technophobia is alive, well, and still wrong

Ted Kaczynski's technophobic manifesto lives on and its ideas found an appreciative audience.

windup robot toy

Since the dawn of industrial technology there have been those who looked at any new tool or idea and said it was dangerous and totally degrading to humanity as a whole. From early opponents of vaccination who said that an intervention to help people avoid disease would interfere with God’s will, to farmers who smashed machines they were convinced would take away their jobs, to modern anti-internet crusaders, technophobia has a very, very long history.

Go back in time far enough and I assure you that someone balked at the notion of using a pointed, sharp rock to cut up animal flesh, wondering why oh why our hands weren’t enough and declaring that if we’re meant to eat animal flesh, we would’ve evolved to have claws and fangs. And in recent history few people exemplified radical technophobia more than Kaczynski, who believed that technology was enslaving all humanity, so much so that something had to be done about it, it being a terrorist campaign that is. Now that he will be housed in a supermax prison for the remainder of his life we could dismiss him as a loon and his 35,000 word manifesto as a rant, but the fact of the matter is that there are those who seriously study his views on technology.

Generally technophobes insist only on seeing the absolute worst in any new device or platform no matter how contrived their fears have to be in order to cast the offending new thing in a negative light. From e-books being catalysts for the fall of civilization, to comic book science turning the future into dystopian sci-fi novel as an unruly tangle of social media sites slowly reduces the brains of anyone under 30 to mush while technocrats on the Illuminati payroll poison the world with modern medicine, technophobes continue offering ever more dire scenarios for how our innovation will be the end of us all, much like how an overprotective mother refuses to let her kids go out and play because she’s obsessed with hyperventilating over every bad thing that has any possible chance of happening to her children, no matter how small that chance is.

They feel ignored and very alienated in a world that mindlessly praises technology, as David Skrbina, a philosopher who sympathetically analyzes Kaczynski’s manifesto and their scholarly back and forths with his students, tells those who ask why he studies the Unabomber’s ideology. Of course he has a right to research what interests him and we should try and figure out what people we consider maniacs really think even if only out of clinical curiosity so we know how to catch them in the future. Kaczynski was paranoid, he was very, very far from an ignoramus, so his train of thought is usually quite cogent and we can learn why he did what he did and what led him there.

But the big problem here is that Skrbina isn’t the objective clinician of technophobic thought he tries to present himself to be. Rather than focusing in on how legitimate misgivings or disagreements with certain ideas turn into violent extremism, he’s using Kaczynski’s ideology to further his own message of how technology harms the human condition and is fundamentally detrimental to the planet. He is very much, to borrow from Orac, the kind of crunchy New Ager you wouldn’t be surprised to find writing screeds about the dehumanizing influence of scientific rationalism to promote his version of animism over on the Huffington Post.

Worse yet is that most of his premise is flawed at the core since the idea that any new technology is unquestioningly and uncritically praised and accepted couldn’t be farther from the truth, especially among those who actually invent and build new technology. A quick trip to any tech site would show a slew of articles on security issues with popular and ubiquitous technologies as well as occasional missives questioning the need for new gadgets here and new tools there, while trying to find ways to consolidate the tech stacks we have available as not to overwhelm our senses and our users with a flood of things they don’t need. Skrbina might think that the world bows before an altar to the gods of technology on a daily basis but it simply develops new solutions to its problems.

Yes, it is true that there are technophilic utopians out there who earnestly believe that immortality through AI is just around the corner, and proclaim that internet access should be considered as essential as shelter in the developing world, but to say that they represent the majority of the world’s thinking on the subject is wrong to say the least. Humans survived for as long as they have and built civilizations by creatively solving problems with technology. In the absence of natural weapons and immense strength, that’s all we really have and we’ve used this technology to both heal each other and wage war on each other, to connect with each other and spy on each other, to cooperate with each other and compete with each other.

When technophiles like Skrbina, or computer scientists who grew disillusioned with their own work like Jaron Lanier, pine for halcyon days of humans living without so much technology, they’re living in an idealized past and ignore the problems that the technology created between then and now was meant to solve. Few will argue that technology by itself is pure and absolute good which always makes things better, but overall, we’ve used it more for good than for ill. Just consider that since the Industrial Revolution we’ve doubled the human lifespan, added volumes of new ideas and scientific knowledge to our libraries, traveled to other worlds, wired the planet, and learned to treat once fatal disease. Certainly Skrbina wouldn’t want to live in 1712 instead of 2012, would he?

# tech // philosophy / technological advancement / technophobia / unabomber


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