Thursday, June 28, 2012

the unabomber as a radical philosopher of technology?

David Skrbina and Ted Kaczynski have been corresponding since 2003, and they have a lot in common - intellectually, I mean.  Both come from educational backgrounds in mathematics; both have since turned from math to philosophy; and both are fascinated by the relationship between technology and society. Skrbina has also written a good bit on panpsychism, a philosophy which sees 'mind' in all things and which he relates to eco-philosophy, so it's not entirely unsurprising that in 2010 Feral House published a collection of Kaczynski's writings as Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. "The Unabomber," with a supportive introduction from Skrbina.  Like Skrbina, Kaczynski develops a critique of technological society from a perspective of mind/ psychology rather than from more (academically) conventional dialectical or social constructivist approaches; also like Skrbina, he questions the levels of dependence on technology in 'advanced' societies.

If the publishers of Technological Slavery make good use of Kaczynski's criminal fame to promote the book - a pipe bomb graces the cover, and its contents include interpretations of his court case and disclaimers that Skrbina and Feral House do NOT condone his crimes - they also, I think, perform a useful recovery.  Like many anti-technology thinkers before him, Kaczynski fears technological domination of society, and reading his manifesto, I'm reminded at times of folks like Langdon Winner, Ivan Illich, and various anti-car bike activist groups, not to mention more mainstream doubters of technology like Thoreau and Lewis Mumford.  If he gets lost in social psychology rather than cultural constructivism, he's in good company there as well - cultural theorists have lately been recovering Freud, Lacan, and other psychoanalysts in pursuit of what makes society tick.  I may think that psychological/ biological explanations tend to be more essentialist than useful, but not everyone does.  And if he proposes radical, possibly violent, revolution as a solution to technological domination - well, really, what Marxist doesn't?

I'm not in a position to determine whether Kaczynski is a truly original or important thinker, and I think Skrbina's dismissal of the deaths he caused is a bit flippant.  But I will say that historically, he is rather important: a man who withdraws from society, who diagnoses technological overdevelopment as a social ill, who resorts to anonymous violence to get his voice heard, and who is willing to trade life in prison for immortality in print, but who becomes largely silenced within the larger media spectacle surrounding his crimes - his trajectory has as much to say about the present dominance of the technological, capitalist system as do his writings.  If other folks are writing about him, I hope they don't try as hard to separate the two.

Some links:

Review of Skrbina's Panpsychism in the West, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2005
Skrbina's Dissertation (why is the whole thing online?  weird), University of Bath, 2001
The Unabomber's Manifesto
Review of Technological Slavery, The Independent, October 3, 2010
Theodore Kaczynski, The Road to Revolution, 2009

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