The term ‘surrogate activity’ was coined by the American mathematician and domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, in his 35,000-word manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future. It was his critique of modern civilization and society as it became during the late 20th century. He was noted not only for his opposition to technology, but also what he saw was pointlessness in modern living that the masses engaged in. Instead of living meaningful lives supporting each other as a society, they immerse themselves in surrogate activities to distract themselves from existential dread and keep them from partaking in things that may matter more in the long term.
Take note that much of what made him tick was likely the trauma he went through as a test subject for experiments that were hypothesized to be part of the controversial Project MKUltra. His brain and psyche got fried, and he hadn’t even gotten his fair shake at the world yet. While he had been a math prodigy growing up and would’ve been a successful academic if he kept going, he ended up going off the grid and living in the woods. During that solitude, he decided to fight a lonely battle against the establishment. The only reason he got caught was because his family recognized his writing style.
You should be able to surmise at this point that I sympathize with the man, although I certainly don’t condone his actions. I myself am a fairly reclusive guy, growing up as a bedroom-dwelling introvert, so those feelings of alienation are familiar to me. However, I somehow stopped short of getting red-pilled, becoming an incel, and contemplating errant violence upon my fellow human beings — or at least to my knowledge. The farthest I can ever go is writing really long blog posts on this website, and maybe dare to upload videos on YouTube, and that’s about it.
While Kaczynski’s writings continue to both intrigue and inspire despite (or due to) his infamy, we must still remember that he was a reclusive hermit who made bombs from his cabin in the woods and mailed them to government institutions. Let’s get that out of the way before we then go into one thing he may have been right about the whole time, which is that we’re distracting ourselves with surrogate activities while we could be doing things that are more meaningful and advantageous to the welfare of others. Yes, I’m aware of the irony.
What is a Surrogate Activity?
“A surrogate activity is an activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that the individual pursues for the sake of the ‘fulfillment’ that he gets from pursuing the goal, not because he needs to attain the goal itself.
For instance, there is no practical motive for building enormous muscles, hitting a little ball into a hole or acquiring a complete series of postage stamps. Yet many people in our society devote themselves with passion to bodybuilding, golf, or stamp-collecting.
Some people are more ‘other-directed’ than others, and therefore will more readily attach importance to a surrogate activity simply because the people around them treat it as important or because society tells them it is important.
That is why some people get very serious about essentially trivial activities such as sports, or bridge, or chess, or arcane scholarly pursuits, whereas others who are more clear-sighted never see these things as anything but the surrogate activities that they are, and consequently never attach enough importance to them to satisfy their need for the power process in that way.”
― Theodore J. Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future
Kaczynski coined the term as a critique of modern living in capitalistic society, where survival has been made trivial, recreation and entertainment are everywhere, and most occupations are now what the late David Graeber would describe as “bullshit jobs.” He took this from English zoologist Desmond Morris’s concept of “survival-substitute activities” — things we do in replacement of activities like farming, hunting, and gathering for survival.
The Power Process
Another concept Kaczynski described in his manifesto is the power process, which is the need of every human being for autonomy by fulfilling goals (and thus, purpose) through their own effort. By achieving that autonomy, they attain power. It’s similar to the interpretation of modernism I talked about in this blog post (about Jordan Peterson’s inability to understand postmodernism), which is that “truth can be attained through great effort.”
Imagine you’re someone who can have whatever they want just by wishing. While such a person technically has power through having complete autonomy, not having to attain it through effort skips the crucial step of having to fulfill goals and purpose. Power without pulling the effort to attain it results in demoralization, which can then lead to serious psychological problems.
I know a bit of this due to my life circumstances. It’s the same reason why most lottery winners tend to either lose everything they won in a short span of time or simply regret having won in the first place because they’re unable to deal with such abundance gained so abruptly. The only effort they pulled was picking the right numbers at the right time.
But the emptiness that results in gaining everything without equivalent effort and baggage that goes with that can be disarming and depressing. History is full of leisured aristocracies that become decadent as a result of not having to work hard for their wealth. While there are nobility that constantly have to struggle in order to maintain their power, there are elites who grow bored, hedonistic, and disconnected from the very land they rule.
This shows us that power alone is not enough. One must have something to strive for in order to attain and exercise power that can be considered as rightfully theirs. At the most basic level, there’s the ever-continuing goal of securing one’s survival. Having to work to obtain necessities such as food, water, clothing, and shelter is something most grow familiar with upon adulthood, but leisured aristocrats never have to worry about such drudgeries.
If the goal is to survive, failing to attain that goal means death. If the goal is something else other than physical survival, death may not be the consequence, but there’s still a consequence. Consistent failure in attaining that goal can result in demoralization, thus leading to depression, low self-esteem, and even nihilism.
On the other hand, consistent success can indicate either prodigious skill or inadequate challenge. Both can end up with a false sense of superiority that can eventually lead to disappointment and failure once that person has to face something more difficult than what they’re used to.
That’s why a lot of so-called “gifted children” tend to grow up either hitting a wall once they get older and are no longer “good for a kid” or get burned out by the thing they’re supposedly gifted at due to having been pushed too hard.
Therefore, in order to avoid serious psychological distress, you need goals that require effort to be attained. You need them to be rewarding enough to be worth the effort while also challenging enough to stimulate and motivate. I’ve previously talked about finding the sweet spot in the difficulty of something through deliberate practice, as described by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Ranking Surrogate Activities
This video that made me write this blog post, which I recognize is in itself a surrogate activity. The guys in the video are mostly kidding around and being edgelords, but they do hit on a few things that are worth thinking about.
They get into what constitutes a surrogate activity, most of which they included can be described as self-centered consumerist pursuits like collecting non-essential items and consuming media to an obsessive degree. They also pondered on what Ted Kaczynski himself may have partaken in during his life. Perhaps the man needed to get laid.
Then again, he was also a closeted transgender person whose confusion may have contributed to his inner turmoil and rage.
Jreg is a political satire channel. This is the guy who came up with anti-centrism, which advocates for all people to be radicalized to extreme ideologies, as long as they don’t become centrists. It’s basically a chaotic and metaironic take on accelerationism.
A More Refined Surrogate Activity Tier List
As always, I like making up acronyms and initialisms as mnemonic devices for memorization and guidance. It’s no different for tier lists as I have my own definitions for each tier — Sublime, Amazing, Baseline, Crude, Dreadful, and FUCK.
I came up with something similar for ranking activities based on the spectrum between being surrogate and necessary.
- Surrogate: These are definitely surrogate activities
- Affirming: At least they’re self-affirming
- Building: At least they’re building towards something greater
- Communal: These are activities you can do with and/or for others
- Domestic: These are activities you do to live and survive
With these tiers, you can then rank your daily activities to determine which ones are surrogate activities and which are actually important.
Take note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t partake in any surrogate activities. You should be able to do whatever you want, which is a big part of having autonomy in the first place. That’s even more so if you find fulfillment in partaking in that surrogate activity and even share it with others. That latter part is important because that’s what can help it become more than just a surrogate activity.
Community is the key to turning something banal into something valuable.
But if you’ve been questioning your existence and wish to know what’s either wrong or missing, this self-assessment may help in diagnosing the problem or inner conflict, which can help you troubleshoot your life. You can then decide whether you should give up those surrogate activities and replace them with more valuable ones.
A big reason for me taking interest in this topic is due to my current mental health predicament as of this writing. After a pretty bad day of taping a wrestling show, I had to deal with chaos in my head for quite a while. I’ve since gotten better as I write this conclusion, especially once I’ve gotten a perspective check thanks to researching and writing this blog post.
Do take careful note that just because something can be considered a surrogate activity, that makes it insignificant and not worth doing. When you really boil it down, everything can be considered a surrogate activity — even existence itself. But nihilism should never be an option. You may irk at me getting Camusian, but absurdism seems appropriate for this.
After all, we’re talking about an idea put forth by a convicted terrorist known for anti-technology beliefs. He wrote about this while living as a hermit in the woods. And it’s now written about by a recluse on his desktop computer with a fiber optic internet connection.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have in the comment section below.
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