February 25, 2010

Madness and Genius Part 1

I know that this is not news or relevant, but something I saw set me to thinking about it again today. There was a boy who found his high school math classes too easy. He was placed in a more advanced class in his sophomore year of high school, but he quickly mastered that material as well. After taking a required English course in summer school, he graduated high school two years early and was accepted to Harvard at the age of 16. While at Harvard he studied math, notably as a student under the eminent logician Willard Quine. He scored at the top of Quine's class, earning a 98.6% grade in the course. After Harvard, this young man when on to earn a master's degree and PhD from The University of Michigan in the field of mathematics.

His specialty was a branch of complex analysis known as geometric function theory. "I would guess that maybe 10 or 12 people in the country understood or appreciated it," said Maxwell O. Reade, a retired math professor who served on his dissertation committee. He would publish several more papers on advanced mathematics while teaching undergraduate courses at The University of Michigan. This man next became an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California Berkely in the fall of 1967.

Do you know who this man was? Perhaps you do from the short biography that I have provided. Most mathematicians aren't well known outside academic circles, but this man would become very well known in the popular culture, but not for his breakthroughs in mathematics. He became famous by mailing letter bombs. He was who the FBI and media outlets dubbed "The Unabomber". His murders stretched over a span of two decades and they were accompanied by a manifesto to which he wanted to draw attention. He promised an end to his killings if his manifesto was published in a major newspaper, and the Department of Justice and two major newspapers complied.

You can find his manifesto on the internet if you would like to read it. He wrote it on a typewriter in a primitive shack in rural Montana, yet it is lucid, cogent, free of grammatical and spelling errors, and chilling in its message. Which is more frightening, the fact that this man killed to advance the ideology of this manifesto or the thoughts themselves that went into the creation of the manifesto? Kaczynski paints a picture of a looming technological dystopia that seems more real with every passing year. Did he kill individuals in airlines, the computer industry, and universities to strike out directly at that techno-corporate system or did he do so simply to draw attention to the message he wanted to braodcast in his manifesto? My initial belief was the former, but I was puzzled by the utter futility of that act. Kacynski should know better than anyone that the people he bombed represent only an astronomically small portion of the power structure and that his murders would not have any real effect, even if those individuals couldn't be easily replaced within the techno-social machine. Thus I am forced to conclude that he killed those symbolic targets not for any direct damage that such murders would do to the system he opposed, but rather to cause people to take notice and to actually read his manifesto. To me, this conclusion makes his actions even more evil and depraved than if he had killed those men to more directly undermine the system he opposed.

In either case, he has failed. His ideas did not gain traction (who really thought they would?) and he engendered no movements of social or technological change. His predictions are slowly coming true as our society becomes increasingly technological and our lives more firmly under the control of "machines" (using the word in both the literal and metaphoric senses) and divorces from our basic humanity.

I do not share Kacynski's views on how to solve the world's problems. Absolutely not. A total rejection of technology is neither sensible nor possible. And using murders to draw attention to a political ideology is abhorant. Seeing people as cogs in a machine, or numbers in a math problem, all divorced of their humanity, is something we would expect from Kacynski's enemies, and it undermines his basic message when he resorts to such base expressions of violence to promote his text. Beyond those two very important objections, Kacynski was wrong to kill because it worked against him in a war for public support. He wanted support for his message but as long as the author of that message is a serial killer, no one will pay it heed. Society has shunned him and his ideas, and rightly so.

Counterinsurgency operations fail if they do not win the hearts and minds of the local populations that support the rebels. We have learned this truism in Malaya, Vietnam, and now Iraq. In this case though, the insurgency has failed because it did not win the support of the population. Campaigns are fought for public support now, in modern democracies when the truth is an artificial construction of a corporate machine. The great masses of people, living off easy answers and quick news clips can be persuaded of anything. Who is the Axis of Evil this year? Who hates freedom now? A king would have difficulty ruling because when public opinion turns against him, especially in a federalist republic such as ours, his power evaporates. But an oligarchy composed of technocrats, monied politicians, media outlets, corporate players, and carefully controlled facemen -- that is the machinery that can hold sway over millions by telling them what to think, feel, buy, vote, and accept as the truth.

Contrary to Kacynski's vile tactics as a serial killer, to compete in this arena one needs to move within this power structure either as a component of it or a clever manipulator or a revolutionary innovator. Muhammad Yunus is one such man. He saw an enormous problem--crushing and desperate poverty suffered by hundreds of millions--and he took steps to solve this problem. He did it by reinventing the capitalist system in a more human and equitable way. He fought back against the evil machinary that Kacynski saw but he did so in a moral, heroic, and commendable way. Read his Wikipedia page:

Muhammad Yunus is one example of how to change the world for the better. The man is without a doubt my personal hero. My earliest blog entries make mention of levers and fulcrums to move the world, and indeed Dr. Yunus found his fulcrum point. I will not write in this blog about my lever or fulcrum point, but I will leave you with an MIT lecture by Dr. Yunus. Enjoy:

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