The Roots of Progress

Quote quiz answer

Here’s the answer to the recent quote quiz:

The author was Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. The quote was taken from his manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future.” Here’s a slightly longer, and unaltered, quote:

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained. If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and as machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more and more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

All I did was replace the word “machines” with “AI”.

My point here is not to try to discredit this argument by associating it with a terrorist: I think we should evaluate ideas on their merits, apart from who held or espoused them. Rather, I’m interested in intellectual history, in the genealogy of ideas. I think it’s interesting to know that this idea was expressed in the 1990s, long before modern deep neural networks or GPUs; indeed, a version of it was expressed long before computers. That tells you something about what sort of evidence is and isn’t necessary or sufficient to come to this view. In general, when we trace the history of ideas, we learn something about the ideas themselves, and the arguments that led to them.

I found this quote in Kevin Kelly’s 2009 essay on the Unabomber, which I recommend. One thing this essay made me realize is how much Kaczynski was clearly influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. Kelly says that Kaczynski’s primary claim is that “freedom and technological progress are incompatible,” and quotes him as saying: “Rules and regulations are by nature oppressive. Even ‘good’ rules are reductions in freedom.” This notion that progress in some way stifles individual “freedom” was one of the themes of writers like Herbert Marcuse and Jacques Ellul, as I wrote in my review of Thomas Hughes’s book American Genesis. Hughes says that such writers believed that “the rational values of the technological society posed a deadly threat to individual freedom and to emotional and spiritual life.”

Kelly also describes Kaczynski’s plan to “escape the clutches of the civilization”: “He would make his own tools (anything he could hand fashion) while avoiding technology (stuff it takes a system to make).” The idea that tools are good, but that systems are bad, was another distinctive feature of the counterculture.

I agree with Kelly’s rebuttal of Kaczynski’s manifesto:

The problem is that Kaczynski’s most basic premise, the first axiom in his argument, is not true. The Unabomber claims that technology robs people of freedom. But most people of the world find the opposite. They gravitate towards venues of increasing technology because they recognize they have more freedoms when they are empowered with it. They (that is we) realistically weigh the fact that yes, indeed, some options are closed off when adopting new technology, but many others are opened, so that the net gain is a plus of freedom, choices, and possibilities.

Consider Kaczynski himself. For 25 years he lived in a type of self-enforced solitary confinement in a dirty (see the photos and video) smoky shack without electricity, running water, or a toilet—he cut a hole in the floor for late night pissing. In terms of material standards the cell he now occupies in the Colorado Admax prison is a four-star upgrade: larger, cleaner, warmer, with the running water, electricity and the toilet he did not have, plus free food, and a much better library….

I can only compare his constraints to mine, or perhaps anyone else’s reading this today. I am plugged into the belly of the machine. Yet, technology allows me to work at home, so I hike in the mountains, where cougar and coyote roam, most afternoons. I can hear a mathematician give a talk on the latest theory of numbers one day, and the next day be lost in the wilderness of Death Valley with as little survivor gear as possible. My choices in how I spend my day are vast. They are not infinite, and some options are not available, but in comparison to the degree of choices and freedoms available to Ted Kaczynski in his shack, my freedoms are overwhelmingly greater.

This is the chief reason billions of people migrate from mountain shacks—very much like Kaczynski’s—all around the world. A smart kid living in a smoky one-room shack in the hills of Laos, or Cameroon, or Bolivia will do all he/she can to make their way against all odds to the city where there are—so obvious to them—vastly more freedom and choices.

Kelly points out that anti-civilization activists such as the “green anarchists” could, if they wanted, live today in “this state of happy poverty” that is “so desirable and good for the soul”—but they don’t:

As far as I can tell from my research all self-identifying anarcho-primitivists live in modernity. They compose their rants against the machine on very fast desktop machines. While they sip coffee. Their routines would be only marginally different than mine. They have not relinquished the conveniences of civilization for the better shores of nomadic hunter-gathering.

Except one: The Unabomber. Kaczynski went further than other critics in living the story he believed in. At first glance his story seems promising, but on second look, it collapses into the familiar conclusion: he is living off the fat of civilization. The Unabomber’s shack was crammed with stuff he purchased from the machine: snowshoes, boots, sweat shirts, food, explosives, mattresses, plastic jugs and buckets, etc.—all things that he could have made himself, but did not. After 25 years on the job, why did he not make his own tools separate from the system? It looks like he shopped at Wal-mart.

And he concludes:

The ultimate problem is that the paradise the Kaczynski is offering, the solution to civilization so to speak, is the tiny, smoky, dingy, smelly wooden prison cell that absolutely nobody else wants to dwell in. It is a paradise billions are fleeing from.

Amen. See also my previous essay on the spiritual benefits of material progress.

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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