Letters: Ted Kaczynski to David Skrbina (April 2005)

For the endnotes to these letters, please refer to the PDF of Technological Slavery. You can also view HTML versions of all correspondence between David Skrbina and Ted Kaczynski, as well as all the texts in the book.


First, as to the likelihood that computers will catch up with humans in intelligence by the year 2029, which I think is the date predicted by Ray Kurzweil: My guess is that this will not happen until significantly later than 2029. I have no technical expertise that qualifies me to offer an opinion on this subject. My guess is based mainly on the fact that technical experts tend to underestimate the time it will take to achieve fundamental breakthroughs. In 1970, computer experts predicted that computers would surpass humans in intelligence within 15 years,[153] and obviously that didn’t happen.

I do think that it’s highly probably that machines will eventually surpass humans in intelligence. I’m enough of a materialist to believe that the human brain functions solely according to the laws of physics and chemistry. In other words, the brain is in a sense a machine, so it should be possible to duplicate it artificially. And if the brain can be duplicated artificially, it can certainly be improved upon.

Second, while I think it’s highly probable that the technosystem is headed for eventual physical disaster, I don’t think the risk of a massive worldwide physical disaster within the next few decades is as high as some people seem to believe. Again, I have no technical expertise on which to base such an opinion. But back in the late 1960s there were supposedly qualified people who made dire predictions for the near future — e.g., Paul Ehrlich in his book The Population Bomb. Their predictions were not entirely without substance. They predicted the Greenhouse Effect, for example;[154] they predicted epidemics, and we have AIDS. But on the whole the consequences of overpopulation and reckless consumption of natural resources have been nowhere near as severe as these people predicted.

On the other hand, there is a difference between the doomsday prophets of the 1960s and people like Bill Joy and Martin Rees. Certainly Paul Ehrlich and probably many of the other 1960s doomsdayers were leftish types, and leftish types, as we know, look for any excuse to rail against the existing society; hence, their criticisms tend to be wildly exaggerated. But Bill Joy and Martin Rees are not leftish types as far as I know; in fact, they are dedicated technophiles. And dedicated technophiles are not likely to be motivated to exaggerate the dangers of technology. So maybe I’m naive in feeling that the risk of physical disaster is less imminent than Joy and Rees seem to think.

The foregoing remarks are intended to clarify matters that I discussed in my letter of 3/17/05. Now I’d like to address specifically some points raised in your letters.

I. You write: “Art, music, literature, and (for the most part) religion are considered by most people to be true and important achievements of humanity… You seem to undervalue any such accomplishments, and in fact virtually advocate throwing them away…; art and literature are nothing more than ‘a harmless outlet for rebellious impulses.'”

I.A. I did write in “Morality and Revolution”: “Art, literature, and the like provide a harmless outlet for rebellious impulses…” (I think Ellul somewhere says much the same thing.) But I’ve never said that art and literature were nothing more than that. In any case, I don’t advocate “throwing away” art and literature. I do recognize that the loss of much art and literature would be a consequence of the downfall of the technoindustrial system, but getting rid of art and literature is not a goal.

I.B. It could be argued that the arts actually are in poor health in modern society and have been in much better health in many primitive societies. You claim that in our society the arts “are considered by most people to be true and important achievements of humanity.” But how often do most people visit an art museum, listen to classical music, or read serious literature? Very seldom, I think. Furthermore, even if we include commercial or graphic art, television, light novels, and the like among the arts, only a small minority of people today participate actively in the arts, whether as professionals or as amateurs. Most people participate only as spectators or consumers of art.

Primitives too may have specialists in certain arts, but active participation tends to be much more widespread among them than it is in the modern world. For instance, among the African pygmies, everyone participated in song and dance. After describing the dances of the Mbuti pygmies, their “angeborene Schauspielkunst” (inborn dramatic art), and their music, Schebesta writes: “Here I will go into no further detail about Mbuti art, of whatever kind, for I only wanted to show what significance all of this has for their daily life. Here opens a source that feeds the life-energies of the primitives, that brightens and pleasantly adorns their forest life, which is otherwise so hard. That is probably why the Mbuti are so devoted to these pleasures.”[155]

Compare industrial society, in which most people participate in the arts only to the extent of watching Hollywood movies, reading popular magazines or light novels, and having a radio blaring in their ears without actually listening to it.

Admittedly, much primitive art is crude, but this is by no means true of all of it. You must have seen reproductions of the magnificent paintings found on the walls of caves in Western Europe, and the polyphony of the African pygmies is much admired by serious students of music.[156] Of course, no premodern society had a body of art that matched in range and elaborate development the arts of present-day industrial society, and much of the latter would undoubtedly be lost with the collapse of the system. But the argument I would use here is that of…

I.C. The monkey and the peanut. When I was a little kid, my father told me of a trick for catching monkeys that he would read about somewhere. You take a glass bottle the neck of which is narrow enough so that a monkey’s clenched fist will not pass through it, but wide enough so that a monkey can squeeze his open hand into the bottle. You put a piece of bait — say, a peanut — into the bottle. A monkey reaches into the bottle, cluches the peanut in his little fist, and then finds that he can’t pull his hand out of the bottle. He’s too greedy to let go of the peanut, so you ca just walk over and pick him up. Thus, because the monkey refuses to accept the loss of the peanut, he loses everything.

If we continue on our present course, we’ll probably be replaced by computers sooner or later. What use do you think the machines will have for art, literature, and music? If we aren’t replaced by computers, we’ll certainly be changed profoundly. See ISAIF, paragraph 178. What reason do you have to believe that people of the future will still be responsive to the art, music, and literature of the past? Already the arts of the past have been largely superseded by the popular entertainment media, which offer intense kicks that make the old-time stuff seem boring. Shakespeare and Cervantes wrote, Vermeer and Frans Hals painted[157] for ordinary people, not for an elite minority of intellectuals. But how many people still read Shakespeare and Cervantes when they’re not required to do so as part of a college course? How many hang reproductions of the Old Masters’ paintings on their walls? Even if the human race still exists 200 years from now, will anyone still appreciate the classics of art, music, and literature? I seriously doubt it. So if we continue on our present course we’ll probably lose the Western artistic tradition anyway, and we’ll certainly lose a great deal more besides.

So maybe it’s better to let go of the peanut than to lose everything by trying to hang onto it. Especially since we don’t have to give up the whole peanut. If the system collapses before it’s too late, we’ll retain our humanity and our capacity to appreciate art, literature and music. It’s safe to assume then that people will continue to create art, literature and music as they always have in the past, and that works of high quality will occasionally appear.

I.D. Along with art, literature, and music you mention religion. I’m rather surprised that you regard religion as something that would be lost with the collapse of modern civilization, since modern civilization is notorious for its secularity. The explorer and ethnographer Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote: “One frequently hears the remark that no people in the world have yet been found who are so low that they do not have a religion. This is absolutely true, but the inference one is likely to draw is misleading. It is not only true that no people are so low that they do not have a religion, but it is equally true that the lower you go in the scale of human culture the more religion you find…”[158]

Actually Stefansson’s observation is not strictly accurate, but it is true that in most primitive societies religion played a more important role than it does in modern society. Colin Turnbull makes clear how much religious feeling was integrated into the daily lives of the Mbuti pygmies,[159] and the North American Indians had a similarly rich religious life, which was intimately interwoven with their day-to-day existence.[160] Compare this with the religious life of most modern people: Their theological sophistication is virtually zero; they may go to church on Sunday, but the rest of the week they govern their behavior almost exclusively according to secular norms.

However, a reservation is called for: It’s possible that a resurgence of religion may occur in the modern world. See the article by Bill Moyers[161] I enclosed with my last letter. But I certainly hope that the kind of kook religion described by Moyers is not the kind of religion which your colleague would regret the loss if the system collapsed. Among other things, that brand of religion is irrational, intolerant, and even hate-filled. It’s worth noting that a similar current has developed within Hinduism (see enclosed article);[162] and of course we all know what’s going on in Islam. None of this should surprise us. Each of the great world religions claims to have exclusive possession of the truth, and ever since their advent religion has been a source and/or instrument of conflict, often very deadly conflict. Primitive religions, in contrast, are generally tolerant, syncretistic, or both.[163] I know of no religious wars among primitives.

So if your colleague believes that modern religions would be lost with the collapse of the system (a proposition which unfortunately I think is very doubtful), it’s not clear to me why he should regret it.

II. You read me as holding that “we have no passed … the point at which reform was a viable option.” But that is not my view. I don’t think that reform was ever a viable option. The Industrial Revolution and succeeding developments have resulted from the operation of “objective” historical forces (see my letter of 10/12/04), and neither reform nor (counter)revolution could have prevented them. However, we may now be approaching a window of opportunity during which it may be possible to “kill” the technoindustrial system.

A simple, decentralized organism like an earthworm is hard to kill. You can cut it up into pieces and each piece will grow into a whole new worm. A complex and centralized organism like a mammal is easy to kill. A blow or a stab to a vital organ, a sufficient lowering of body temperature, or any one of many other factors can kill a mammal.

Northwestern Europe in the 18th century was poised for the Industrial Revolution. However, its economy was still relatively simple and decentralized, like an earthworm. Even in the unlikely event that war or revolution had wiped out half the population and destroyed half the infrastructure, the survivors would have been able to pick up the pieces and get their economy functioning again. So the Industrial Revolution probably would have been delayed only by a few decades.

Today, on the other hand, the technoindustrial system is growing more and more to resemble a single, centralized, worldwide organism in which every part is dependent on the functioning of the whole. In other words, the system increasingly resembles a complex, easy-to-kill organism like a mammal. If the system once broke down badly enough it would “die,” and its reconstruction would be extraordinarily difficult. See ISAIF, paragraphs 207-212. Some believe that its reconstruction would even be impossible. This was the opinion of (for example) the distinguished astronomer Fred Hoyle.[164]

So only now, in my opinion, is there a realistic possibility of altering the course of technoindustrial development.

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