Surviving The Unabomber’s Nightmare
Are we on the path of Revolution or Evolution?
Anxiety is the waking nightmare of the 21st century. It lingers with us in our homes, in our workplaces, and even our social events. As time goes on, its roots penetrate deeper into the soil of our minds:
“Almost 40% of Americans are more anxious than they were at this time last year, according to a new American Psychiatric Association (APA) poll.”
The human psyche is failing us in our modern social and cultural conditions.
Anxiety, do you feel it? Breathe, take a step back. What pops into your head when you read the word “modern”? The Internet? Social Media? Expansive Cities? Artificial Intelligence? These modern realities can all be lumped into one general category: Technology.
The first instance of technology can be traced back to when our ancestors augmented their ability to hunt: they started using rocks to kill prey from afar, instead of their bare hands which limited them to short-distance combat. Ever since this first stroke of ingenuity, we’ve been relying on technology to thrive. This innate desire to progress and better ourselves has propelled us into an age with education and literacy at an all-time global high, as well as poverty and violent crime at an all-time global low. Technology is our way of bypassing biological evolution and enhancing the human condition.
Nevertheless, technology has come at a cost.
These costs dominated the thoughts of Ted Kaczynski, the infamous “Unabomber.” The man is a Harvard graduate with an IQ of 167 and is considered a “mathematics prodigy.” Unfortunately, it was not his lucrative mathematics career that defines him, but his heinous acts of violence and terrorism. On January 22, 1998, he was sentenced to life without parole for his charges which included: ten counts of illegally transporting, mailing, using of bombs, and three counts of murder. He is serving his time at a supermax prison located in Florence, Colorado.
As I write this, Kaczynski whispers from his prison cell: “I told you so.” His intense fear of technology and its bearing on society’s future drove him to write an all-encompassing manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” in which he delves into his perception of human nature and our collective future. He blames the rapid disruption of society — technology as the acting agent — for our dilemmas:
“We attribute the social and psychological problems of modern society to the fact that society requires people to live under conditions radically different from those under which the human race evolved and to behave in ways that conflict with the patterns of behavior that the human race developed while living under the earlier conditions.” — Ted Kaczynski
Kaczynski’s concern highlights one of Western Society’s most recognizable foundations: freedom. He implores that the limitation of freedom is irrevocably connected to industrialization (i.e. the advancement of technologies) and that the limitation of this basic human need is the origin of our anxiety.
The notions of freedom and power explored in his paper are crucial in understanding his perspective. He poses that freedom is defined as our ability to partake in and navigate through something he terms the “power process”. The “power process” is our biological need to have goals, expend effort on those goals, and attain those goals in some sense. This is an oversimplified recount of his thoughts on freedom and power, but his viewpoint is captured well enough.
Therefore, if technology reaps negative societal consequences by restricting freedom, do we take credence in the Unabomber’s long-winded manifesto? Or can we prove Kaczynski wrong, and live in psychological harmony with the increasingly complex and disruptive technologies we have developed, and continue to develop?
Yuval Noah Harari, a historian, philosopher and best-selling author of ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus,’ is currently echoing the same uneasiness as Kaczinsky in regards to technology and its imposing nature.
If you’re already paranoid about Google intentionally constructing search results and Facebook designing personal ad campaigns, just you wait. Harari explains that the inevitable convergence of computer science and biotechnology spells danger for an individual’s privacy and freedom. He describes a dystopian future in which a surveillance system, seemingly designed by an omnipotent KGB-like entity, may become a reality. Companies and corporations will have the ability and economic incentive to hack into a person’s mind, permitting them to predict and manipulate human behavior.
“…when you put the two together, when Infotech merges with biotech, what you get is the ability to create algorithms that understand me better than I understand myself…” — Yuval Noah Harari
All of your inner desires and aspirations will be discovered by a computer system — maybe even before you have the chance to discover them for yourself. With this data, the electronic entity will be able to shape individuals into whatever emotional state serves its purpose best — let your imagination run wild with that.
Let’s say an unethical tissue-paper company possesses such an algorithm. The algorithm determines that, more often than not, sad people buy their tear-absorbing product. The algorithm will employ sad-inducing strategies, targeting individuals based on their biochemical signatures.
I am utterly vulnerable when it comes to the song Linger by the Cranberries. I admit it: I am weak to O’Riodran’s beautiful vocals. I become enraptured and by the time the 3-min mark rolls around, I’ve run through a box of tissues — as well as my pride. If this hyper-invasive algorithm existed, it would be able to detect my intense emotional response to the song; it could use this intimate information as a way to get me to purchase more product. It’ll recommend Linger or songs like it, I take its suggestion, and, well…I’m out of tissue paper.
If this intrusive and manipulative technology was not troubling enough, Harari speaks on another technological trend that may cause further destabilization: The AI revolution. AI are tools that will increase production efficiency by eliminating human error and automating a variety of processes. Although the benefits of automation will be substantial for many, there are certain groups that will experience job loss and job insecurity. Models project that in the vicinity of 400–800 million blue-collar and white-collar jobs are vulnerable to systematic displacement as we proceed into the 2030s.
In general, companies will embrace automation to financially optimize their business model — doing away with human error. They will pursue this in spite of psychologically compromising human individuals: job insecurity and job loss are both correlated with higher levels of stress and anxiety.
Some propose Universal Basic Income (UBI) as the remedy for individuals displaced by AI. Unfortunately, UBI illustrates the frustrating tendency of technology to produce unexpected problems as it solves others. UBI will fix the financial pressures and the anxiety associated with money problems by supplying steady incomes, but the policy falls short in regards to the “power process.” Kaczynski and other literature argue that if a person receives all of their primal needs without effort and has no incentive to work towards goals, psychological risk increases. The person feels purposelessness as he attains the essentials of survival with little to no effort. UBI takes away the standard biological goals of attaining food, shelter, and clothing and puts them on a silver platter.
Kaczynski’s freedom is jeopardized in both futuristic scenarios put forth by Harari. Do we have freedom when our emotions, behaviors, and goals are dictated by forces outside of our control? Do we have freedom when we are unable to work and create meaning in our lives?
On the surface, Kaczynski and Harai’s positions are similar. Both persons point out that technology is an incredible force with the propensity to create a society in which freedom is limited and psychological suffering is rampant; however, as you dig deeper, a fundamental difference arises between the two anthropogenic historians: Kaczynski believes that human nature is stagnant; Harari envisions human nature as dynamic.
Reminiscent of Kaczynski, Harari provides a concerning and calculated analysis of our probable destinies driven by technology, BUT, diverging from Kaczynski, he places faith in our capacity to consciously evolve. We have done it before. Two golden periods of human history spark to mind: The Renaissance — when humanism inspired great art and innovation — and the Enlightenment — when reason became humanity’s prized possession.
To deal with technology, evolving better humanistic qualities or logic will not suffice. Instead, Harari urges individuals to consider a path of spiritual transcendence. He disregards narrow-skills, such as coding and learning specific languages, and focuses on honing our emotional intelligence through mental balance and spiritual flexibility. Meditation, art, writing, and music are all ways we as individuals can grow this underdeveloped portion of ourselves. These tools, like the stones that improved our ancestors, will prepare us for a future when our ideas of freedom and “the power process” need to be reevaluated.
So the question begs: are these tools enough or will technology overcome our ability to mentally readjust? In reality, the individual only has one path forward: to trust Harari’s message of mental adaption and humanity’s ability to change. And to be honest, Kaczynski’s method, the brutal murdering of innocents and the insurgency of society as we know it, doesn’t seem like the path towards a healthy mental state anyway.