Thursday, October 28, 2004

Unabomber asked the right questions, according to Canadian professor

Since Ted Kaczynski left Berkeley and came to Montana in 1971, he fits the profile of a sixties migrant to Montana that I suggested earlier. The Unabomber, the Economics of Happiness, and the End of the Millennium is an article by Nebosja Kujundzic and Doug Mann at the University of Aberdeen that is clearly sympathetic with Kaczynski’s dark vision of industrial civilization, if not with his violent methods:

The Unabomber’s Manifesto stands out as the most radical version of the Neo-Luddite movement. The latter is driven by a growing concern that modern technology has assumed a life of its own, a life that is not only impossible to control but that threatens to engulf humanity and eventually lead it down the path of certain destruction. Only with this concern in mind can the big philosophical questions, mentioned earlier in this paragraph, be answered. These are, in our mind, the lessons worth learning from the Unabomber’s Manifesto.

The authors seem to be unhappy, and they are drawn toward Kaczynski’s explanation that it’s capitalism and technology that’s to blame:

The Unabomber seems to be suggesting that we return to an unpolished, uncivilized, more self-reliant state in order to inject fresh capital into the economics of human happiness. Political ideologies will not aid us in escaping from the dark wood of error that is the technological-industrial system: the socialist experiments in the former Eastern bloc have proven this quite well. The alienation, the never-ending restlessness, the feeling that we are never “at home” under late capitalist consumer economies, despite the obvious (in an historically comparative sense, at least) affluence all around us, has systemic or structural causes. As the Unabomber says:

The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity. (U119)

There seems to me quite a lot of silliness laced through this article, but it’s a silliness that’s quite common today. Analyzing this piece, as part of a discussion about some sixties ideas and Kaczynski, might be worthwhile. I wonder whether Mozart felt trapped because the technical demands of getting music from tight strings struck by small hammers forced him to modify his behavior to fit the needs of the technology--i.e., he needing to learn to play the piano.

I concede that technology doesn’t guarantee our happiness, but then, I don’t often meet people who think that it does. Neither do I meet many people who would expect our happiness to suddenly increase if we did away with our advanced technology. Though the authors say that to dismiss the unabomber’s writing because of his actions is to commit an ad hominem fallacy, I’m rather of the mind that when a man’s thinking leads him to commit atrocities it’s not unreasonable to suspect his thinking has gone awry.

The interesting question for me isn’t whether or not Kaczynski gets it wrong. Rather, I’m interested in where, exactly, his thinking begins to get him in trouble.

If I used this article with students, I would have them identify the key beliefs and assumptions the authors have, list them on the board, then ask the question, “are these true?” We would then work on defining some of the key terms, such as “technology” and “the system.” We would then identify what seminal thinkers have said about the issues Kaczynski raises.

This preparation would get students to the point where they could frame quite interesting questions to ask of people who migrated to Montana in the sixties because they wanted they felt a longing for the “simpler” life of the country.

The process of forming questions and figuring out how they might be investigated might also model for kids how to use reason and research to avoid getting caught up in rants. This is getting to be a basic survival skill in today’s world.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/28 at 12:16 PM
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