Professionalism/Ted Kaczynski

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In this chapter, we will discuss the thoughts of mathematician, Neo-Luddite, and serial killer Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski and compare them with the ideas of more mainstream thinkers. We limit our picture of Kaczynski's thoughts to those presented in his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future[1]. Of these ideas, we are specifically interested in the ethical considerations that Kaczynski thinks should guide the progress of science and technology and the values that he thinks define modern technical professionals. These ideas combine to form a unique perspective on professional ethics for engineers. All quotations from Kaczynski are taken from his manifesto and referenced by paragraph number.

Background[edit | edit source]

In this section, we will briefly describe Kaczynski's life, through the publication of his manifesto and his subsequent arrest, to provide context for his ideas. Kaczynski, born in 1942, was recognized early as an academic prodigy, with special abilities in mathematics. At the age of 16, he was accepted as a student to Harvard University, where he studied math and physics [2]. Kaczynski went on to earn his PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan, where his award-winning dissertation [3] was widely praised by the faculty members he worked with [4]. After a short-lived professorship at UC Berkeley, Kaczynski resigned and built himself an isolated wood cabin in rural Montana.

Kaczynski at Berkeley

From the early to mid-70's Kaczynski lived in this cabin without electricity or running water, learning a variety of survival skills and reading books about sociology and philosophy [2]. In 1978, he began a series of 16 bombings, mostly targeting university professors and computer store owners [5]. He was widely referred to as "the Unabomber" prior to his identification and arrest. Kaczynski's attacks culminated with a letter to the New York Times, which demanded that a reputable newspaper or journal publish his 35,000 word manifesto regarding the dangers of modern industrial-technological society. Though there was some initial hesitation [6], the New York Times and the Washington Post published the Unabomber manifesto on September 19, 1995 [7]. While a costly FBI investigation had been underway since the first bombing, Kaczynski was not caught and arrested until April 3, 1996 [5], after his brother recognized the writing style of the published manifesto [8]. In May 1998, Kaczynski was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole [5].

Values[edit | edit source]

To understand Kaczynski's ethical perspective, we must first determine what he defines as good. He never defines this explicitly, concluding that "in a discussion of this kind one must rely heavily on intuitive judgment" (paragraph 231). He appears to assume a shared, intuitive understanding with the reader of what things are right. His occasional examples fall in line with conventional ideas. In paragraph 153, for example, he identifies "good purposes, such as discouraging child abuse or race hatred". His full definition of what is right cannot be typical, though, because society deemed his deliberate, murderous bombings criminal. We must therefore carefully analyze the things that Kaczynski classifies as right and wrong.

He justifies most of his objections to the modern industrial system by attributing "immense suffering all over the world" (paragraph 169) to it. We may thus conclude that Kaczynski considers the suffering of people bad. He deliberately inflicted suffering on people, though, which appears to violate this simple precept. What, according to Kaczynski, makes some suffering worth causing? He provides hints in the section on "Human Suffering" (paragraphs 167-170), where he states that "it is not all certain that the survival of the [industrial] system will lead to less suffering than the breakdown of the system would" (paragraph 169) and "one has to balance the struggle and death [of a revolution] against the loss of freedom and dignity" (paragraph 168). These excerpts suggest that Kaczynski's guiding principle is a sort of Utilitarian arithmetic for minimizing net human suffering. He makes this explicit for his own actions in paragraph 96, claiming that to have "some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people". He casts his murders as negative actions but believes that this harm was outweighed by the exposure of his writing.

Kaczynski's picture of psychology[edit | edit source]

Kaczynski's views on the ethics of technology rely on his model of human psychology and the ways that its interactions with modern technology allegedly lead to suffering. Kaczynski believes that a core element of human psychology is what he calls the "power process" (paragraph 33). He theorizes that, in order to have healthy, functional lives, people must formulate goals and exert nontrivial efforts to attain them. Reaching goals without effort is not sufficient; Kaczynski offers the trend that "leisured, secure aristocracies that have no need to exert themselves usually become bored, hedonistic and demoralized" (paragraph 34) as evidence for the value of the power process. Kaczynski also believes that people derive the greatest enjoyment from participating in this process independently, claiming that "most people need a greater or lesser degree of autonomy" (paragraph 42) to feel satisfied.

Some goals, such as food and shelter, are necessary for survival. When meeting these goals is a nontrivial endeavor, people are required to participate in the power process. According to Kaczynski, however, the "effort needed to satisfy the biological needs has been reduced to triviality" (paragraph 41) by modern industry. In other words, he thinks we have become like the "leisured, secure aristocracies" (paragraph 34) of past ages. Much of the manifesto is devoted to describing the psychological pathologies that supposedly follow from this disruption of the power process.

Not all modern people lose touch with the process, though; some people formulate artificial goals. This idea has precedent in A.H. Maslow's writings on the "hierarchy" of human needs. Maslow claims that, when basic goals are reached, "At once other (and 'higher') needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate"[9] (p. 375). Kaczynski refers to the nontrivial efforts that people make toward such goals as "surrogate activities" (paragraphs 38-41). Kaczynski's list of examples includes "scientific work, athletic achievement, humanitarian work, artistic and literary creation, climbing the corporate ladder, acquisition of money and material goods far beyond the point at which they cease to give any additional physical satisfaction, and social activism when it addresses issues that are not important for the activist" (paragraph 40). Of particular relevance to professional engineering ethics is Kaczynski's identification of technical professions as surrogate activities.

Technical professionals[edit | edit source]

Kaczynski devotes a section of his manifesto to "The Motives of Scientists" (paragraphs 87-92). He argues that scientists (and presumably other technical professionals) pursue their careers as surrogate activities, mainly to fulfill the power process. Kaczynski dismisses the objections that scientists might be motivated by curiosity (paragraph 87) or the "benefit of humanity" (paragraph 88). He reaches the conclusion that "science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race" (paragraph 92). This surrogate activity -- that every engineer partakes in -- is thus at best orthogonal to Kaczynski's implicit guiding ethical principle: minimizing total human suffering. As we saw in his discussion of the disrupted power process, Kaczynski thinks that the advancement of technology can in fact work against human welfare.

Small-scale vs. Organizational technology[edit | edit source]

It is important to note that Kaczynski did not hate all forms of technology. He defines two forms of technology as "small-scale" and "organizational" (paragraph 208). Small-scale technology "can be used by small-scale communities without outside assistance." This includes technology such as steel and the water wheel. Organizational technology requires organization on the social level, and falls into disrepair if that organization disappears. An example Kaczynski gives is the Roman aqueduct system. It was not maintained after the empire's collapse, while small-scale Roman technologies survived (paragraph 208). He hypothesizes that the refrigerator (among other things) would meet a similar fate if modern society collapsed (paragraphs 209-210). Kaczynski endorses small-scale technology while condemning organizational technology. E.F. Schumacher made a similar distinction and reached the similar (but less militant) conclusion that Small is Beautiful.

In a portion of Kaczynski's manifesto entitled "The Future", he outlines some of the dangers of organizational technologies. Two of the particular risks involve artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. Kaczynski argues that our reliance upon machines will progress to the point where they make the majority of decisions for us. At this point, "People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide" (Paragraph 173). This sentiment was expressed by E.M. Forster almost a century earlier in his short story The Machine Stops[10] and is related to the more recent concept of the Singularity. Computer scientist Bill Joy stated that, although Kaczynski was "criminally insane", he "saw some merit in" Kaczynski's reasoning about the dystopian possibilities for computing[11]. Even if humans remain in control, Kaczynski claims that advances in the field of genetic engineering will "continue until man and other organisms have been utterly transformed" because "once you start modifying organisms through genetic engineering there is no reason to stop at any particular point" (Paragraph 177). Kaczynski thinks that the inevitable regulation of genetic engineering (paragraph 123) would lead to a curtailment of the autonomy that he believes enhances the power process (paragraph 42), concluding that "The only code of ethics that would truly protect freedom would be one that prohibited ANY genetic engineering of human beings" (paragraph 124). The popularity of the film Gattaca[12], a depiction of a genetically engineered society, released shortly after the Unabomber's arrest, suggests widespread sympathy for this view.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Kaczynski classifies certain technologies as ethical and others as unethical, on the basis of their alleged effects on overall human welfare. This implies a set of ethical principles for technical professionals that is very different from the motivations that Kaczynski thinks actually drive science and technology forward. While Kaczynski's sanity is questionable [13][14], we find that some of his conclusions are compatible with those of more mainstream authors and may even resonate with the general public. This makes his perspective worthy of consideration, in spite of the criminal actions that got it published.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "The Unabomber Trial: The Manifesto". The Washington Post. Sept 22, 1995. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  2. a b Schwartz, John (April 4, 1996). "Bookish Recluse Lived Sparse Cabin Existence". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 29, 2011. {{cite web}}: Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  3. Kaczynski, Ted (1967). "Boundary Functions".
  4. McFadden, Robert (May 26, 1996). "PRISONER OF RAGE -- A special report.;From a Child of Promise to the Unabom Suspect". The New York Times. Retrieved April 29 ,2011. 
  5. a b c "16 Bombs, Three Deaths". The Washington Post. 1998. Retrieved April 29, 2011.
  6. LaFraniere, Sharon (July 1, 1995). "Manifesto Poses Ethical Dilemma for Two Newspapers". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 29, 2011. {{cite web}}: Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  7. Graham, Donald (September 19, 1995). "Statement by Papers' Publishers". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 29, 2011. {{cite web}}: Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  8. Claiborne, William (August 21, 1998). "FBI Gives Reward to Unabomber's Brother". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 29, 2011.
  9. Maslow, Abraham (July, 1943). "A theory of human motivation". Psychological Review. pp. 370–396. Retrieved April 29, 2011. {{cite web}}: Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. Forster, E.M. (1909). "The Machine Stops". Retrieved April 29, 2011.
  11. Joy, Bill (April, 2000). "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us". Wired. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  12. Niccol, Andrew. (1997). Gattaca. 
  13. Booth, William (December 26, 1997). "Kaczynski Resists the Insanity Defense". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  14. Booth, William (January 9, 1998). "Kaczynski Agrees to Mental Exam, Seeks to Represent Himself". Retrieved April 29, 2011. 

External Links[edit | edit source]

Audio interview: