Comment on the Unabomber's Manifesto

© 2005 Paul Cooijmans

FBI sketch of the Unabomber

FBI sketch of the Unabomber

Introduction

The Unabomber, real name Theodore (Ted) Kaczinski, committed sixteen bomb attacks from 1978 to 1995, killing three and injuring twenty-three persons. The attacks were aimed at universities ("Un") and airlines ("a"), hence the name Unabomber. In 1995 his manifesto was published, on his request, by several newspapers and on the Internet. He got caught after his brother recognized the style of writing in the manifesto.

The importance of studying the Unabomber's manifesto lies in trying to understand how an apparently highly intelligent individual gets to using violence against innocent. The full text of the manifesto can be found at several locations on the Internet, but to facilitate study I offer a reader-friendly version with proper layout through below hyper reference.

The full text of "Industrial Society and Its Future"

Before his trial in 1998, the Unabomber was subjected to psychological examination. The Court ruled that the psychiatric report should be made public in order to provide a better understanding of the Unabomber's motivations. The below hyper reference leads to a copy.

The psychiatric report

On the manifesto's conclusion

The Unabomber's central and fatal conclusion can be summed up as:

Technological society is incompatible with individual freedom and must therefore be destroyed and replaced by primitive society so that people will be free again.

I think this is an irrational conclusion, affected by the Unabomber's mental illness. However, only part of the manifesto is directly related to this conclusion; much of the rest is sound and rational, whether one agrees with it or not. There is valid criticism in his writing that cannot be dismissed as the product of a disordered mind.

On the psychiatric report

Paranoid schizophrenia is the most severe diagnosis possible in the Unabomber's case, and with anything less he might well have been sentenced to death.

The diagnosis is justified in the report by viewing his belief system regarding technology (explained in the manifesto) and his suspicions against his family as delusional. Without these two delusions, he would not have satisfied the criteria for schizophrenia, and would have remained in the realm of personality disorders (paranoid personality with avoidant and antisocial features).

He was not psychotic at the time of his many psychological examinations, and the material shown in the report does not suggest any episodes of full-blown psychosis earlier on in life. There is no evidence of hallucinations; the report suggests his dreams and fantasies may really have been hallucinations, but that is but a weak attempt to suggest past psychosis in the absence of evidence. The diagnosis therefore rests upon interpreting his belief systems as delusional.

The important matter of his use of violence against innocent through bomb attacks - "reckless regard for the safety of others" is the euphemism employed in the report - is classified under "features of Antisocial Personality Disorder". He does not get that actual diagnosis (only features thereof) because there was no evidence of a conduct disorder before age 15. So the question as to how a highly intelligent person gets to use violence against innocent appears to be a question for the cause of Antisocial Personality Disorder or features thereof. This disorder is much more common in the less than highly intelligent, but clearly it does occur occasionally in high-I.Q. individuals. I do not know the cause of this disorder and may look into it later. At the moment I assume it is either genetic or has its cause in things going wrong (physically) in pregnancy, around birth or very early in life. Antisocial behaviour in children might also be related to psychological factors like their environment (e.g. living in a high-crime neighbourhood), but when it persists into (or occurs in) adulthood I suspect a non-psychological cause. Since neither of the Unabomber's parents appears to have been antisocial, one might think of a non-genetic brain defect caused by poisoning, nutritional shortage, illness and so on, very early in life (including pregnancy).

On the two types of criticism

The manifesto interweaves two independent types of criticism:

  1. Criticism of technology - part of this is sound, but the essence of it is probably disturbed;
  2. Criticism of "leftism" - most of this is sound, and minor aspects of it are less convincing.

On criticism of technology

In paragraph 1 of the manifesto the Unabomber speaks of "widespread psychological suffering" caused by "The Industrial Revolution and its consequences". Throughout the manifesto this point is repeated many times, often worded differently using terms like "anxiety" and "depression", and mostly suggesting disruption of what he calls "the power process" as its cause.

The truth is likely that he was suffering as a result of mental illness, and failed to recognize the cause thereof lay inside himself. Lack of insight in one's illness is common in persons with mental disorders; the psychiatric report relates of a short period in 1966 when he suspected he might be developing a mental disorder, but apparently lost that insight soon thereafter.

Instead of realizing the true cause of his anxiety and depression he attributed those to technological society. As a logical result, he assumed many more people would be suffering similarly. Hence his notion of "widespread psychological suffering". From this point on, he employed a rigid type of logic to arrive at the conclusion this widespread suffering could only be stopped by returning to a more primitive form of society without large-scale technology and large-scale organization.

This line of thought is not sound, and deemed delusional by the psychiatric experts. Delusions are by definition false. However, considering only the manifesto and ignoring the psychiatric report, I would see this line of thought as obsessive; obsessions about many aspects of technological society haunted him, causing anxiety and depression and leading him to his unsound conclusion. Obsessions are involuntary thoughts and need not be false per se. Finally, from an extreme ideological viewpoint like that of anarchism, one might say this line of thought is sound and correct. I do not believe the latter myself.

To find the rational, undisturbed part of the Unabomber's criticism on technology I point to the repeated mention of various restrictions, formalities and obligations of living in a technological society, which I would summarize as trivial aspects of modern life. A major occurrence thereof is in paragraph 127:

"...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..."

Similar remarks are elsewhere, several times on the regulations that restrict the autonomy of the small-business owner or entrepreneur, but also regarding the limited freedom of an employee to work according to his own insights. A typical instance (from paragraph 197): "You need a license for everything and with the license come rules and regulations".

There is nothing wrong with this part of his criticism, but it is not original. Many people complain about these trivialities, and movements like libertarianism and conservatism want to reduce them too, be it less radically than the Unabomber.

Remarkable is that on several occasions, following the mention of rules and regulations, the Unabomber stresses almost all these regulations are necessary in modern society and can therefore not be eliminated. That he recognizes this despite pointing to the suffering they cause testifies of his high degree of conscientiousness. The Unabomber is inclined to satisfy each and every rule, regulation and formality, and frustrated by the impossibility thereof. Obsessiveness is the high end of conscientiousness. On the one hand suffering through (obsessions about) these aspects of society, and on the other hand recognizing they are necessary in a technological society, the only logical way out is to conclude primitive society is preferable to technological society.

On criticism of "leftism"

His views on leftism are sound and insightful, and nowadays shared by many who oppose political correctness. Those opponents typically do not reject large-scale technology as the Unabomber does though, on the contrary. This paradox is resolved by assuming the Unabomber's rejection of technology is irrational and related to a mental illness.

Less convincing are the Unabomber's attempts to connect his criticism of leftism to his criticism of technology, for instance by claiming people become leftists because their power process is disrupted by technological society. There, he is trying to artificially connect two types of criticism that are really independent; he his trying to artificially connect a sound criticism (leftism) to a largely unsound one (technology).

Paradoxical are also the Unabomber's "green" views on environmental issues; such views are common for leftists, so he is siding with the enemy there. This has to do with his preference for primitive life, which in turn results from his rejection of technology. So again, the paradox is resolved by assuming this rejection is irrational.

Another paradox, solvable in the same way, is leftism's association with the "soft" alpha sciences. Leftists are no fans of the "hard" beta sciences that constitute technology. So again, in this respect the Unabomber sides with the enemy through his probably unsound rejection of technology.

There are more such paradoxes in the manifesto; generally put, his rejection of technology now and then leads him to viewpoints or conclusions that are leftist, in other words, that are in contradiction with his own criticsm of leftism.

On "the power process"

The concept of "the power process" is reminiscent of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Remarkable is that the Unabomber only qualifies a very limited set of goals to truly serve the power process. From paragraph 64:

"That need can be fully satisfied only through activities that have some external goal, such as physical necessities, sex, love, status, revenge, etc."

Most goals striven for in modern society he dismisses as "surrogate activity" and "fulfillment". Interestingly he mentions status and revenge as genuine goals; I assume he includes those because he experienced his own strivings for status and revenge (the Unabomb activities and other revenge actions) as satisfying his power process.

On feelings of inferiority

A very interesting remark in paragraph 11, about leftists:

"When someone interprets as derogatory almost anything that is said about him [...] we conclude that he has inferiority feelings or low self-esteem."

The psychiatric report actually says about exactly the same about the Unabomber himself, but concludes something different, to wit that he is over-sensitive and paranoid.

On curiosity as a motif for scientists

Paragraph 87:

"Some scientists claim that they are motivated by 'curiosity,' that notion is simply absurd. Most scientists work on highly specialized problems that are not the object of any normal curiosity."

I think some scientists are truly motivated by curiosity. I think the Unabomber, being highly intelligent, having played with his chemistry set as a child, has felt that curiosity himself while young. But when his mental problem led him to reject technology, it forced him to suppress, deny, the phenomenon of scientific curiosity.

On ambivalence

The manifesto is often ambivalent as to the "nature versus nurture" question. On several occasions his words betray he is well aware of the "nature" position when it comes to the biological basis of thought, behaviour, depression and so on; on other occasions he shamelessly borrows the "nurture" (so: leftist) viewpoint when that is convenient for his anti-technology ideology. This ambivalence is caused by his trying to interweave sound and disturbed ideas into a consistent whole.

On surrealism

Toward the end of the manifesto, for instance in paragraph 195, he explains why a revolution against technological society has to be worldwide. He speaks realistically of a worldwide attack of the industrial system, a worldwide controlled intentional return to primitive society. This is truly surrealistic, a kind of science fiction in reverse.

Conclusion

The manifesto is interesting from a psychological point of view, in that it helps to understand what goes on in the mind of a high-I.Q. psychopath. It is also a good counterweight against the psychiatric report, that may or may not be too quick with the words "delusion" and "hallucination".

From the ideological point of view I find the manifesto less satisfactory because I see part of it as disordered, and because there is ambivalence in it that is caused by the author's trying to connect sound ideas to unsound ideas.

A point for future study and consideration is the cause of Antisocial Personality Disorder traits in highly intelligent persons.