Ted Kaczynski is a monster. Most people agree on this. So what do we do with the fact that his notorious manifesto, which he killed three people and maimed nearly two dozen more to publish, says a lot of things, particularly about postmodern, mass-mediated society, that reasonable people can agree with?
One of The Net‘s lesser achievements is to expose this aspect of the Unabomber’s story, that parts of his rambling manifesto might be on to something. A hypnotic meditation on Kaczynski by German documentarist Lutz Dammbeck, The Net parses some of Kaczynski’s critiques, particularly those directed at the mass media, but is just as much about the curious, unwritten prohibition on discussing the manifesto’s contents. Time and again as Dammbeck travels hither and yon talking to a range of people — mathematicians, software designers, computer historians — they clam up whenever Kaczynski is mentioned. He’s a dangerous criminal, we’re reminded, a murderer whose opinion is therefore of no consequence.
Dammbeck is intrigued by this reluctance to talk about Kaczynski’s ideas. At first he seems a little off his nut: “All this is part of a system,” he says in voiceover, practically gouging the word “system” into his notes, “that turns every attack and disruption into an energy source with which to perfect itself.” Such elaborate reasoning seems excessive: after all, the Unabomber committed his atrocities in part to draw attention to his own writings, so discussing them could seem to some like an implicit justification of his acts.
But later, a montage of media coverage following Kaczynski’s arrest gives the impression that we are in fact dealing with just such a system. Repeatedly commentators speculate on Kaczynski’s mental state, arguing that because he’s schizophrenic, he’s also ultimately unimportant. “If he is to be considered insane,” opines a presumed expert on a major cable news network, “then everything he’s done will have no political effect. It will have no meaning to society.” This and other similar comments come off less like an objective observations than implanted suggestions, the use of television to do something at which it excels: establish a trend.
If the neutralization of Kaczynski’s manifesto is part of a system, what system is it part of? What are its contours and properties? This is the real question, and Dammbeck follows some intriguing and seemingly tangential paths in investigating it. The first two interviews, for instance, revolve around an artistic cinema collective formed in the late ’60s, one attracting such talents as Nam June Paik and Buckminster Fuller, and Ken Kesey’s traveling experiments with consciousness expansion through LSD. Initially the connection to Kaczynski seems tenuous, but we subsequently learn that he participated in a similar LSD experiment as a student in Harvard in 1961.
Tenuous also is Dammbeck’s discussion of cybernetics, which ranges from scientist Norbert Weiner — who in 1940 described a new method of targeting German divebombers in which “people, ships and planes are just abstract blips on the radar screen” — to ARPAnet, a precursor of the Internet designed in the 1970s as a decentralized information system meant to survive a nuclear attack. But the connections are there, largely in the subtext. ARPA — the Advanced Research Projects Agency — was founded after Sputnik was launched to enable highly speculative research at the limits of knowledge, a philosophy Kesey echoes: “These scientists talk about doing research,” ex-Merry Prankster Stewart Brand quotes Kesey as saying in the heyday of his LSD experiments, “We’re doing search.”
Kesey, like Kaczynski, was a subject of government tests with LSD before taking to the road with the Pranksters, and thought of LSD as a way to reform human consciousness as an “open system.” Brand — who later coined the term “personal computer” — describes this philosophy as an “alternative cybernetics.” Brand also published the Whole Earth Catalog, a curious confluence of technological speculation and hippie naturalism that printed articles about computer circuits alongside how-to guides on animal husbandry. One of the articles in the Whole Earth Catalog explains how to live in a cabin in the woods like Henry David Thoreau — which is precisely what Kaczynski would do after resigning his professorship at Berkeley in 1971.
As the preceding indicates, The Net is an immensely complicated work, unafraid of conjecture and unwilling to simplify or draw any definite conclusions. The “system” it investigates is neither state nor individual, good nor evil. Dammbeck finds it both in the fascism of the Nazi regime and the anarchy of the antiwar movement. He comes closest to defining it succinctly when describing its origins in Wiener’s theory of cybernetics, which began as an attempt to predict the actions of airplanes with human operators. The consequence of systematizing human consciousness, of making the pilot “one with his machine,” is to transform thought into “data processing.” In cybernetics, “the brain is no longer the place where ‘ego’ and ‘identity’ are mysteriously created through memory and consciousness,” Dammbeck explains. “It is a machine consisting of switching and controlling circuits, a black box where cause is effect and effect is cause within an infinite cycle.”
The cybernetic vision, in which human life becomes merely another node in a schematic diagram, has been so entrenched in modern culture in the 60-odd years since the London blitz that it’s scarcely discernible for its ubiquity. Dammbeck takes every available opportunity to convey this in shots he takes as he travels that initially seem random, banal: the cabin of a passenger jet, with its matrix array of seats and tiny screens; a computer lab with a webcam on the top of each monitor; the alien landscape of Silicon Valley, shot through the passenger window of a rental car.
The saturation of modern society in dehumanizing technologies also comes up repeatedly in the DVD extras. These consist of extended interviews, including one with Paul Garrin, an independent artist who scarcely appears in the film but mounts a powerful challenge to the conventional wisdom that the Internet is unbounded and democratic. Behind its visible interface, Garrin maintains, the Internet is designed hierarchically, based on a military and colonial paradigm, and its emerging omnipresence heralds not a one-world democratic utopia but globalist corporate fascism.
Though Garrin is clearly sane — and Kaczynski’s sanity is clearly much in question — Garrin’s railing against modern technology is much like that to be found in the Unabomber manifesto. Insofar as wholesale cybernetization has led to a brand of nihilism endemic to human society, both are right: technology poses a grave and gathering danger. But another consequence of the omnipresence of the cybernetic paradigm is the difficulty of imagining a position outside it. Kaczynski’s victims, for instance, were plainly abstract values in his own scientific project. He ended up keeping meticulous notes on his bomb mixtures and after each attack, he would examine the results and alter his bomb-making techniques accordingly. “It’s an enigma,” explains one of his ex-neighbors. “Everything he did, he did experiments on and he wrote down, very systematically.”
Thus did Kaczynski lose the moral credibility to make the arguments in his manifesto, in the unconscionable way he brought them to the world’s attention. I only feel comfortable even reiterating Kaczynski’s arguments by framing him as a phenomenon, blowback, the result of an experiment gone wrong in the state-sanctioned exercise of force. But to do this is to transform him from a person into an analytical node, something like a blip on a screen — and this, of course, is precisely the crime of which he himself is guilty.