Purpose in a Post-Scarcity World
The Magicians, Ecclesiastes and a refutation of Industrial Society and Its Future
“In modern industrial society only minimal effort is necessary to satisfy one’s physical needs. It is enough to go through a training program to acquire some petty technical skill, then come to work on time and exert the very modest effort needed to hold a job.” — Ted Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future
A couple months ago, I was persuaded to read Industrial Society and Its Future, more commonly known as the Unibomber Manifesto. What I found scared me, though not because it was crazy or sadistic, like many other documents of its type. No, the Unibomber Manifesto scared me because it made sense, and if it made sense to mail people bombs in an attempt to dismantle industrial society (something that would kill millions, if not billions of people), then I no longer knew what was really right or wrong anymore.
The basic thesis of the Unibomber is an evolutionary one. “Purpose” is a higher cognitive function that our ancestors evolved in order to help them survive. If you feel your “purpose” is to help you and your tribe survive, you will be more strongly driven to take actions that make it so: like waking up early to hunt or staying up late to keep watch. For the humans of the distant past, there was no such thing as existentialism, nihilism or a crisis of meaning. If you didn’t show up, you died, it was simple as that.
Yet since the industrial revolution, and arguably since the agriculture revolution before it, this was no longer the case. As Kaczynski says in the top quote, it is trivially easy to survive in today’s society. Almost no one starves in America, and although that is not true of the rest of the world, it is slowly becoming so. With the primal drive to survive easily satisfied, many humans turn to what Kaczynski calls surrogate activities. Some of these, like becoming an artist, scientist, or engineer, society approves of. Others, like alcohol, consumerism or Netflix-binge watching, are less sanctioned. However, Kaczynski has the same opinion of all of these so called surrogate activities: that they cannot ever be as satisfying as the real purpose of trying to survive. In his opinion, the industrial revolution has only made things worse: surrogate activities are increasingly distant from the act of actual survival, and they themselves often become trivially easy, as the predominance of “Netflix” as a hobby among many of my compatriots attests to. And our minds know this, explaining the sky-high rates of various mental-health conditions, ennui and anxiety in our society compared to the pre-industrial era.
The only solution, Kaczynski posits, is to burn it all down.
I have a lot of sympathy for this argument. For literally my entire life post the age of 3, I have been in school. Although it is starting to shift as I get into “real” work with my PhD, it has become increasingly clear how meaningless the whole thing is. Perhaps this is because school sucks as a surrogate activity (there is little that is pleasurable in being stuck in an often windowless performing menial and/or extremely challenging mental work). Or perhaps it is because the ostentatious end point of schooling (i.e. getting a “good job”) is often just as soul-suckingly hollow. All the platitudes about “making a difference” or “changing the world” ring hollow when you realise that in the real world, almost everyone is just a tiny cog in the machine that makes up our society.
Yet the strange thing is, for the average medieval peasant, or even a modern day African one, my life appears wondrous and magical. In the blink of an eye I can send my thoughts around the globe. I get to do the work of god and bring forth new creatures with the power of plasmid cloning and CRISPR. Never in their wildest dreams would they imagine themselves more fulfilled than I. But I think, upon their arrival to this land of milk and honey, they would realize that their scrabble in the hard earth, whose fruit was necessary for their own survival, and that of their family is much more meaningful.
At the same time, even when I found myself agreeing with Industrial Society and Its Future the first time I read it, I still didn’t agree with Kaczynski’s solution(s): going to live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, and then when that failed, trying to blow up the west one letter bomb at a time. I think this disagreement stems from two major avenues. Firstly, that Kaczynski assumes that this ennui and aimlessness of the human race originated with the industrial revolution. This is clearly false: since the dawn of agriculture there has been a not-insignificant leisure-aristocracy who have no immediate material needs. Indeed, one of the finest pieces of western literature, the book of Ecclesiates, meditates on this point at length, coming to a quite different conclusion than Kaczynski.
Secondly, it is unclear to me that surrogate activities are actually inherently less meaningless than activities necessary for survival. I think Kaczynski, commits what I like to call the John Donne/“Into the Wild Fallacy”: no man is an island. Most of the human cognitive hardware evolved to deal with other humans: not to hunt, not to stargaze, not to trek long distances, but to navigate complicated social relationships. However, social relationships by themselves do not provide meaning: you need to feel like you are fighting for someone/something. The path is the way. It’s hard to summarize this succinctly, but it is clear that meaning derived from such relationships can still exist in a post-scarcity society. We will explore this through the fantasy series The Magicians.
Agricultural Society and Its Consequences: Ecclesiastes
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.- Ecclesiates 2: 17–23
I don’t know why I first didn’t think of Ecclesiastes when I finished the Unabomber Manifesto, but if anything it makes me glad that I started going to church. This whole book of the Bible, more philosophical than religious, is a musing on the inherent pointlessness of life, and what to do about. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Definitely makes you think.
But the existence of this book, written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, paints the manifesto in a bit of a hubristic light. Humans have been struggling with meaning for all of recorded history. Our brains were also poorly adapted to the sedentary, monotonous toil of farm labor, as is evidenced by our color vision and the fact that we don’t find plowing fields “fun”.
Yet unlike the Unabomber, Ecclesiastes actually provides a solution that is not blowing everyone back to the stone age:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun — all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.-Ecclesiastes 9:7–10
Notice the emphasis on simple sensory pleasures and the importance of companionship. Enjoy life with the wife, whom you love. Let the labor you do be for her and your community. Maybe the Unabomber’s real problem was not industrial society, but with his lack of a strong social network, or the maturity and heart to recognize the importance of caring about other people. The John Donne/”Into the Wild” fallacy rears its ugly head again.
The Magicians and the UMC PMC
I got my heart’s desire, and there my troubles began.
The first time I read The Magicians, I thought the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, was a total douchebag. Discovers he is admitted to a college for magic: complains. Cheats on his girlfriend: blames her. Discovers the Narnia-knockoff he spent his childhood and adolescence obsessing over is real: gets bored and resorts to what he did on earth: drink.
Yet since that first reading, I’ve read The Magicians and its follow-up trilogy two more times, and there’s something inside me that keeps drawing me back to Quentin and his story. Magic in The Magicians is very much not the easy swish-and-flick of Harry Potter. It’s calculus in Old Church Slavonic with a good dose of Old High Dutch number theory. And just like how all the “super extra hard courses” that we broke our back’s studying in high school and college weren’t actually relevant to the world whatsoever, or to us being able to survive, Quentin finds that all the striving he took part in to learn magic doesn’t actually help him figure out what to do with it. Maybe having the ability to snap your fingers and do anything you want isn’t so great after all.
What is true for magicians is also practically true for the upper-middle-class (UMC), professional-managerial-class (PMC). No, UMC PMCs can’t just snap their fingers and have every wish granted, but in these twilight days of extremely efficient market capitalism, money can buy you pretty much anything. If you’re a UMC PMC, you’ve already won. And that’s no fun.
But what it takes Quentin three books to realize, and that Ted Kazcynski never does, is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
The world was fucking awful. It was a wretched, desolate place, a desert of meaninglessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long.
He’d been right about the world, but he was wrong about himself. The world was a desert, but he was a magician, and to be a magician was to be a secret spring — a moving oasis. He wasn’t desolate, and he wasn’t empty. He was full of emotion, full of feelings, bursting with them, and when it came down to it, that’s what being a magician was.
They weren’t ordinary feelings — they weren’t the tame, domesticated kind. Magic was wild feelings, the kind that escaped out of you and into the world and changed things. There was a lot of skill to it, and a lot of learning, and a lot of work, but that was where the power began: the power to enchant the world
Just because nothing is required of you to survive, does not mean that you have to do nothing. The world is there to be poked and proded and explored and probed. With other people. For Quentin to actually be happy, he had to engage with it head on. And not just for himself, but for his friends and those that he loves. I don’t see how such “surrogate activities” could not be meaningful.
The Digital Revolution and Its Consequences
Ted Kaczynski was not correct about society in the 1990s. But he may be correct about today, and the ongoing digital revolution. Surrogate activities were social and relatively uncontrollable in the 1990s. You couldn’t just replay your game of little league baseball until you won, the way you can with videogames these days. You couldn’t just block someone for saying a nasty word to you in class (see black mirror for a creepy world where you can). The digital revolution has atomized us and made us into gods of our own min-electronic kingdoms. This I think, will be much harder to escape from the ennui of surrogate activities.