All my Homies Read Ted Kaczynski: An introduction to the psychological consequences for the individual in the modern world
Ted Kaczynski was a terrorist, who through a series of mail bombings between 1978 and 1995 murdered three people and injured 23 others, sought revenge against industrial society in an attempt to alert and inspire people towards an anti-technology revolution.
According to Kaczynski technological development and industrial society decrease human freedom:
"the system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function." Additionally, an increase of this freedom through reform would be futile, as any meaningful change soon would be removed once their consequences develop:
"Thus, permanent changes in favor of freedom could be brought about only by persons prepared to accept radical, dangerous and unpredictable alteration of the entire system." Therefore the only solution is an anti-tech revolution.
This line of thinking led Kaczynski to write his essay "Industrial Society and Its Future", which was published by Penthouse, The New York Times and The Washington Post in 1995. Kaczynski was arrested the following year, and died in prison June 2023 at the age of 81.
With this short article, I attempt to bring fourth a summary, or atleast provide some level of interest to the psychological consequences of modern society, through the eyes of Ted Kaczynski.
Some sources of stress for the modern individual lie in excessive population density and isolation from nature. With the industrial revolution, cities became larger and denser due to people moving away from their rural lives. Furthermore, small-scale communities such as the tribe, the village, or the extended family have in modern society been replaced by the state.
Kaczynski notes, in relation to the stress of crowding: an example in regards to noise:
... technology exacerbates the effects of crowding because it puts increased disruptive powers in people’s hands. For example, a variety of noise-making devices: power mowers, radios, motorcycles, etc. If the use of these devices is unrestricted, people who want peace and quiet are frustrated by the noise. If their use is restricted, people who use the devices are frustrated by the regulations. But if these machines had never been invented there would have been no conflict and no frustration generated by them.
Another stress factor is security, or the lack thereof. Kaczynski argues that the pre-industrial psychological understandning of feeling safe was far greater in comparison to the modern individual. In this case, Kaczynski is comparing the self-confidence in taking care of oneself, as opposed to the the modern individual's inability and self awareness of not being self reliant.
Much of this lies within the fact that industrial society has moved the security of the individual in the hands of other people: threats such as nuclear safety standards, pesticides, pollution, layoffs at work, or the skill of one's doctor. For pre-industrial individuals, on the other hand, one could be severely injured or killed by the raw forces of nature. These cases, according to Kaczynski, has to be accepted as natural causes and part of life.
This is however more desirable than life within modern society — because individuals, in the case of the pre-industrial lifestyle, exert much greater control and influence than he would in modern society.
The individual can struggle (at the risk of death) against whichever animal attacks him, or he can react to scarce amounts of food or resources by deciding to migrate. In modern society, on the other hand, the individual is constrained not by nature, but by the man-made colassal machinery of which the individual is a mere cog. Thus, for Kaczynski, freedom is only achieved through real autonomy — something which the next section takes a closer look at.
The power process and surrogate activities
Kaczynski (probably) borrows ideas from thinkers such as Jacques Ellul, Desmond Morris, and Martin Seligman. His idea of The power process combines Morris's concept of the Stimulus Struggle with Seligman's idea of learned helplessness. Additionally, surrogate activities is likely an adaptation of Desmond Morris's idea of survival-substitute activities.
The Power Process
Kaczynski argues that individuals require goals that are achieved through real effort. Without this, there is a great risk of mental health issues.
From boredom to depression, anxiety, sleep or eating disorders, low self-esteem, guilt, or even child or spousal abuse, Kaczynski argues, are in part caused by a lack of the power process—that is, having a goal, investing autonomous effort, and then realizing the goal. This process has been hindered by the fact that modern society provides the individual with the basic means of survival:
"biological needs have been reduced to triviality." Instead, the average individual exchanges his time and obedience for an income. Consequently, the workplace does not answer to the power process – because the individual performs tasks upon command, leaving little room for autonomous initiative or decision-making. One might think that if the individual is given more freedom or more autonomous work, then the power process will be met. But if the autonomy is given, it can never satisfy the power process.
“As long as the system GIVES them their opportunities it still has them on a leash. To attain autonomy they must get off that leash.”
Kaczynski defines surrogate activities as:
“An activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that people set up for themselves merely in order to have some goal to work toward”. Surrogate activities are goals that individuals will strive towards even if their needs for the power process have been met. Kaczynski exemplifies:
“...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 adresses issues that are not important for the activist personally…“.
Naturally, not all surrogate activities are isolated from other drives, as there can be an overlap; people go to work to make a living, but people also work hard to achieve prestige, be better than their peers, or even attempt to become satisfied through a career that aligns with their set of values.
Surrogate activities can never be as satisfying as real goals, so the individual is never actually satisfied. Kaczynski does acknowledge that in modern society, most people would prefer their surrogate activities rather than satisfying their biological need for survival. But his response to this is that the biological needs of survival today can only be met through the immense social machinery, which means that surrogate activities are, in contrast, allowed greater autonomy.
Even though Ted Kaczynski was a terrorist, he still deserves attention for his work. Kaczynski was an important figure who, while not being the “original thinker” for many of the ideas of which he wrote (it is worth nothing that this is something he has been criticized for, while never having claimed to have done so), made the ideas of thinkers such as Jacques Ellul, Desmond Morris and Martin Seligman simplified for broader accessibility.
This short text has brought attention to some of the basic ideas regarding the psychological impact of which modern technological society has on its citizens — the way Theodore Kaczynski saw it. These include crowding, lack of the power-process, and the meaningless pursuit of surrogate activities. Additionally, the high degree of specialization in modern society has brought with it too much trust in a small group of individuals, such as those in charge of nuclear safety standards.