MEME 1.04


MEME 1.04

BALLAD OF THE UNABOMBER

I returned from France last Monday, intending to write about the Gallic reaction to Internet and its impact on France's national computer network, Minitel. That will have to wait until the next Meme. This issue is dedicated to the Unabomber and this meme in his manifesto:

"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. 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 machines will be in effective control....If man is not adjusted to this new environment by being artificially re-engineered, then he will be adapted to it through a long a painful process of natural selection...

The technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown."

--Unabomber, a.k.a. FC, from Tuesday, September 19, 1995, in a special supplement to the Washington Post titled "Industrial Society and its Future."

The Unabomber wants to get us out of this supposed mess by returning us to nature. ("That is WILD nature...free of human interference and control." Par. 183) What happens when 5.5 billion people go back to nature is that most of us die, because without technology the Earth cannot support all of us. This would be a very short, very brutal "painful process of natural selection" to say the least. It is also not going to happen. So, apart from the Unabomber's absurd prescription for saving the human race from mechanical enslavement, does he have a point?

The Unabomber's real importance, in the long-term, goes beyond the fact that he killed 3 people and injured 23 others in 16 attacks over 17 years. It goes beyond the fact that he essentially blackmailed the New York Times and Washington Post into reprinting his manifesto. The Unabomber is important because his argument against technology is destined to become the mainstream argument against our wired world in the next century. The fear that technology will erase something fundamental that defines us as human beings is old, as old as technology -- see Prometheus or the tower of Babel. So if this is an old argument, why aren't we technophiles doing a better job of addressing it, as opposed to mocking it? Last Tuesday we got a sneak preview of the next decade's battle-lines.

The Global SuperOrganism

I've noticed that many of us technological sophisticates are also uncomfortable with some of the goals of our peers. I wince when I read in the latest issue of Wired that "by 2040 robots will be as smart as we are. Then they'll displace us as the dominant form of life on Earth." This isn't a problem though, it is presented as a form of human transcendence, the binary version of getting closer to the perfection of God. Should this be taken seriously? When I first saw that article I thought it was a joke, a sort of send- up on the cooks. Unfortunately it is dead-serious. It is also similar in logic to the Unabomber's conclusions about where technology is headed. The only difference is in their conclusions: one thinks it is cool, the other thinks it is not.

I was surprised how up-to-date the Unabomber is on the fusion of man and machi