Industrial Society Now

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world.

Every day, people in Western countries in Australia, Europe and North America diligently separate their household plastic waste to be collected and sent for recycling. But much of it isn’t recycled. Instead it is exported – sometimes illegally – to Indonesia and neighbouring countries, polluting the air and affecting the health of local people. …
Plastic is burned on a large scale to ease Indonesia’s overflowing rubbish dumps…”

The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

Newark, Ohio, September 6th, 2018: Flashing lights from emergency vehicles light up a residence on Elmwood Avenue in downtown Newark. Emergency responders administered naloxone to a 62-year-old man and hooked him up to an automated CPR machine before loading him into the ambulance and rushing to the emergency room.
(Photo: Will Widmer) From A Year in the Heart of the Addiction Crisis in Rust Belt America

2. The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine.

I don’t have any pithy videos/pictures for this one, but it’s a critique at least as old as Marx; Charlie Chaplin encapsulated the idea of man as nothing more than a cog in the industrial machine back in 1936.

That humans must be physical cogs in an industrial system is obvious enough–an assembly line moves forward at a certain rate and the humans working on it must match the rhythm of their movements to the line’s. Technically they can perform their individual, repetitive tasks faster than the line and then wait a few seconds until the next unit arrives, (if they are physically capable,) but they can go no slower. They certainly cannot work at a varied pace, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, even if their average speed is plenty fast: coordinating hundreds (or thousands) of people onto an assembly line requires that everyone works at the same pace.

The social implications are less obvious. Ted’s critique here is not that the industrial system reduces humans to cogs in the industrial machine, but that it reduces people to cogs in the social machine. Ted, after all, was not a manual laborer but a a university academic, a mathematician. He is, you might say, a spiteful mutant who does not want to play the social game, certainly not at Harvard, Michigan, or Berkeley.

What does it mean to be a social cog? A social cog has to “fit” with others; it has to play its social role (and no more).

Bees come in both social and antisocial varieties. The social varieties, like honeybees, build hives, have an elaborate genetic caste system, and sting (sacrificing themselves to defend the collective). The antisocial bees, like mason bees, live alone, do not build hives, can all reproduce, and do not sting (they have no hive to protect). You can speak of mason bees as individuals, but not honeybees. Honeybees, like the cells in your body, have no individual existence (well, unless you develop cancer. Then your cells can become immortal–but this has the nasty side effect of potentially killing you).

For all our talk of “individualism,” members of a modern society are no more “individuals” than members of a beehive; we do not really mean that they are “individuals” so much as that they are “interchangeable” and that their debts are owed to large corporations owned by strangers rather than family members.

On the other hand, I doubt Ted would have felt any happier in a small, tribal society; if anything, he would have had more people in his business trying to make him socialize in a particular way (theirs). Small tribal societies are not exactly well known for tolerating atheists and other dissidents, after all.

Certainly people who work industrial jobs (what few of them remain in the US) do not seem to be under the most pressure to conform mentally to the opinions of their class (or the ruling class). There does seem to be a conformist social pressure among the white-collar classes: perhaps it is as simple as people who work with ideas caring more about ideas, but there seems to be something deeper in the way certain people relate to each other and try to enforce their way of interacting on others.

U of Maryland

To quote the University of Maryland’s policy on “Binary Assumptive Language”:

These are examples of expressions that assume there are only two genders (a binary system of gender), expressions we recommend to avoid as a universal to refer to people generally — but they might be appropriate if referring to a specific person and you know how that person wants to be referred to.

. Ladies and gentlemen
. Boys and girls
. Men and women of the faculty
. Brothers and sisters
. He or she
. S/he
. Sir/madam

Say what you will about rural, tribal people: at least they won’t get you fired for beginning your speech with “Ladies and gentlemen.”

Ted concludes his second paragraph pessimistically:

Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

I actually do think there is hope of learning to live in peace and harmony with the robots, but I doubt we’ll be doing so here in America. My full thoughts on this were explored back in my review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, but the short version is that the internet has the potential to allow people to connect directly with consumers, so you are less dependent on a boss or a big corporation for employment and closer to self-employed.

One interesting example of the internet’s potential lies in Ted’s manifesto itself, Industrial Society and its Future. Today, anyone can go to a public library and use their computers to make a blog and post (almost) whatever they want on it. In 1995, getting a message in front of a large audience required convincing some publisher to print and distribute your work. Since Ted’s work was considered the rantings of a crazy terrorist, not many publishers were interested in it.

(I still think he would have been better off if he’d just gone to Kinkos, made 500 copies of the manifesto, and distributed them around local and university libraries, but we can’t escape the possibility that Ted sent a bunch of bombs to people and killed them because he wanted to, not because it was an efficient way to promote his writing.)

Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that had Ted been writing in 2005, he would have been content to express himself via a cranky blog rather than bombs. This would have required a certain ironic concession to the industrial system–no more ironic, though, than using someone else’s industrial printing press to distribute the manifesto. Want to spread your ideas to non-relatives? Welcome to the modern communication system: make your peace with that or don’t talk.

3. If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.

Ted was an accelerationist. According to Wikipedia:

“In that 1999 interview, he described his loss of faith in the potential for reform. He decided that the “human tendency … to take the path of least resistance” meant that violent collapse was the only way to bring down the industrial-technological system:[46]

They’ll take the easy way out, and giving up your car, your television set, your electricity, is not the path of least resistance for most people. As I see it, I don’t think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses … The big problem is that people don’t believe a revolution is possible, and it is not possible precisely because they do not believe it is possible. To a large extent I think the eco-anarchist movement is accomplishing a great deal, but I think they could do it better … The real revolutionaries should separate themselves from the reformers … And I think that it would be good if a conscious effort was being made to get as many people as possible introduced to the wilderness. In a general way, I think what has to be done is not to try and convince or persuade the majority of people that we are right, as much as try to increase tensions in society to the point where things start to break down. To create a situation where people get uncomfortable enough that they’re going to rebel. So the question is how do you increase those tensions?

Ted’s primary motivation in beginning his terrorist campaign was the encroachment of modern society (roads, cars, parking lots, etc) onto his favorite hiking spots. If you live near a city, this is probably inevitable: cities have expanded tremendously over the past hundred years because the jobs are in the cities; economic production is now dependent on human proximity. (This is why the Land Value Tax is good: it prevents people from accumulating outsized wealth simply because they own land proximate to city centers.) As central hub cities have expanded, though, many small towns and communities have collapsed. So whether the local countryside is growing or shrinking probably has a lot to do with where you live (but if you live there, the local countryside is probably shrinking).

As for the broader ecological problems like global warming, clearly there really is nothing individuals can do about it. Perhaps the mass global quarantine due to Covid-19 caused a dent in emissions, eg:

Global Emissions Have dropped 17% During Coronavirus Pandemic:

With strict stay-at-home orders in place over the last couple months … there has been a momentous decline in global greenhouse gas emissions scientists reported on Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of human activity resulted in a decline of more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. According to the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, peak drop in emissions happen in early April, reaching 17 percent.

The study projects that total emissions for 2020 will likely fall four to seven percent compared to last year, an unprecedented drop. Last fall, a United Nations report estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall 7.6 percent each year beginning in 2020 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

So, uh, if we have a global pandemic every year, we can just barely meet our climate goals, (assuming developing countries like India and Nigeria decide that their poor don’t need to ever aspire to middle-class luxuries like electricity).

I have been informed that the solution is nuclear power, but that does not seem to be on the table in most countries.

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “Industrial Society Now

  1. A very interesting essay!

    On the plastic recycling thing: I believe the recycling recipient countries are starting to refuse our trash.
    There was a great SSC post where Scott evaluated the environmentalist scares of the 1990s and which were well-founded. He found that the “overflowing landfills” one didn’t pan out — so arguably we can just keep the plastic in our own landfills instead of sending it abroad?
    Anyway, I expect bacteria to continue evolving to eat plastic, so eventually it might be biodegradable — maybe even too much so to be used as it is now.

    As an aside, I would love to read a piece of Indonesian fiction where these burning trash heaps feature in the background…. For me, contemporary fiction of a given time period is really the way to memorialize what the times actually felt like then (rather than historians speculating years later).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Today, anyone can go to a public library and use their computers to make a blog and post (almost) whatever they want on it.”

    Riiiiight…. And it gets drowned out by the tons of information put out by the majority (whose ideas are informed by education and propaganda) and by large organizations who have the resources to pump out vastly more information.

    “…it is certainly possible that had Ted been writing in 2005, he would have been content to express himself via a cranky blog…”

    Riiiiiiight… And get the kind of impact and exposure of, say, this blog (no offense)…. Furthermore, the violent campaign is exactly the kind of thing that a revolutionary ideology requires to prevent it’s cooptation and to drive a clear line of demarcation between the morality of the dominant system and the revolutionary one.

    I could go on.

    This essay is so naive, and so irrational generally, that I can’t help but find it amusing that it’s writer actually thought he could competently analyse Kaczynski’s works.


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