by Dmitry Orlov
Club Orlov (March 01 2016)
During the past week, since I had published the excerpt from the manuscript for my next book, Shrinking the Technosphere, I received a number of responses that were somewhat disconcerting. Some people couldn’t approach the concept of the technosphere without having a dictionary definition at their disposal. Others thought that I was just presenting some warmed-over version of a concept that’s already been fully expounded by Jacques Ellul, Teilhard de Chardin and others. A few more thought my task hopeless because hardly anyone would be capable of grasping the concept.
I think I can guess the reason for this negative attitude. It has two main causes: intellectualism and denial.
Intellectualism is a sort of psychological disorder whose main symptom is an inability to combine one’s intellectualizing with the work of one’s emotional and physical centres. The result is a hollow being who uses big words and fancy concepts to camouflage a profound fecklessness. We can only be whole beings if we find ways to combine the work of our three centers – intellectual, emotional and physical – in a harmonious way. Ignore any one of them, and what you have is a slightly crippled being; ignore two, and what you have is an invalid.
Denial is easier to explain. People who are well and fully trapped within the technosphere and cannot imagine life outside of it are not likely to be receptive to the idea of it going away. It may be possible to convince them, using rational argument, that the technosphere’s days are numbered, and that they need to get themselves clear of it if they wish the human experiment to continue. But even when convinced on a purely intellectual level, without the emotional resilience or the physical stamina to transform their personalities and to drastically alter their habits all they can do is sit there and blink. As to why that is, see the previous paragraph.
Of the previous generations of thinkers, Jacques Ellul came the closest to comprehending the nature and scope of the technosphere as a parasitic emergent intelligence that is infesting and destroying the biosphere. But as far as recommendations for what to do about this problem, Ellul pretty much assumed the fetal position and sucked his thumb. He was a devout Catholic, and I suppose he sort of assumed that the Kingdom of Heaven will arrive one day, technosphere or no technosphere, so let’s just scribble about it while awaiting salvation. Apparently, he couldn’t conceive of the fact that organized monotheistic religion is a social machine par excellence, and as such is merely an aspect of the very technosphere he was critiquing. Such an intellectual!
The person who first nailed the technosphere for what it is was Ted Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber, who is serving out eight consecutive life sentences in the Florence, Colorado, Supermax Penitentiary. In his most recent profile update, which he submitted to the Harvard alumni association a few years back, he lists his eight life sentences as his achievements and his current occupation as “prisoner”. If you want to send him a postcard for his birthday (he is turning 74 on May 22) his address is “Number 04475-046, US Penitentiary – Max, Post Office Box 8500, Florence, Colorado 81226-8500”.
Ted’s discovery of the technosphere was accidental. He was a mathematical child prodigy who was admitted to Harvard at age fifteen and earned his PhD and became an assistant professor at Berkeley ten years later. While he was at Harvard, starting at age sixteen, he was made the subject of the MKULTRA mind control experiment. In it, gifted students who volunteered for the program were taken into a room and connected to electrodes that monitored their physiological reactions while facing bright lights and a one-way mirror. Then they were brutally confronted with their inner demons which they had divulged to their interrogators during screening tests, all the while being dosed with LSD and other mind-altering drugs.
This, I believe, was the formative experience which allowed Ted to see the technosphere for what it is. He was victimized by the bit of the technosphere that is by far the nastiest: the part that seeks to make humans one hundred percent controllable, as if they were robots, by breaking down everything about them that makes them human. I am certain that he caught a glimpse of what it is: a single, unified, global, controlling, growing, destructive entity, existing beyond human reason or morality, which must be stopped no matter the cost.
Thus, Ted is not just an intellectual scribbler: he is someone who actually spent three days and three nights in the belly of the beast. He wrote:
As I see it, I don’t think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses.
The way he chose to live his life was not the path of the intellectual who is able to completely ignore the problem in his daily life while timidly scribbling about it in some dusty corner. He quit his position at Berkeley, built his cabin in Montana and moved in. He lived there without telephone, electricity or running water, on very little money, and studied tracking, edible plant identification and primitive skills. He chose to not be part of the problem; if everyone lived like Ted, then there would be no technosphere for me to write about.
But that all changed when one day he discovered that the Forest Service destroyed one of his favourite wild spots and replaced it with a service road. That’s when he switched to studying bomb-making. He was never very good at it, and his tally of a paltry three dead and 23 injured attests to this fact. But then his aims were limited to achieving notoriety:
In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.
As Barak Obama, who destroyed four entire countries (Libya, Syria, Yemen and the Ukraine) would perhaps have put it, “We had to kill some folks”. (His predecessor, Bush Junior, only destroyed 1.5 countries – Iraq and the remaining half of Afghanistan; I wonder if this qualifies as “progress”.) Yes, Ted broke the commandment that “Thou shalt not kill”, but perhaps you’ve noticed that it was changed to “Thou shalt not kill unless so ordered” quite a long time ago. Ted’s crime is not that he killed some folks (lots of people get medals, promotions and pensions for committing acts of murder) but that he didn’t kill as a servant of the technosphere.
The most severe criticism that can be levelled at Ted is that his methods were unsound: there are other, more efficient ways of achieving notoriety. As a genius, he could have written a best-seller. But then that’s just second-guessing. He saw a pressing need – to destroy the technosphere before it finishes destroying the biosphere, and us with it – and he didn’t want to take any chances on methods that might not work. The problem of finding a method that would work is nontrivial. Ted clearly saw that what was needed was some sort of revolution, but he couldn’t see very far past that:
We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system. This revolution may or may not make use of violence; it may be sudden or it may be a relatively gradual process spanning a few decades. We can’t predict any of that.
He was extremely clear on one point: that the needed change could not possibly come from any place on the existing political spectrum. He was quite withering in his critique of the liberal left which, he thought, excelled in the extreme hypocrisy of championing the cause of groups it thought to be inferior in order to oppress all of society through oversocialization, feminization and the imposition of political correctness. This was mostly the work of heterosexual white males, for nothing much can happen without their approval and support:
The guardians of political correctness (mostly white, upper-middle-class heterosexuals) identify with groups of people they see as weak or inferior while denying (even to themselves) that they consider them to be such.
Among “leftist issues”, Kaczynski counts “racial equality, equality of the sexes, helping poor people, peace as opposed to war, nonviolence generally, freedom of expression, kindness to animals”. Please note that “destroying the technosphere before it destroys what’s left of the biosphere and us with it” is nowhere on this list.
So much for the liberals. As far as the conservatives, he skewers them with a single remark:
The conservatives are fools: they whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.
Ted didn’t say it, but I will: both ends of the political spectrum, and all points in between, are merely projections of the technosphere. The political parties are social machines, and different mechanized political tasks call for different kinds of machinery. The conservative machine excels at direct, undisguised brutality, which works just fine but is rather expensive. The liberal machine achieves its goals, such as political domination, bureaucratic control, fostering dependency, suppression of social separatism, rendering populations defenceless by advocating nonviolence, imposition of inflated standards, destruction of local cultures through enforced cultural heterogeneity (to name a few) – and it achieves these goals through hypocrisy, which, consisting of mere disingenuous words, is quite cheap. But the moment hypocrisy stops working, there is always the conservative Plan B: march in the goon squad and bust some heads. If you want a brilliant contemporary example of this mechanism at work, look no further than the current presidential contest in the US: on the liberal side we have the congenital liar, hypocrite and crook Clinton versus the reincarnation of Benito Mussolini, thuggish goon extraordinaire Trump.
So much for politics … But what of the revolution? Somebody has to carry it off, or we all die. Well, I have an idea. It is very simple in concept, and rather involved in its details. The idea is that we can abscond with the few bits of the technosphere we need while causing the rest of it to crash and burn prematurely merely through carefully thought-out technology selection. It doesn’t have to be an organized movement: when people see the system failing them, their minds naturally turn to finding ways of providing for their autonomy, self-sufficiency and freedom. I have no intention of telling people what technologies to select; I only seek to provide them with a sound process for making the selections. As far as learning all the details, you’ll just have to wait until the book comes out.
PS : I haven’t been as thorough in repudiating technology as Ted, but I am no pure intellectual either. In fact, I haven’t repudiated technology at all; I have merely become very careful in selecting it. I do own a cell phone, a laptop, a bicycle and a few other bits of carefully selected technology. Nor am I any fan of gaining notoriety by killing and maiming and other such unsound methods; merely typing on a laptop is working just fine for me. And I didn’t move to a cabin in Montana; instead, I sold the house and the car, quit the job and went sailing.