A podcast promoting anti-tech thinkers from all over the globe.

1. David Skrbina, PhD "on Creative Reconstruction"

July 30, 2021

Hosts Ryan Glavin and Griffin Kiegiel interview Dr. David Skrbina about his conception of technology, his understanding of the technological problem, and his proposal for remedying it-

2. Chad A. Haag "India vs. United States"

Aug. 6, 2021

Griffin and Ryan interview peak oil Philosopher Chad A. Haag about misconceptions surrounding life in India, the negative consequences of Western technological living, and the influence of social media on interpersonal relations.

3. Sean Fleming, PhD "Ellul vs. Kaczynski"

Aug. 28, 2021

Griffin rides solo in this episode, talking with Sean Fleming, a junior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, and author of "The Unabomber and the Origins of Anti-Tech Radicalism". They mainly talk about Jacques Ellul and Kaczynski.

Watch here


Griffin: Hello everyone, welcome to the anti-tech cast, I’m Griffin and today I’m here with Sean Fleming from the university of Cambridge.

How are you doing Sean? Thanks for coming on.

Sean: Well thank you for having me griffin.

Griffin: So we are talking to you today because you recently published an article called the Unabomber and the origins of anti-tech radicalism and you know we had this recommended to us and we read it and we loved it we thought it was a really great and fair representation of these ideas and where anti-tech ideas and where they came from. Especially where Kaczynski got a lot of his ideas.

So it's a nice refreshing academic piece that gives these ideas their merit and doesn't you know talks about Kaczynski's ideas rather than his activities that got him infamous and so we like these articles and we want more of them.

So you know Sean before we kind of get into some of the things you're writing about. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how you got into these ideas? How you maybe found out about Kaczynski and thought it important to analyze his ideas in this way?

Sean: I started working on this because I’ve never seen such a glaring gap in the literature so to speak this was one of the most famous manifestos of the 20th century and hardly anyone had written about it and second I discovered that there was a massive trove of material at the university of Michigan at the Labadie collection that includes copies of most of the material that the FBI confiscated from Kaczynski's cabin back in April 1996 and hardly anyone had used this for academic purposes it's one of the most popular collections at Michigan’s library but no one had used it to write this intellectual history to figure out where his ideas came from.

Early attempts to understand Kaczynski’s influences

Sean: When most of the attempts to analyze the manifesto were written the archive at Michigan wasn't available so some of them can't be faulted because well they didn't have access to what I had access to. So much of the early work there well there are a few sources there's an article by Tim Luke in telos called rereading the Unabomber manifesto that's from 1996 1997. so that's really the first academic attempt to analyze the manifesto and Luke was working with no primary material whatsoever he was just reading the manifesto and trying to figure out where the ideas came from that way gotcha then there was a much better article by Scott Corey who was at the time a PhD student at Berkeley and Corey’s article is better simply because he had access to a lot more material so he used a lot of the legal documents that he could get his hands on, he was one of the few people without a press pass who actually attended Kaczynski's trial so it's a pretty good article but he doesn't have access to all the correspondence and all the all the stuff that the FBI dug out of boxes and Kaczynski’s cabin, his drafts and notes and all this sort of stuff. And then there's the most popular account of his intellectual influences which comes from a book called Harvard and the Unabomber by Austin Chase and there as far as I can tell Chase just wildly speculates about Kaczynski’s influences with hardly any evidence whatsoever and so some of the early accounts of his influences can't be faulted some of them I think are just so stories that well make pretty sweeping claims about where his ideas came from without any evidence.

Griffin: Right this that we read the manifesto and this idea sounds like this idea so we're just going to tie this huge collection of authors to him like that that list that you mentioned of all the authors that he supposedly read or that they claimed that he was inspired from and then he hadn't even read most of them, that were on that list it's so it's it yeah it seems kind of evident that they were just kind of throwing out whoever sounded similar right?

Sean: That's right and even the similarities are pretty tenuous so you know chase says well Kaczynski sounds a bit like ef Schumacher he sounds a bit like Lewis Mumford sounds a bit like aaron there's a bit of Aristotle in there he thinks eric from the list goes on tim luke says he sounds a bit like Markus lots of people have said he sounds like Paul Goodman it turns out that he had actually read very few of them and most of these figures if he had read them he read them only after he wrote the manifesto so what's remarkable about him is actually not how similar he is to previous critics of technology but how little he knows or cares about them yeah really only one prominent critic of technology in the 20th century that he knew or cared much about and that was Jaques Ellul.


Griffin: Yeah so can you yeah can you tell us Ellul bit about how he was inspired by lulu's ideas and how they connect to each other?

Sean: So most of what Kaczynski borrowed from Ellul comes from Ellul’s 1954 book la technique which was translated into English in nineteen and published as the technological society.

There are several ideas that Kaczynski takes from Ellul. One is that human beings are maladapted to life in a technological society I discussed that at the beginning the basic idea is that human beings evolved in a primitive Stone Age environment we're still genetically hunter-gatherers but now we've been thrust into this world of concrete and steel and we're psychologically ill-equipped to deal with that.

Griffin: Genetics don't evolve that quickly.

Sean: Well yeah that's right and so that is one idea. Now it's notable though that for Ellul the mismatch between human beings and the technological society was more social than biological and Elull thought that the problem was that our norms and morals and social structures and communities can't evolve fast enough to keep up with technology, whereas Kaczynski wasn't concerned so much about those things he was concerned about our biology, so already there they diverge but the basic idea that we're maladapted or maladjusted to technology comes from Ellul.

The second idea is the idea that technology is autonomous that it is a force beyond human control it can't be subject to rational human control that technology constitutes a self-perpetuating system this also comes from Ellul this is probably a rules most famous idea and it's papered all over Kaczynski's writings.

There are also lots of little bits and pieces, so there's the idea that technology is the opposite of nature, that also comes from Ellul. In part the idea of revolution comes from Ellul though Kaczynski takes it in his own direction.

The least obvious thing that comes from Ellul is the idea that leftism is a form of pseudo-revolution so this is one of the big arguments in in industrial society and its future and the one I think that has puzzled readers the most so you open up industrial society in its future and he starts talking about technology and what it's done to us and then in the very first main section he talks about leftism he talks about how the left is psychologically perverted and and he says that the left essentially co-ops the revolutionary impulse and channels it into benign outlets outlets that are harmless to the system so he sees social activism as in little's terms a form of useless revolt it makes us feel better but it doesn't really do anything.

Griffin: It's a surrogate activity.

Sean: That's right, so the surrogate activity that idea comes from elsewhere but the basic idea that the left pulls the teeth of revolutionary impulses domesticates them creates a a kind of surrogate revolution that it it hijacks the revolutionary impulse and well distracts attention from the problem of technology that comes from the end of the technological society by lulu so from Ellul just to recap we have the idea that human beings are maladapted to a technological society the idea that technology is autonomous and the idea that that social activism that the social movements of our time are pseudo-revolutionary that's mainly what Kaczynski takes from Ellul

Griffin: Gotcha and I guess I would ask then how does he diverge from Ellul a little bit maybe the biggest deepest difference of all before we get on to the specific difference specific set of differences is that Ellul is a fundamentally continental thinker so he's very French his dialectical approach his kind of meandering free-flowing style is quintessentially French and heavily influenced by marx so whenever lula is saying something there's always an antithesis to whatever he's saying so the you know the thesis that technology is hemming us in on all sides that it's depriving us completely of freedom is one side of a dialectic so the other side he gives you in a later book called the ethics of freedom which basically says that although technology has deprived us almost entirely of freedom we can still find freedom in Jesus Christ he's a fundamentally Christian thinker he's a dialectical theologian is one way of putting it and that is not at all what Kaczynski.

Kaczynski essentially lopped off the theological part and the dialectical part so Kaczynski writes like an analytic philosopher he well numbered paragraphs that says it all yeah first his style is radically different because his method and his worldview are radically different so Ellul is trying to mount a kind of theological critique of technology and Kaczynski although he abhors what science has created he accepts the scientific worldview so he understands human beings and technology alike as products of evolutionary processes and he speaks the language of behavioral and cognitive psychology even even his bombs you know he documented the results in you know an extensive set of lab notes so although he although he detests science and technology at one level he accepts the world view of the scientist or the technician.

Griffin: Do you find that to be do you find that to be a bit ironic considering his stance on those things?

Sean: Well you can you can read it in two ways you can read it as blatant hypocrisy which is how some have read it you know ron arnold is one who wrote this book eco-terror back in the and I guess it was 1977 he tried to associate Kaczynski with the radical environmental movement and one of his claims is that Kaczynski is blatantly hypocritical using technology to attack technology and using technology to propagate anti-tech ideas is inherently hypocritical you know others who've criticized them along these lines are people like kevin kelly the co-founder of wired who's well aware of Kaczynski's ideas and actually accepts quite a lot of them especially the idea that technology is a self-organizing system but diverges from him on the obvious point of whether technology is good yeah and so kelly says the same he says look kasinsky was living off the fat of the technological system he was a blatant hypocrite.

Now the other way of reading Kaczynski is that his critique of technology was an internal criticism and he understands himself as a product of the technological system he's trying to attack it from the inside and so whereas tries to set up an alternative vantage point an external vantage point a non-technical vantage point from which to criticize the technological society Kaczynski tries to mount his critique from the inside from inside the world view of the technician and so Kaczynski might return to the charge of hypocrisy he might say well if my critiques succeeds it's all the more damning because I’ve shown that even from the scientists or the technicians own premises the technological system is fundamentally flawed and beyond redemption, so this is what he's trying to do he's trying to mount an internal critique of modern technology.

Griffin: I guess on the other side of that coin would you say or do you think that maybe Ellul was I don't I don't want to say naive but like that he was missing something when he was trying to take that external stance do you think he was failing to recognize how he was a product of the technical system or I don't know do you think there's another side of the coin there?

Sean: I think he recognized that he was a product of the technological system one of one of the things that he takes from from Hegel and repeats endlessly is the idea that the first act of freedom is a recognition of necessity you have to recognize that you are constrained and under the power of the system in order to have any possibility of resisting it Ellul is not someone who has any illusions there but you might think that his critique of technology is less persuasive because it comes from the outside.

Now Ellul would retort that it's actually Kaczynski who is well off the rails here so one of the things he says in his 1988 book the technological bluff is that the technical thinking is incapable of thinking about technique it's not possible in Ellul's view to mount a critique of techno science from within the technological world view, so the argument here is something like this; as soon as you try to use techno science as soon as you adopt the calculating strategic language of techno science, you are reinforcing it, so for Ellul technique is a mindset, it's not just a system that's external to us, the reason that the technological system persists is that we all think in technical terms. So Marcuse makes a similar point later on he says well what sustains this this system well one-dimensional modes of discourse modes of discourse that give priority to a certain kind of rationality and efficiency over everything else.

So for Ellul it's necessary to break the habits of mind that sustained technology in order to really defeat it and so he would argue against Kaczynski that Kaczynski is simply reinforcing the technological mindset, he's not fundamentally challenging anything in Ellul’s view. I think his view is that when you use technology you're making a sort of deal with the devil right he doesn't think power can be turned against power his fundamental commitment here is that no one can really control power at any fundamental level, so just as he thinks you know that violence cannot overthrow a power structure and replace violence with non-violence. Just as violence can't be overturned violently he doesn't think technology can be overturned technologically.


Griffin: Can you say a bit about what Ellul’s perspective on how to revolt against the system like or maybe the differences between Ellul and Kaczynski’s approach to how to you know either weaken the system or take it down or revolt against it in some way how do their approaches differ.

Sean: All right so Kaczynski’s approach is I suppose an empirical approach to revolution so Kaczynski thinks that you can look back through the history of revolution and distill lessons for an anti-tech revolution in the present so he says we can look at the French revolution and the Russian revolution and the Irish revolution and a whole host of other revolutions and we can discern some rough guidelines and some pitfalls to avoid for the anti-tech revolution. So fundamentally for him the anti-tech revolution is modeled on historical revolution and despite what he says in industrial society and its future he's pretty confident that it's going to be a violent revolution. He doesn't think the technological system can be overthrown without force and although he's ambivalent about violence in the manifesto, he says in this unpublished essay called in defense of violence which is in the labity archive that the revolution he envisions is almost certainly going to be violent. He says he downplayed the role of violence in the manifesto simply because he didn't think the media would publish anything that explicitly advocated violence.

So that is Kaczynski's revolution, it's a violent overthrow of the established power structure, it's a destruction not only of the state, but of the broader infrastructure that sustains the technological system and you can get a better idea of what he means here what the beginnings of this revolution might look like which is really large-scale industrial sabotage from his essay “Hit Where It Hurts”. So that's Kaczynski’s revolution it's violent and it's based on historical examples revolution.

Ellul’s is exactly the opposite, so Kaczynski read Ellul’s book autopsy of revolution when he was I suppose when he was in Montana but completely ignored or missed the point so one of the little central points in this book is that an anti-tech revolution can't possibly be modeled on historical revolutions and there are a few reasons for that but one of the main ones is that technology is too global and too pervasive to be overthrown like a government he thinks it's a huge mistake to extrapolate from historical examples of revolution and he thinks that the kind of strategic calculating thought about revolution which you'll find in Kaczynski's book anti-tech revolution is exactly the kind of thought that will simply reinforce technique as a mindset.

So Ellul’s doesn't give a handbook for revolution here and he's using revolution in a pretty odd sounding way, but there's one little snippet from the autopsy revolution near the very end that I think captures what he means by revolution so he says it I’ll paraphrase here he says it would represent a fundamental breach in the technological society a truly revolutionary attitude if contemplation could replace frantic activity.

So Ellul’s revolution doesn't involve overthrowing anything by force it involves deliberately slowing down and rejecting the arms race in which we find ourselves in modern society.

Griffin: So just kind of not engaging with it just backing off?

Sean: Right and well it's not total divestment from it either it you know I don't think Ellul thinks we can run to the woods and and escape from it in any fundamental way but what he thinks is that we can deliberately slow down in defiance of the system and if enough people do that if enough if enough people refuse to think and live in a technical way concerned with means over ends with efficiency over all else then the system will inevitably break down.

Griffin: Do you find that to be a bit ideological or do you think that's actually like practically realistic in in some future or uh ideally?

Sean: I’m not optimistic about the possibility of doing that, but it sounds to me like what Gandhi says about how the Indians should deliberately withdraw consent from the British empire so for Gandhi the way of getting rid of the British was not to drive them out with force but to refuse to participate in their industrial civilization to put the mind over the body and that is essentially Ellul's idea of what resistance against technology looks like slow down is really the message.

Human Nature

Sean: I don't think Ellul has any fixed concept of human nature this is one fundamental difference between Kaczynski. So again for Ellul the problem with technology is that it has outstripped the evolution of our social structures and communities and norms. The mismatch between us and technology is sociological rather than biological right it's not based on human nature and I think judging by the first part of the technological society Ellul thinks that in the past we were perfectly capable of resisting the pull of technique. So, he talks about several different societies that resisted the urge to prioritize means over ends. First he says look at the ancient Greeks, the ancient Greeks were incredibly sophisticated philosophically and scientifically, but he claims they had contempt for practical application, they could have used their knowledge to manipulate the world, but they didn't, they wanted to understand it, so he says for the Greeks there was a stark division between science/understanding of the world and technique/application.

And then he says you can see this later on in in Christian societies you know from the roman empire to the I don't remember whether he says the early Christian society or even up through the middle ages Christianity posed a difficult barrier to the expansion of technique so Christianity was the sort of sound in the gears of the machine nothing could be developed without moral criticism, so early Christianity created this kind of external vantage point from which to criticize technique, so it was a constant source of judgment that technique couldn't overcome.

So for Ellul it's not human nature that's decisive, it's culture that's decisive.

Griffin: That's interesting especially considering like you know I think a lot about how the tech society that we live in today, at least the way I experience it through the internet, it's very behemoth vehemently secular that it there's like a rise in atheism with an embrace of that comes with an embrace of science and technology because I think you know there's that recognition that it halts progress so to speak and so I guess yeah is is that is that what we're kind of missing today we're missing a moral barrier between that should be there for progress.

Sean: Well Ellul would say actually we don't live in a secular age we have simply abandoned the old religions doctor and created a new one we've created well Kaczynski calls it technicality analogous to Christianity and Ellul calls it I think technolatry as in idolatry and so he says first we abandoned religions of nature we abandoned spiritual views of nature in favor of you know Abrahamic religions and then we chased religious significance out of all the things we used to attach it to and projected it onto the objects that we now revere, so the computer is a religious symbol in our time, it's almost sacrilegious, blasphemous even to smash one or even have contempt for one. And so Ellul thinks that it's not that we lack religion it's that we've abandoned the old religions that grew up organically and now adhere to a kind of industrial technological religion which essentially deifies means and has contempt for ends.

The Vanguard Party

Griffin: I guess you're talking about this monistic quality of technology and tying it together to weaken it I guess it does kind of bring to light for me this possibly an issue with Kaczynski’s taking his revolutionary ideas from history because you know I think about it like the you know the French revolution and the uh all the historical revolutions that he's drawing from you know these were revolutions against human systems that I guess I don't think there is a case of a global network that is trying to be revolted against, like it seems that in order to fight against a global system like Kaczynski wants to you need to have a global revolution, but I don't know how would that gel with his idea that the revolution has to be like a small minority group right that that is strongly focused and able to efficiently like get things done have you thought about this earlier like I don't know do you did you side with Ellul or Kaczynski on that idea of like drawing from history in order to figure out what to do now.

Sean: Well let me let me take the second point first so I think what Kaczynski has in mind is a set of attacks on central pieces of infrastructure where breaking down one part will inevitably inevitably break down the rest so think about the global payment system if you can take out some a particular node in some networks that happens to be located in you know the united states or europe you could potentially cause havoc globally so he thinks that the system is coupled together enough that if you attack one part of it the dominoes will fall and and this is I think how he reconciles his claim that the revolution has to be led by a small group of people with his claim that it has to be global he thinks that hit where it hurts again is the decisive essay here this helps to explain what he's on about so on the question of whether the anti-tech revolution can be modeled on history well I think Ellul completely preempted Kaczynski’s argument here so Ellul seemed to anticipate that someone like Kaczynski would eventually come along and read the technological society and then think that a violent revolution was the answer and the purpose of autopsy revolution is exactly to say that this kind of revolution is dead it doesn't work anymore and he says you know whether you're talking about the French or the russian revolution or any of the later revolutions these are all essentially the same kind of revolution these are these all follow the same model of revolution which is based on Marx’s extrapolation from the French revolution this is a historically specific idea of revolution that just doesn't travel is what he's trying to say and so whether you're talking about a revolution against technology or a revolution against a government Ellul just doesn't think it works the same way anymore.

Griffin: Why specifically does it not work anymore?

Sean: Well let's take why doesn't it work against technology first and then why doesn't it work against a particular government so it doesn't work against technology because technology it depends on modes of thought a mindset this is the point I mentioned before that you can overthrow a group of people violently on the model of the French or Russian revolutions but you can't overthrow a system of thought no violence can change governments but it can't change minds yeah that's essentially what he has in mind and he thinks that even for overthrowing governments the old model doesn't really apply at that point is admittedly Ellul more opaque but the idea seems to be that a true revolution has to cut against the tide of history so history has a certain direction to it you can predict what with some accuracy what you know all of the things being equal the first or the next 20 or 30 years will bring you can imagine what it would be like for our society to develop in this direction over another 20 years and he says a real revolution cuts against the tide of history so this is what makes it revolutionary rather than just reformist or an acceleration toward the same and he says what's peculiar about the French revolution is that it pushes with the tide of history so it was pushing in the direction of power so the the monarchy and the aristocracy were losing ground economically to you know new land holders and new economic interests in france and all the revolution did was push in the direction that the economic forces were already pushing which was against the monarchy against the old feudal power structures so Marx’s mistake Ellul thinks is to is to think first of all that revolutions have to be class-based and second of all that they push in the direction of history, so you know in Marxist thought revolutions are well the locomotive of history is the kind of catchphrase so Ellul doesn't think any true revolution in our world can take the model of the French or Russian revolutions because a true revolution has to cut against the probable course of history that seems to be what makes a revolution in the first place the way to cut against it is certainly not to be strategic and calculating, the way to cut against it is not to develop a revolutionary doctrine and refine revolutionary tactics, that's just to reinforce technique for Ellul the way to cut against it the way to defy the course of history, the way to have any real freedom is to reject the habits of thought and of action that have been instilled in us, to act in a deliberately non-technical inefficient contemplative way.

Ellul is the antidote to Kaczynski

Griffin: One closing question that I like to ask people is what you know for someone that is new to these ideas that maybe just discovered Kaczynski via a Netflix documentary or something and is like looking around for more information or rather that they you know see some of the truth in his arguments as we have, do you have any kind of advice that you would give someone as to like how they can go about either supporting this movement or just bettering their own life or trying to better their community? Are there any steps that you've taken in your own life or things that you would recommend for other people to do in order to try to bring about a better future for us?

Sean: Well I’m just going to recommend that anyone who reads Kaczynski and is persuaded by some of the arguments, go and read Ellul read Ellul's book The Technological Society, it's much more demanding than Kaczynski.

Griffin: Yes, a bit thicker

Sean: Yeah so it's what, 450 or 460 pages?

Griffin: Including the endnotes yeah about that.

Sean: Okay well it's a thick tome for sure, but it will give you some insight into where Kaczynski got his ideas, it will also give you some interesting counterpoints to Kaczynski. Lots of people who've read Kaczynski project him back onto Ellul far too much, but if you read him as a different thinker, if you read him as an interlocutor Kaczynski I think he's in he's as much an antidote to Kaczynski as he is and an influence on him. So I’d recommend that you read them alongside each other don't just read everything Kaczynski has written, branch out, read someone else, Kaczynski is tempting because he's so easy to read yes he's incredibly clear he's incredibly precise and concise you know he's you he gives you the analytic philosopher's version of anti-tech but don't just stop with Kaczynski and also read some of the stuff that you don't think you'll like like know your enemy is a good motto here read the accelerationist manifesto ray Kurzweil the futurist read kevin Kelly. I think it was John Stewart Mill who said, paraphrasing, he who knows only one side of the argument knows nothing of that or he who knows only his own side of the argument. So read widely about tech. It's tempting when you find a text that resonates with you to just read everything by that author, but don't read Kaczynski in isolation is my best advice.

I will eventually hopefully in the not too distant future have a book about anti-tech ideas that centers on Ellul and Kaczynski so stay tuned for that, the article is one part of a larger project and there will be a book hopefully in the not too distant future.

Griffin: Awesome looking forward to that. Once again your article is the Unabomber and the origins of anti-tech radicalism published in the journal of political ideologies and I’ll put a link to it in the description to this video and recommend everyone go read it and check it out and cite it and start writing your own stuff and let's get this discussion going and the movement moving further along, but yeah Sean thank you again for agreeing to come out and talk with us and talk about these connections with Kaczynski and Ellul and where a lot of these ideas come from and kind of the intellectual history and development of these ideas. I think it's really refreshing to talk about and hear about other thinkers besides Kaczynski because he's such a huge name right now and he's you know the one that most people are aware of but not a lot of people know where he got his ideas from and or even know that he wasn't the originator of a lot of his ideas and that there's a whole slew of literature and things to look at and study out there so thank you again for coming on Sean and talking with us.

4. West Northwest "Humanity First"

Oct. 27, 2021

In this episode of The Anti-Tech Cast, Ryan and Griffin talk with anti-tech philosopher West Northwest about her essay entitled, "The Conservation of Man and Wild Nature in Light of 21st-Century Post-Industrial Technologies." When we fight for nature, we must remember that humanity and nature are t…

5. Charlie Clendening "Avoiding Checkmate"

Jan. 26, 2022

In this episode of The Anti-Tech Cast, Ryan and Griffin talk with local anti-tech thinker, Charlie Clendening. They discuss Covid, anti-technique, low-tech forms of entertainment, and a lot more. For more visit antitechcollective.com

6. Nayla Agameya and Mai Mokhtar "Egyptian Roof Garden"

June 20, 2022

Griffin talks with ATC member Nayla Agameya and her mother, Mai Mokhtar about the roof garden they care for in Alexandria, Egypt. For more visit antitechcollective.com

7. Jesse Dustin "From Silicon to Serenity"

July 11, 2022

Griffin is joined by Jesse Dustin, the founder of Heartland Goats and author of The History of Nicholas and the Oracle of Knowledge. They discuss Jesse's journey of leaving the tech industry to start a goat farm and lead a more fulfilling life.