By Tom van der Meij
Look around you. Look at the phone in your hand or the laptop on your table, the lightbulbs that enlighten your walls and furniture, the machinery in your kitchen. Look outside, at the street lighting, cars, people with headphones, airplanes, billboards. Think of the things invisible on the surface, such as Wi-Fi networks, the subway, satellites. You might embrace all these technologies and be amazed by the seemingly endless human capacity to invent things. To progress endlessly towards a future filled with artificial intelligence and extraterrestrial life. You could also be inclined to take a skeptical outlook and worry about the effects of all these technologies on mother nature and our mental health. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Theodore Kaczynski embody both ends of this spectrum. The stories of their lives show that both passion and aversion towards technology can quickly evolve into something dangerous.
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was born in 1876 in Egypt and later moved to his parent’s home country of Italy. He studied at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris and graduated law at the University of Pavia. However, he did not see himself becoming a lawyer and opted for poetry instead, following the encompassing literary upbringing he received. His poetry is considered refreshing and influential. It was especially the way he presented his work that was somewhat remarkable, namely as collages in which the words whirled around the paper and where many words did not have any significance. After The Marne, Joffre Visited The Front By Car is one of his most famous works and looks more like a play with typography than an actual poem. Seen from some distance, however, the words form an image, in this case, a map (sort of). It was a method Marinetti probably adopted from another acclaimed poet, his contemporary Guillaume Apollinaire, who called them calligrams.
Marinetti was also one of the founders of the first Italian fascist party and an aspiring pasta banner, claiming the food made his fellow countrymen ‘lethargic, pessimistic and sentimental’. Foremostly, however, he was the writer of the two futurist manifestos and the personification of the futurist movement. The title of the second manifesto gives a tiny insight into the plans and thoughts of this movement: Uccidiamo il chiaro di luna!, or Let’s kill the moonlight!
The futurists were a group of mostly Italian artists and writers hungry for change in the arts, society, and politics. The movement gained momentum during the early 1900s, a period in which Europe continued to industrialize and tensions between European countries were rising. Marinetti and his ideological companions watched these tensions grow and embraced their deadly consequences; war and destruction. In 1909, the movement published its first manifesto that summarized its line of thought. As their name implied, the futurists turned their back on the past. They advocated for the rawness in human existence; violence, brutalism, and devastation, and were obsessed with speed. It is an element of the futurist movement that can be seen in their admiration for cars and airplanes and gets expressed in their paintings, sculptures, and literature. Futurist paintings in particular managed to fulfill a complicated task: capturing movement in a two-dimensional format. These paintings combine the cubic structures of the Cubist movement of Picasso and Braque with more colorful pallets and a focus on cities, vehicles and industries.
The futurist movement and its main inspirator Marinetti are controversial. Even though their influence on arts and politics cannot be underestimated, they simultaneously embodied a spirit that legitimated and even promoted war and violence. A closer look at After the Marne, Joffre Visited the Front by Car reveals the fixation towards war which gets expressed with words as Guerre, Victoire and Mort Aux Boches (Death to the Germans). The futurists were dangerously patriotic and militaristic and amazed by the inventions of industrial warfare, such as tanks. They were not alone in this sentiment, although they expressed it the clearest. Images of German and French soldiers leaving for the first world war show optimism; a belief in a short war, quick victory and humiliation of the enemy. The debris that remained after the end of the first world war emphasized how dangerous this longing for war can be and how naïve the futurists’ belief in the victory of technology was. The new technology used during the war most of all showed itself to be dehumanizing. Marinetti eventually died from a cardiac arrest; technology yet unable to save him.
On the 22nd of May 1942, two years before Marinetti died, Theodore Kaczynski was born in Chicago. At school, it was quickly discovered that he had an exceptionally high IQ of 167. Kaczynski skipped several classes and graduated with a degree in mathematics from Harvard University at the age of 20. He continued his passion for mathematics at the University of Michigan where he completed a Ph.D. Not long after, he became the youngest assistant professor at Berkeley University, being just 26 years old. It was where Kaczynski stalled for the first time: he had a passion for nature, was quite introverted and not made for the life of a university teacher. In 1969, he left academic life and retreated to a tiny cabin in a remote part of Montana, living with little means he earned from temporary jobs. A self-sufficient life in the middle of nowhere, devoted to reading and hiking, bothering no one it seems. However, in 1996, his cabin was stormed by the FBI. Kaczynski was arrested for the killing of three and the wounding of 23 others. He is the outcome of a murder investigation known as the Unabomber case. Up until this day, he is imprisoned with no chance of ever walking free again.
How did the devoted math hermit end up in prison? Or more precisely; why did the former professor start killing? It turns out that in his self-chosen isolation, Kaczynski had radicalized. His love for nature had transformed into an aversion to everyone that negatively affects it. In Kaczynski’s eyes, the only way of battling the ideology of these individuals was violence. This led to a bombing campaign of individuals who Kaczynski deemed malicious: a CEO of an airline company, various university professors and lobbyists for oil companies. Kaczynski also unsuccessfully attempted to bomb an airplane mid-flight. It is where the name of his case comes from: The University and Airplane bomber, the Unabomber. The bombs were placed in precisely made and untraceable mail packages he made in his cabin. It soon became clear that the bomb packages that arrived at all these arbitrary people all came from the same evil genius. Soon the FBI became involved, and a 17-year long manhunt began. It remained utterly unsuccessful until 1995.
It was at this moment Kaczynski decided to come forward, although incognito. He wrote an essay titled Industrial Society and Its Future about the motivations of his terrorist acts. Newspapers and magazines were hesitant to publish the manifest, up until the FBI started pushing for its publication, hoping that it would somehow lead to a new trail of the anonymous writer. Parts of the essay then were published in the New York Times. In it, Kaczynski argued that the main evildoers were not singularly those individuals that received the bomb packages, but foremostly technology. According to Kaczynski, the embracement of technology by mankind had led to:
‘Excessive density of population, isolation of man from nature, excessive rapidity of social change and the breakdown of natural small-scale communities such as the extended family, the village or the tribe’ (Paragraph 47).
The manifest is an impressive document, although obviously overshadowed by the maliciousness of its writer. Kaczynski’s view of technology is not exactly optimistic. He depicted technology as an overarching system that damages both the human mind and its natural habitat. One of its consequences: the many possibilities of technology have seized man’s need to create things and attain certain goals (which both lead to a feeling of satisfaction) and replaced them with surrogate activities singularly to fill time. A lack of purpose has simultaneously taken away man’s autonomy and a feeling of strength that precedes the fulfillment of achieving a goal. This had led to ‘low self-esteem, inferiority feelings, defeatism, depression, anxiety, guilt, frustration’ and other negative categorizations.
Marinetti & Kaczynski
What can be said about these two counterparts? A direct comparison is perhaps not that fair. They grew up in different eras, were completely different persons and even their initial perspective on technology differed. Marinetti foremostly saw technology through the lens of an artist, as an inexhaustible source to enrich the outside world, while Kaczynski was a concerned nature lover and perceived technology as a threat to the inside, the human mentality. Both men, however, recognized the strength of technology as something that had altered what it means to be human. Marinetti’s when it was developing, Kaczynski in hindsight.
Both of them were insane, one of them idolizing violence and destruction and the other seeing it as the only possibility to stop technology from taking over. However, both captured an important feature of our lives many of us have been taking for granted, especially in 2021, more than 60 years after Marinetti’s death and 26 years after Kaczynski’s arrest: We embrace technology because it enables us to see the world, save our lives and foremostly because it makes it tremendously easy to order whatever cuisine we’re craving with a few simple touches on our smartphones. There is no need anymore to be moralistic and activistic about the role of technology in our lives, Marinetti and Kaczynski have already covered that with tragic consequences. Technology is here and is here to stay. It is not unwise however to keep the lessons of Kaczynski in mind and recognize how the small technologies, such as smartphones and social media, can seriously mess up our minds and how the whole techno-industrial system, as Kaczynski called it, is currently damaging our planet.
A captivating show about the hunt for Kaczynski, called Manhunt: Unabomber, can be seen on Netflix.
Edited by Joanna Sowińska, artwork by Oscar Laviolette