No, Steve, the Unabomber Wasn’t “Right”

Instead, you’ve just penned for the Chicago Tribune opinion pages, a remarkably stupid essay. A side note, the Chicago Tribune has a stable (chorale?) of remarkably bad columnists. As part of an effort to get me back to blogging shooting these essay’s down, perhaps akin to shooting ducks in a barrel, nevertheless may get me writing regularly again. I’ve even created a category for these guys.

So, back to September 14ths essay by Steve Chapman on page 19 of the Tribune. His title “iPhone X proves the Unabomber was right”. The unabomber wrote a long diatribe (apparently) against modernity and progress. Steve writes:

He cites the automobile, which offered every person the freedom to travel farther and faster than before. But as cars became more numerous, they became a necessity, requiring great expense, bigger roads and more regulations. Cities were designed for the convenience of drivers, not pedestrians. For most people, driving is no longer optional.

Smartphones have followed the same pattern. When cellphones first appeared, they gave people one more means of communication, which they could accept or reject. But before long, most of us began to feel naked and panicky anytime we left home without one.

To do without a cellphone — and soon, if not already, a smartphone — means estranging oneself from normal society. We went from “you can have a portable communication device” to “you must have a portable communication device” practically overnight.

Not that long ago, you could escape the phone by leaving the house. Today most people are expected to be instantly reachable at all times. These devices have gone from servants to masters.

Kaczynski cannot be surprised. “Once a technical innovation has been introduced,” he noted, “people usually become dependent on it, so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation. Not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but, even more, the system as a whole becomes dependent on it. (Imagine what would happen to the system today if computers, for example, were eliminated.)”

Seriously. (a side note, in point of fact many people do wander around without a cell phone or if they have one, don’t always carry it and it isn’t of the “smart” variety).

He continues

The problem is hardly a new one. In his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari argues that the agricultural revolution that took place 10,000 years ago was “history’s biggest fraud.”

In the preceding 2.5 million years, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers, they worked less, “spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease” than afterward.

Farming boosted the population but chained humans to the land and demanded ceaseless drudgery to plant, tend, harvest and process food — while making us more vulnerable to famine, disease and war. People who had evolved over eons for one mode of life were pushed into a different mode at odds with many of their natural instincts.

But it didn’t matter. Eventually, those who preferred to live as foragers — such as the American Indians — no longer had a choice. In the 21st century, such a life is almost impossible. Kaczynski retreated to a remote cabin, off the grid, but 325 million Americans couldn’t do likewise even if they wanted to.

Uhm. First off, this technological progress is one part of a large historical movement. Stating this is in part regrettable is is akin those the Mongols conquered, or for that matter any person in the path of a war, wishing those people wouldn’t do that and would just go away. This urge is understandable, but saying it out loud neither useful or particularly insightful. Golly there, look at that army outside, geesh, it’s hard to resist noticing it and those things those men are doing isn’t always wonderful. Duh. Except that leads to the other problem. That movement of which he complains we call technology or technological progress?

Secondly, this progress is something Mr Chapman, not for a single moment, would prefer to do without. He might pretend to be annoyed at smart phone ubiquity, but he would never prefer the life without the modern advantages. Even in the relatively advanced 19th century, recall, Brahms penned a song cycle called KinderTotenLeider, the title translates as “Songs for the Dead Children” (and that is to mourn them, not to sing to them). It was not until modern 20th century medicine advanced enough mankind transitioned to a point where not having several (!) children in your family lost before they reached the age of puberty, not to mention the age of one, to disease and accident the norm not the exception. “First birthday” is a thing that is an echo of that time. Some families took to the practice of not naming a baby until it survived past the age of one. Every single woman wove and sewed in every moment to make clothing. Without the refrigerator … the list goes on and on.

He offers that technology like this is a “one way street” that once introduced you are “obligated to” participate. Apparently he’s never heard of the Amish and Mennonite communities.

Mr Chapman offers a caveat, that most of us would not want to give up modern medicine, conveniences and so on. Including himself.  Alas, what he doesn’t admit that we all have the option to forego but that very very very few avail themselves of them. Monastics exist. Other communities and individuals exist that have chosen which of those parts of modernity they wish to take in. Few choose. Mr Chapman, noticeably in fact, hasn’t but could if he wanted. He doesn’t want, he only whines.

One other point missed … Mr Chapman writes that the Unabomber was had “foresight” to predict that technology might give us things which might actually have some down sides. And then points out many examples in the past, which show that this is and has been taking place. Mr Chapman? It doesn’t take “foresight” to notice things that have been happening for centuries or that those things which have been going on for centuries might continue into the next decade or three.

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  1. says:

    The Unabomber’s “insights” are correct in that they are accurate observations. New technology comes first as a novelty that makes life easier, freer and more fun but soon becomes an obligation that insists upon itself. We may be technically ‘free’ to say no to it but doing so requires placing a huge burden upon ourselves.

    The shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural lifestyle has been well documented as being bad for the average person. Going from a hunter-gatherer to agricultural culture meant that average person lived less, had more disease, was more vulnerable and traded a ‘work week’ of a few hours to grueling sunup to sundown toil. It demonstrates that evolution is not necessarily a ‘friend’. As a ‘product’, no one would ever buy the second if the first was available. But since the 2nd meant you could pack more people into a given land area, it won out even though the average person was much more miserable and it would take at least a few thousand years before labor saving technology started to catch up with that blow to human happiness.

    But the Unabomber’s observations were not, IMO, ‘insights’. I don’t have any references to cite here but I don’t think for a moment he was the first comment on technology’s downsides. That being said we don’t really have any reference point that I’m aware of giving up a technology by a large society willingly. But I think it might be coming. For example, I suspect we may see it with automobile ownership. I’ve read that if you had a model of 100% autonomous cars and a system where almost no one owned their own car but instead ‘ubered it’ whenever they needed a ride the # of cars in service would drop 80%. If that happened our streets would be made much narrower, fewer parking lots would be around (city real estate is simply too valuable to give any more than is absolutely necessary to cars). From an anthropologist taking a long view, this would look like voluntary de-technologization.

    A question that I think this should raise that’s a lot more interesting than pundit bashing is what is the end game of technological advancements? I think the two extremes are either going to be a singularity or a tappering off.