I shall never forget Harpers Ferry. A few years ago, my expat aunt and I drove there from Washington, DC and we were both utterly captivated (Figure 36.1). This tiny American town lies at the eastern tip of West Virginia, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, across which one can see the neighbouring states of Virginia and Maryland (Figure 36.2). Its claim to fame is, however, historic rather than geographic.
Figure 36.1: I took this photograph of Harpers Ferry in late summer, looking northwestward along Potomac Terrace.
Copyright © 2001 Paul Spradbery
Figure 36.2: This famous extremity of West Virginia lies just 200 miles from the east coast of the USA.
Copyright © 2012 Google Maps
It was back in 1859 when a slavery abolitionist called John Brown launched an audacious raid on the town’s armoury. The purpose of the insurrection was to seize the US Arsenal and orchestrate a mass slave revolt. The raid was unsuccessful. Ten of Brown’s men, along with six civilians and a US Marine, were killed during the assault. Brown himself was wounded, captured, found guilty of treason and hanged.
Just before his execution, Brown wrote his last prophecy:
‘I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.’
His words were telling. Eighteen months later, following the election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th President of the United States, the southern ‘slave states’ seceded from the Union and formed the pro-slavery Confederacy. Civil war followed, and lasted from 1861 until 1865. The Confederacy was ultimately defeated and slavery subsequently outlawed throughout the entire nation. The lives of 620,000 Americans were lost, more than during the Second World War (1941-5) and Vietnam War (1959-75) combined.
Brown, despite having been found guilty of murdering innocents, has long been considered a national hero (Figure 36.3). His actions, although calamitous, led to the emancipation of black slaves. The general consensus among modern Americans is that a major injustice (slavery) was eradicated, partly as a result of a minor one (the raid). In other words, the ends more than justified the bloody means.
Figure 36.3: National honours afforded to John Brown (1800-59) include tributary lyrics to the patriotic Battle Hymn of the Republic and a life-size statue at Western University, Kansas City.
Copyright © 2011 Kansas City Lens
African Americans, for obvious reasons, revere Brown immensely. Even Malcolm X (1925-65), the notorious Islamic activist, said that although whites were prohibited from joining his Organization of Afro-American Unity, he would have made John Brown an exception.
Harpers Ferry has been preserved very thoughtfully. Motor vehicles, with the exception of those belonging to traders, are prohibited from entering the town. Visitors are invited to park at a purpose-built reception centre a couple of miles away and use a frequent bus shuttle service to gain access. Not only does this help reduce pollution and enhance road safety, it also adds to the Ferry’s authenticity. This historical enclave impressed me as a genuine American treasure.
Let us now travel 2,000 miles west of Harpers Ferry and wind the clock forward to April 1996. On the outskirts of Lincoln, Montana, FBI agents arrested a 53-year-old man in an isolated ramshackle cabin. Very few locals knew him, and absolutely no one had any idea how he spent his time. The occupant, Theodore (Ted) Kaczynski (1942-), was a Harvard-educated mathematician who had become an assistant professor at the age of 25. Evidently, he was a man of supreme intellect. Four years later, however, in 1971, he quit academia to live in remote solitude. Recovered from his cabin was bomb-making equipment, including one complete device, along with a typewritten ‘manifesto’ identifying him as the so-called ‘Unabomber’ who had mailed bombs to university and airline employees, killing three and injuring several others. Kaczynski admitted to the severity of his actions but, in his view, bloodshed had been necessary to draw attention to his belief that the technological revolution would irreversibly deprive humans of their basic liberty.
Sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, Kaczynski remains incarcerated at a maximum-security federal prison in Florence, Colorado. Being a convicted killer has, naturally, prejudiced the minds of many, making it easy for the rationale behind his thesis to be dismissed as the deranged rant of a psychopath. I read it for the first time about fifteen years ago. Ever since, I have found it increasingly difficult to counter the broad thrust of Kaczynski’s argument (Figure 36.4).
Figure 36.4: Published by Feral House just over a year ago, the book details Kaczynski’s critique of technology and includes parts of his infamous manifesto.
Copyright © 2010 Theodore Kaczynski
It seems to me that necessity is not the only mother of invention. How about avarice, short-sightedness and rank stupidity? All have spawned technological ‘progress’ at some time or other. In fact, I cannot think of a single technological innovation which man has declined to exploit.
The consequences of this are far-reaching. Here are just a few examples. Web search engines pervert our objectivity. Personal information is reduced to digital code, processed and used to skew our preferences, all without human involvement. Online businesses suggest products. Facebook suggests friends. SatNavs are becoming substitutes for map-reading skills and spatial awareness. The Internet has become a removable disk, in effect an external memory which obviates the need to expand our own. (Why learn when you can google?) Stock exchange traders buy and sell according to computed data, rather than by logical reasoning. This ‘algo-trading’ currently accounts for 70% of financial transactions. This figure is set to increase further, until human input becomes redundant.
All such technological ‘refinements’ stem from sophisticated mathematical processes called algorithms – ones and zeros flitting around inside computer chips by means of micro-switches – and many of them operate and ‘learn’ independently of human control. David Walliams’s character Carol Beer in Little Britain is considered amusing because of her inane catchphrase, ‘Computer says no.’ Dull-witted and ridiculous though she might be, the message is a serious one.
Computers were designed to be our slaves, but they are emancipating themselves and turning the tables. Technological advancement is accelerating, and techno-obsolescence comes upon us ever more rapidly. As a result, it is impossible to make long-term predictions about cultural change, less still influence it. We are on board a runaway train, either blind or just looking the other way. The faster it travels, the more likely it will derail or crash. If it does, Ted Kaczynski, despite his appalling crimes, might well be considered to have been ahead of his time.
John Brown died just over 150 years ago. It is not unthinkable that, 150 years from now, when Ted Kaczynski’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, he might be similarly exalted by the descendants of those who condemned him for life (Figure 36.5).
Figure 36.5: John Brown (left) and Ted Kaczynski. Will history repeat itself?
Copyright © 1996 A+E Television Networks
Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery