All right. It took a while, but I have finished reading Ted’s manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Ted Kaczynski was a precocious math prodigy who was born in 1942 and matriculated at Harvard in 1958, at the age of 16. He went on to earn his PhD in math at Michigan, and in 1967 became UC Berkeley’s youngest ever assistant math professor (up to that point). By 1969, Kaczynski had clearly had enough of the Berkeley hippies and retreated to a cabin in the woods, where, he claims, he intended to live the simple life in peace. Unfortunately, one day he found that someone had built a road through his favorite hiking spot, so he began a terrorist campaign of mailing letter bombs to semi-random people, most of them professors or involved in transportation/technology. (Three people died.)
This resulted in a very long and expensive FBI manhunt that ended when Ted agreed to cease his bombing campaign if the Washington Post printed his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. Kaczynski’s brother recognized his writing style in the essay and turned him over to the FBI; Ted is still alive, in prison.
It is unfortunate when the author of a work commits clearly reprehensible or evil acts (like killing people). For all that we attempt not to fall into ad hominens, “Do I trust the author or does he seem like a crazy guy?” remains a reasonable first-pass mechanism for sorting through the nigh-infinite quantity of potential reading material. In this case, we must simply admit up front that the author was terrorist and murderer, then proceed to analyze his ideas as though he didn’t exist. Death of the author, indeed.
Industrial Society and its Future is 35,000 words long, or the length of a novella. It is long enough to feel long when reading it, but too short to include the kind of explanatory examples and details that it could really use. (My summary will therefore draw, when necessary, from other things I have read.)
You have likely already encountered most of the concepts in Ted’s essay, either independently or because you’ve talked to people who’ve read it; the concepts are very commonly discussed on the alt-right.
Ted asserts that modern technology is making people miserable because:
1. It provides for our basic needs (ie food and shelter) with relative ease, leaving us unable to fulfill our instinctual drive to provide for our basic needs, which leaves us unhappy.
2. It makes us follow lots of rules (like “only sell pasteurized milk” or “get a driver’s license”). These rules are necessary for running advanced technology in densely populated areas, but frustrating because they significantly curtail our freedom.
A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems. When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one … But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car. Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. …
To be fair, when talking about the miseries created by technology, I think we can also include things like “people incinerated by bombs during WWII” and “People whose lives were made miserable by totalitarian Soviet states,” not just people struggling to cross the street because there are too many cars.
Ted believes that this misery is bad enough that we would be happier and better off without modern technology (aside from, obviously, everyone who would die without it,) and therefore we should get rid of it.
This is, unfortunately, the essay’s weak point. Most people who read it probably say, “Yes, modern civilization has its issues, yes, cars pollute and traffic is annoying and I hate paperwork, but it sure beats getting mauled to death by lions.”
To be fair, there’s not a whole lot of research out there about what makes people happy. (I did find some; the researchers concluded that people are happy when they have friends.) Personally, I’ve only ever lived in today’s society, so I struggle to compare it to society of 200 years ago.
But let’s suppose we accept Kaczynski’s thesis and decided that modern life is making people really miserable. We can’t just say, “Okay, we’re Luddites, now. Lets put some clogs in this machine.” The system won’t let you. The system is a lot bigger and stronger than you.
Ted advocates rebellion in the essay, but later he noted that realistically, there won’t be a mass movement of people willing to give up their TVs, so if you want to do something about industrial system, you have to go the opposite direction: make the system worse until everyone is so stressed and miserable that they all snap and the system breaks.
Much like Marx, this is where the essay falters, because the technological system shows no sign of completely breaking down. Even if the US collapses, China will just happily scoop up the pieces and chug right along.
(I find it somewhat amusingly that Ted is essentially using a Marxist approach in his claim that the needs of the society’s economic system dictate the shape and culture of that society.)
A few things are incorrect, (Ted is weak on what life is actually like in primitive societies–clearly he has never lived in one–for example, his claim that crime was lower in their societies than ours. It wasn’t,) but the general thrust is accurate or at least an interesting position that a reasonable person could argue in good faith. The essay is quite interesting in its description of the “power process”:
Human beings have a need (probably based in biology) for something that we will call the “power process.” This is closely related to the need for power (which is widely recognized) but is not quite the same thing. The power process has four elements. The three most clear-cut of these we call goal, effort and attainment of goal. (Everyone needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.) The fourth element is more difficult to define and may not be necessary for everyone. We call it autonomy and will discuss it later (paragraphs 42-44).
34. Consider the hypothetical case of a man who can have anything he wants just by wishing for it. Such a man has power, but he will develop serious psychological problems. At first he will have a lot of fun, but by and by he will become acutely bored and demoralized. Eventually he may become clinically depressed. …
35. Everyone has goals; if nothing else, to obtain the physical necessities of life: food, water and whatever clothing and shelter are made necessary by the climate. …
36. Nonattainment of important goals results in death if the goals are physical necessities, and in frustration if nonattainment of the goals is compatible with survival. Consistent failure to attain goals throughout life results in defeatism, low self-esteem or depression.
37, Thus, in order to avoid serious psychological problems, a human being needs goals whose attainment requires effort, and he must have a reasonable rate of success in attaining his goals.
This is all well and good until society gets so good at making food that, poof, the majority of people can no longer actually struggle and attain meaningful goals.
People who do not have real goals to give themselves a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction try to fill the void in their lives with “surrogate activities,” which are basically everything else people do.
I think it is fair to say that modern people do have a lot of surrogate activities, and some of them are pretty embarrassing. Women sometimes become obsessed with dolls and start treating them like real children (eg, “momalorians;”) men become obsessed with movies/ video games in which they pretend to be heroes; and pretty much everyone on the internet thinks that they have something very important to say about politics.
It’s hard to escape the sense that many people obsess about such things because otherwise they would have nothing to say to each other; they don’t derive meaning from their jobs or daily lives, or if they do, nothing that happens to them would make sense to the other people they talk to. At least if I reference Harry Potter, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
That all said, Ted misses one significant way people can still struggle and achieve meaningful goals: by having children. Obviously Ted never had kids of his own, nor did most of the people he knew at university, which is probably why he doesn’t address this in his essay. Nevertheless, having and raising kids is right up there with acquiring food and shelter in the list of basic human drives; evolution guarantees it. And kids, unlike food, are not being mass produced by machines. Raising children is still difficult and, yes, ultimately satisfying.
If raising one child is too simple and doesn’t provide enough difficulty to struggle and overcome, have some more. By kid three or four, you’ll be feeling that sweet, life-enhancing exhilaration of fleeing from an angry tiger. Or you’ll be really tired. No guarantees.
Ted’s next interesting concept is “oversocialization”:
24. Psychologists use the term “socialization” to designate the process by which children are trained to think and act as society demands. A person is said to be well socialized if he believes in and obeys the moral code of his society and fits in well as a functioning part of that society. It may seem senseless to say that many leftists are oversocialized, since the leftist is perceived as a rebel. Nevertheless, the position can be defended. Many leftists are not such rebels as they seem.
25. The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way. For example, we are not supposed to hate anyone, yet almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not. Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin. We use the term “oversocialized” to describe such people. 
26. Oversocialization can lead to low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness, defeatism, guilt, etc. One of the most important means by which our society socializes children is by making them feel ashamed of behavior or speech that is contrary to society’s expectations. If this is overdone, or if a particular child is especially susceptible to such feelings, he ends by feeling ashamed of HIMSELF. Moreover the thought and the behavior of the oversocialized person are more restricted by society’s expectations than are those of the lightly socialized person. The majority of people engage in a significant amount of naughty behavior. They lie, they commit petty thefts, they break traffic laws, they goof off at work, they hate someone, they say spiteful things or they use some underhanded trick to get ahead of the other guy. The oversocialized person cannot do these things, or if he does do them he generates in himself a sense of shame and self-hatred. The oversocialized person cannot even experience, without guilt, thoughts or feelings that are contrary to the accepted morality; he cannot think “unclean” thoughts. And socialization is not just a matter of morality; we are socialized to conform to many norms of behavior that do not fall under the heading of morality. Thus the oversocialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him. In many oversocialized people this results in a sense of constraint and powerlessness that can be a severe hardship. We suggest that oversocialization is among the more serious cruelties that human beings inflict on one another.
I had heard of Ted’s concept of “oversocialization” before reading the essay, but I thought it referred to people who had too many friends, socialized too much, and consequently became too obsessed with what other people think/obsessed with their reputation in other people’s minds.
On the contrary, Ted is taking a rather blank-slate approach to human nature and claiming that the “oversocialized” are people who have been molded by society to be overly restricted in their moral and personal behavior (because it is useful for the system if they act this way). This is “socialized” in the same vein as “sex is a social construct;” like the claim that primitive peoples had lower crime rates than ourselves, Ted at times espouses leftist ideological bits without necessarily realizing it.
Of course people do live in societies and are shaped and molded by them in various ways, but I know many “oversocialized” people, and at least some of them were born that way. Perhaps in a different society that basic tendency of theirs to believe that they are sinners would have been discouraged, but there is still that basic tendency in them; had they been the sorts of people who by nature rebel against authority, our society would give them a great deal to rebel against.
Our society does set the bounds and limits for most people’s morals, however. Our current notion that racism is a great evil, for example, was not shared by our ancestors of two centuries ago.
I’d like to pause and quote Zero HP Lovecraft:
Quoting Zero HP Lovecraft:
Foucault taught that power does not inhere in individuals, but in networks of people, that it is manifest between everyone and everyone else at all times, that it cannot be possessed, only enacted, and that it coerces by manufacturing “truth”
“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced by constraint. Each society has its regime of truth: the types of discourse it accepts; the mechanisms which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned”
Power is induced by “truth”, which is contingent and socially constructed. This makes conservatives bristle, because they rightly know that there is an immutable reality, but they refuse to understand how much flexion their own minds have with regard to the absolute
The dissident right breaks from the “mainstream” right precisely when realizes, along with Foucault, that “truth is not the privilege of those who have liberated themselves.” Moldbug’s famous dictum is “The sovereign determines the null hypothesis” …
Power is decentralized. If a single node in the knowledge/power nexus flips, the cathedral treats it as damage and routes around it. If a Harvard dean or NYT editor goes rogue, they get ignored or ejected.
Everyone knows more or less what power expressed through truth demands. We can sense it; we know the magic words we can say to give orders to others. “That makes me uncomfortable.” “That’s hateful.” “That could offend some people”. The words sound innocent but they aren’t
If you challenge a person who is enacting power, they can escalate. Your nearest authority knows the “truth”, and will side with power. If he doesn’t, his superior will, or his, and so on. In rare cases, these things go to court, where truth is constituted as law and precedent …
Power is the source of social discipline and conformity. To challenge power is not a matter of seeking some ‘absolute truth’, but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of social, economic, and cultural hegemony within which it operates
In some ways, Foucault’s ideas are quite reactionary, and he drew criticism from his leftist colleagues, because his ideas, taken to their logical conclusion, undermine the idea that any kind of “emancipation” is even possible. This is undeniably true.
(There is no such thing as emancipation. Living in society is submitting to social control. Living away from society is submitting to nature’s control. Nature is a harsher master than society.)
Similarly, while living in a technological society necessitates giving up a certain amount of freedom, it also gives a certain amount of freedom. Certainly there are far more career options. Your ancestors were dirt farmers and if they didn’t want to be dirt farmers, well, they could sign up to be sailors and die of scurvy. Slavery, serfdom, and indentured servitude were widespread, child brides were common in many parts of the world, and many people effectively had no one to protect them from abuse. Today has problems, but so did the past.
In many cases, people did not willingly join the industrialized world, but instead had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it–for example, the Inclosure Acts in England and Wales forced over 200,000 farmers off their land and into the cities in the late 1700s and early 1800s, where they became the early proletarian working class of the Industrial Revolution. For many of these people the process was an absolute disaster as rates of death and disease soared. To quote Spartacus Educational:
In 1750 around a fifth of the population [of Britain] lived in towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants; by 1850 around three-fifths did. This caused serious health problems for working-class people. In 1840, 57% of the working-class children of Manchester died before their fifth birthday, compared with 32% in rural districts. (17) Whereas a farm labourer in Rutland had a life-expectancy of 38, a factory worker in Liverpool had an average age of death of 15. (18)
I have seen similar numbers elsewhere. It was really bad, mostly because most houses in Britain did not have running water or sewers at the time. Poop was either thrown into the rivers (which were most people’s only water sources) or simply piled up until someone came and carted it away. And this was the era of horse-drawn carriages, which meant cities were also full of horse poop. For example, in 1880, there were at least 150,000 horses in New York City:
At a rate of 22 pounds per horse per day, equine manure added up to millions of pounds each day and over a 100,000 tons per year (not to mention around 10 million gallons of urine).
It smelled bad, to say the least. The introduction of the automobile was actually heralded for “polluting” less than horses.
But on the other hand, many people were quite happy to go to the cities. The US had both a wide open frontier for aspiring farmers and nothing like Britain’s Inclosure acts, yet still industrialized nonetheless. Presumably most of the people who moved to American cities in search of factory jobs did so voluntarily, like the Lowell Mill Girls:
The Lowell mill girls were young female workers who came to work in industrial corporations in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The workers initially recruited by the corporations were daughters of propertied New England farmers, typically between the ages of 15 and 35. By 1840, the height of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills had recruited over 8,000 workers, mostly women, who came to make up nearly three-quarters of the mill workforce…
During the early period, women came to the mills of their own accord, for various reasons: to help a brother pay for college, for the educational opportunities offered in Lowell, or to earn supplementary income. Francis Cabot Lowell specifically emphasized the importance of providing housing and a form of education to mirror the boarding schools that were emerging in the 19th century. He also wanted to provide an environment that sharply contrasted the poor conditions of the British Mills. While their wages were only half of what men were paid, many women able to attain economic independence for the first time…
Similarly, we can cite the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural US South to Northern manufacturing cities, and millions of people in third world countries who have left their farms behind in favor of factory work. If the switch left them significantly unhappier, we’d expect to see many of them move back (though it is true that many a labor union strike has expressed deep dissatisfaction with factory systems).
At this point, it seems that problems like “no sanitation” have been solved and mos people in the world are enjoying significantly higher standards of living than ever before.
But let’s get back to Ted, because I’ve gotten very far from the oversocialized:
27. We argue that a very important and influential segment of the modern left is oversocialized and that their oversocialization is of great importance in determining the direction of modern leftism. Leftists of the oversocialized type tend to be intellectuals or members of the upper-middle class. Notice that university intellectuals  constitute the most highly socialized segment of our society and also the most left-wing segment.
28. The leftist of the oversocialized type tries to get off his psychological leash and assert his autonomy by rebelling. But usually he is not strong enough to rebel against the most basic values of society. Generally speaking, the goals of today’s leftists are NOT in conflict with the accepted morality. On the contrary, the left takes an accepted moral principle, adopts it as its own, and then accuses mainstream society of violating that principle.
This is, of course, exactly what we see right now, with middle and upper-class white liberals demanding that the government do more to enforce the views of middle and upper class white liberals by rioting in the streets and tearing down statues.
Let’s look a bit at the restriction of freedom:
114. As explained in paragraphs 65-67, 70-73, modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function. At work people have to do what they are told to do, otherwise production would be thrown into chaos. Bureaucracies HAVE TO be run according to rigid rules. To allow any substantial personal discretion to lower-level bureaucrats would disrupt the system and lead to charges of unfairness due to differences in the way individual bureaucrats exercised their discretion. It is true that some restrictions on our freedom could be eliminated, but GENERALLY SPEAKING the regulation of our lives by large organizations is necessary for the functioning of industrial-technological society. The result is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the average person. It may be, however, that formal regulations will tend increasingly to be replaced by psychological tools that make us want to do what the system requires of us. (Propaganda , educational techniques, “mental health” programs, etc.)
115. The system HAS TO force people to behave in ways that are increasingly remote from the natural pattern of human behavior. For example, the system needs scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It can’t function without them. So heavy pressure is put on children to excel in these fields. It isn’t natural for an adolescent human being to spend the bulk of his time sitting at a desk absorbed in study. A normal adolescent wants to spend his time in active contact with the real world. Among primitive peoples the things that children are trained to do tend to be in reasonable harmony with natural human impulses. Among the American Indians, for example, boys were trained in active outdoor pursuits—
just the sort of thing that boys like. But in our society children are pushed into studying technical subjects, which most do grudgingly. …
117. In any technologically advanced society the individual’s fate MUST depend on decisions that he personally cannot influence to any great extent. A technological society cannot be broken down into small, autonomous communities, because production depends on the cooperation of very large numbers of people and machines. Such a society MUST be highly organized and decisions HAVE TO be made that affect very large numbers of people. When a decision affects, say, a million people, then each of the affected individuals has, on the average, only a one-millionth share in making the decision. What usually happens in practice is that decisions are made by public officials or corporation executives, or by technical specialists, but even when the public votes on a decision the number of voters ordinarily is too large for the vote of any one individual to be significant.  Thus most individuals are unable to influence measurably the major decisions that affect their lives. There is no conceivable way to remedy this in a technologically advanced society. The system tries to “solve” this problem by using propaganda to make people WANT the decisions that have been made for them, but even if this “solution” were completely successful in making people feel better, it would be demeaning. …
119. The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity.  … But the system, for good, solid, practical reasons, must exert constant pressure on people to mold their behavior to the needs of the system. … Need more technical personnel? A chorus of voices exhorts kids to study science. No one stops to ask whether it is inhumane to force adolescents to spend the bulk of their time studying subjects most of them hate. When skilled workers are put out of a job by technical advances and have to undergo “retraining,” no one asks whether it is humiliating for them to be pushed around in this way. It is simply taken for granted that everyone must bow to technical necessity. and for good reason: If human needs were put before technical necessity there would be economic problems, unemployment, shortages or worse. The concept of “mental health” in our society is defined largely by the extent to which an individual behaves in accord with the needs of the system and does so without showing signs of stress.
I would like to note a quick objection, that while this is true to some extent, it is also true that mental illness is a real thing that makes people suffer.
Ted is concerned, of course, that all of this making people conform to the needs of the technological system is inhuman and cruel and transforms people into ants.
Finally, we have the question of what happens to ordinary people when technology advances to the point that the jobs they used to do become obsolete.
I’ve been worrying about the “Robot Economy,” as I dubbed it, for about a decade and a half (not as long as Ted, but I’m not as old as he is.) What happens when machines get so good at doing your job that it’s not longer useful to employ you? I treated this subject at length a year or two ago in my review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, but here is the short version:
So far, the results have been mixed. Losing your job is painful. Entire industries ceasing to employ people is even more painful, as people also lose all of the time and expense they spent to learn how to do those jobs. Retraining massive numbers of people is not easy and sometimes simply not doable. In the short term, at least, economic disruption is pretty bad.
On the long term, though, humans have so far coped with the disappearance of many professions by simply inventing new ones. Back in the 1800s, about 90% of people were farmers. The invention of the tractor rendered most farmers obsolete; one man could now do the work of many. Today, less than 2% of Americans are farmers.
But this massive shift in employment did not result in 88% of Americans being permanently out of work. 88% of us did not have to go on welfare, nor did we starve. People just do new jobs that we didn’t have back in the 1800s.
If technology keeps advancing (as I think it will) and keeps displacing people from their current jobs, we will not necessarily end up with an enormous lumpenproletariat underclass that is doomed to destitution. Certainly there will be painful periods, but in the end, people will probably just get new jobs (and the more we replace repetitive, physically demanding work with robots, the more pleasant I think those new jobs will be).
So this is a bit of a white pill to Kaczynski’s black: while I don’t think things are going to be smooth, and I certainly don’t have any reason to think that America will continue to economically and technologically dominate the world, and I do agree that modern society has a lot of problems, (many of which Kaczynski accurately describes,) I don’t think the world in general is doomed.
That said, you can’t destroy the system. It’s not going to collapse any time soon, though dysgenics could eventually do it in. In the meanwhile, you can join the Amish, if you want. You can move to New York, if that’s your thing. (I can’t imagine wanting to live in NYC given current circumstances, but clearly some people like it there.) Most people will make a few compromises, deal with the inconveniences, and find something worth living for–usually their children.