of ubiquitous technology that’s everywhere and impossible to combat except by the destruction of civilization.

Nathan Connolly: Now you’ve written in your own work that there’s an inherent relation between technology and terror, thinking about fears of cyber terrorism or runaway technological growth and such. How might the neo-Luddites and the Unabomber be an expression of that linkage?

Steven Jones: Yeah, I mean I think in a very precise way, it’s clear that what Kaczynski was involved in was a campaign of terror. The idea was that it’s not, the violence itself is a part of it, but the violence is part of a kind of campaign that’s ideological and that’s aimed at producing a certain affective response in the public. You know, you terrorize because of the threat of violence, not just because of the acts of violence, as we all well know.

Steven Jones: So there is a kind of a sense that if technology really is an autonomous and inhuman force that permeates every aspect of modern society, then what’s needed to respond to it is a counter conspiracy of sorts, you have to have a kind of all pervasive kind of counter movement and in some ways it doesn’t matter who you bomb if they’re even tangentially connected to the technological society then this can be spun as a kind of just cause once it’s been made total and ubiquitous and autonomous. So, terror is one kind of response to being terrified of these forces, I think, of technology among others.

Nathan Connolly: Steven Jones is a DeBartolo chair at liberal arts and professor of digital humanities at the University of South Florida. He’s the author of Against Technology: from Luddites to neo-Luddism.

Brian Balogh: That’s gonna do it for us today. And you can keep the conversation going online by sending an email to BackStory at Virginia dot E D U. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at BackStory radio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

Brian Balogh: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities, major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Johns Hopkins University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities and the environment.

Speaker 1: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for Virginia Humanities.

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Technophobia Lesson Set

Download the Technophobia Lesson Plan

This lesson set uses the Inquiry Design Model (IDM),  a distinctive approach to creating curriculum and instructional materials that honors teachers’ knowledge and expertise, avoids overprescription, and focuses on the main elements of the instructional design process as envisioned in the Inquiry Arc of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards (2013). Unique to the IDM is the blueprint, a one-page representation of the questions, tasks, and sources that define a curricular inquiry.

This lesson asks the compelling question How do people react to rapid technological economic change? and instructs students to write, using specific historical evidence, a response to the following questions: How did American’s respond to the rapid changes of the Market Revolution? What changed and what stayed the same?

In addition to the C3 Framework, it uses both AP US Thematic Standards and AP US Content Standards.