The Ideologies of Anti-Technology Violence
By: Dr. Brian Nussbaum, SUNY Albany
The recently released film The East, a thriller about a corporate spy infiltrating an anarchist collective, has sparked interesting discussions about surveillance, eco-terrorism, corporate espionage, and the violent anarchist fringe.1 It touches upon, though doesn't fully explore, another theme related to terrorism and political violence—those individuals who engage in antitechnology violence. That is, political violence that targets researchers, firms, and producers because of their involvement in technological innovation and distribution. It is a phenomenon with a longer history than you might imagine.
From British folk hero Ned Ludd (who supposedly smashed newfangled weaving machines in eighteenth-century England, and whose name was the source of the term Luddite) to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, history is full of examples of ideologically based anti-technology violence. Whether they are smashing knitting looms with a hammer for economic reasons or attacking scientific researchers with letter bombs for ideological ones, a small but determined number of people have taken it upon themselves to oppose technological advances by lashing out at technology and technologists. Such violent episodes seem to be rooted in ideologies that identify with Aldous Huxley's assertion that "technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards."2 These instances of violence have been occasional and usually small in scale; recent events, however, suggest that they may become more common, and perhaps even more deadly. This kind of expansion—in scale, scope, or both—of ideologically driven anti-technology violence is not highly likely, but it is also far from a trivial concern.
Anti-technology violence has never been monolithic, but rather has brought together numerous disparate ideological concerns and causes: environmental conservation, ethical questions about the impact of technology on society, economic self interest, anger at industry or capitalism, and broad philosophical questions about what technology does to the human experience. While these ideological underpinnings are quite different from each other, the resulting prescription of some of the activists has been similar: attack new technologies and those engaged in their pursuit.
Recent Anti-Nanotechnology Violence
In the last several years, there have been several cases of attacks and plots targeting the nanotechnology industry, notably in Mexico and Switzerland.3 The attacks against researchers in Mexico have been claimed by an organization whose name translates as "Individuals Tending Toward Savagery" (ITS). ITS posted a manifesto online that enumerates many complaints ranging from ethical questions about nanotechnology to concerns about "gray goo" (a notional cloud of out-of-control, autonomous, self-replicating nano-robots).4 The case in Switzerland involved Swiss and Italian environmental extremists, who targeted a nanotechnology research center with a bomb. The activists in that case are currently in prison.5
Both of these cases of terrorism targeting the nanotechnology sector contain a microcosm of the broader phenomena of anti-technology terrorism. Researchers and research facilities are being targeted with violence for doing what the scientists and their colleagues see as a noble pursuit: exploring new science and technology to improve human life. Thus it appears that both technologists and violent anti-technologists are pursuing what they see as the broader good for humanity, the planet, themselves, and their many other constituencies.
Might New Technologies Inspire Further Violence?
There is reason to believe that these recent examples of anti-technology violence may be indicative of a broader trend. Today's scientific and technological advances are increasingly impinging on philosophical and ethical territory that is likely to elicit visceral responses. The increasing fusion of technology and life in the biotech industry, the ability to understand and manipulate the genetic code, increasingly small and effective nano-engineering, and other such developments each creates new ethical and ideological challenges that may well elicit reactions of fear and anger—perhaps some violent ones.
The recent debate around whether Dutch researchers should be allowed to publish the findings of their scientific work on manipulating the characteristics of strains of influenza is another example of the increasingly high societal stakes that scientific research can have. Such scientific research could, conceivably, highlight information that would enable the creation of hyper-virulent biological agents, a possibility that could be as alarming to today's technoskeptics as knitting machines were to eighteenth-century British weavers like Ned Ludd. These high stakes are likely to fuel both uninformed speculation and worthwhile ethical debates about the possibility of technological disasters, such as a man-made pandemic. Many technologies and kinds of scientific research have already created controversies resulting in threatening rhetoric or actual violence; these technologies and research range from stem cell research and nuclear energy to cloning and genetic manipulation. Science author Arthur C. Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.6 Few things raise the ire of people more than "magic," particularly when that magic seems uncontrollable, plays into their fears, or seems incompatible with their worldview or belief system.
The Monkey Wrench Gang: An Example of Enviroanarchist Writing
The Turner Diaries, a novel depicting the aftermath of a race war in the United States, has long been seen as a key document for understanding the white supremacist and antigovernment militia movements in the United States.7 The Order, a white supremacist terrorist organization active in the 1980s, took its name from the fictional racist group in the book. Timothy McVeigh's attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City had many parallels to a fictional attack outlined in The Turner Diaries, a book McVeigh sometimes sold at gun shows. Similarly, Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang has helped inspire anti-technology ideologues and activists over the decades since its publication in 1975.8 This is not to suggest any moral equivalence between the racist violence against people advocated by Turner Diaries author William Pierce (who wrote under the pseudonym Andrew MacDonald) and the destruction of machinery advocated by Abbey. The works of both authors, however, served similar roles by providing fictional archetypes for the activists who were inspired by their messages.
The Monkey Wrench Gang is a comedic novel that revolves around a campaign of sabotage targeting environmentally damaging facilities and industries in the American Southwest. While this violence only targets property, not people,9 today the Federal Bureau of Investigation certainly considers that kind of activity to be terrorism.10 The book is an interesting contrast to some conceptions of modern-day environmentalists. It features characters eating meat; driving large, inefficient cars; littering; and carrying weapons, yet the characters engage in real violence, unapologetically attacking consumerism, particularly a large dam project they see as despoiling nature. The Monkey Wrench Gang gave rise to a new term for anti-technology violence—monkeywrenching, meaning activist sabotage11—and inspired numerous environmental activists, including "direct action" activists and violent terrorist activists like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). "Violence" in this case is a relative concept; ELF targets property rather than people, and its members historically have gone out of their way to avoid injuring or killing anyone. Some ideological compatriots at organizations like Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), however, have shown a willingness to target researchers—and even their homes—directly.12 The types of violence and targets chosen by environmental extremists have historically been greatly limited by the activists' ideological constraints (such as respect for life—human and otherwise), as well as by their relatively narrow aims. While ELF and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) have largely eschewed attacking people, however, their violence is clearly designed to intimidate, harass, and coerce various audiences into changing their behavior.
The Monkey Wrench Gang is not the only piece of writing that should be read in order to understand these kinds of violent activists. Ted Kaczynski's rambling manifesto and the many public pronouncements of radical organizations such as ALF, SHAC, and ELF offer insight into the justifications for violence that these groups might use. It is not possible to understand the global wave of leftist violence in the 1970s and early 1980s from the statements of the Weathermen, the Red Army Faction, or the Japanese Red Army alone, without also understanding the broader ideologies that underpinned these radical and violent interpretations. Merely reading the violent activists' writings is not sufficient. Rather, there needs to be a broader engagement with the ideologies that underpin these impulses, from the Deep Ecology movement, to the anarcho-primitivism of John Zerzan and others, to the Christian anarchism of Jacques Ellul. These movements, like most leftist movements in the 1970s, are not violent movements, nor do they typically advocate violence or even sabotage; however, the ideologies they present have the potential to be used by some fringe elements to support violent action, just as leftist ideologies did decades ago.
At the moment, violent anti-technology activism is a relatively minor concern for public safety officials, at least when compared with the various other terrorist threats facing many modern societies (religious fundamentalists like al Qaeda, state-supported organizations like Hezbollah, or lone-wolf extremists like Anders Breivik and Eric Rudolph). That said, some of the recent antinanotechnology attacks by such activists have shed a light onto the constellation of ideological underpinnings used to justify attacking technology and technologists. The need for discussions about the ethics and implications of technology will only grow as we move further into the realm of Arthur Clarke's "magic," but the willingness of a small minority to eschew discussion for violence has the potential to grow ever more serious as the stakes seem to get ever higher. It is to be hoped that those concerned about the future of new technologies will be willing to stay within the confines of a democratic debate about technology, science, and ethics. We should not forget, though, that not long ago, a math professor in a cabin in Montana waged a one-man war against what he saw as the corrupting influence of technology on humanity. He killed three people and wounded more than 20: researchers, graduate students, scientists, secretaries, small-business owners, professors, a police officer, business executives, and engineers.
About the Author(s): Dr. Brian Nussbaum teaches about terrorism and political violence at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at SUNY Albany, and is also a research associate with the Project on Violent Conflict there.
1. The East, directed by Zal Batmanglij (London: Scott Free Productions, 2013).
2. Aldous Huxley, "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," in Adonis and the Alphabet and Other Essays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975), 293.
3. See Leigh Phillips, "Anarchists Attack Science," Nature 485, no. 7400 (2012): http://www.nature.com/news/anarchists-attackscience-1.10729http://www.nature.com/news/anarchists-attackscience-1.10729 ; and Leigh Phillips, "Nanotechnology: Armed Resistance," Nature 488, no. 7413 (2012): http://www.nature.com/news/nanotechnology-armed-resistance-1.11287
4. Robert Beckhusen, "In Manifesto, Mexican Eco-Terrorists Declare War on Nanotechnology," Wired, March 2013: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2013/03/mexican-ecoterrorism/
5. Gabriella Broggi, "Swiss Court Finds 3 Activists Guilty in Plot to Bomb Nanotech Centre," Associated Press, 22 July 2011: http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=w7576325
6. Arthur C. Clarke, "The Hazards of Prophecy," in The Futurists, ed. Alvin Toffler (New York: Random House, 1972), 148.
7. Andrew MacDonald [William Pierce], The Turner Diaries (Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade Books, 2005).
8. Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang (New York: Harper Collins, 2000). See Robert MacFarlane, "Rereading: Robert MacFarlane on The Monkey Wrench Gang," The Guardian, 26 September 2009: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/26/robert-macfarlane-monkey-wrench-gang
9. MacFarlane, "Rereading: Robert MacFarlane."
10. The Threat of Eco-Terrorism: Hearings before the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, 107th Congress (12 February 2002) (testimony of James F. Jarboe), from the Federal Bureau of Investigation website: http://www.fbi. gov/news/testimony/the-threat-of-eco-terrorism
12. Anti-Defamation League, "Ecoterrorism: Extremism in the Animal Rights and Environmentalist Movements," n.d.: http://archive.adl.org/learn/ext_us/Ecoterrorism. asp?xpicked=4&item=eco