Arrow-right Camera


Does Unabomber Have A Point?

Sun., July 9, 1995

The conversation between the Unabomber and Professor Tom Tyler of the University of California, Berkeley, is fascinating stuff. What are the dangers of our technologicalindustrial society? What kind of mass dissatisfaction, if any, does such a society breed?

Before you think you are not a part of this conversation, think again. The questions below may help you frame your role:

As the speed of human transactions and decisions moves ever faster in the name of progress, do you ever feel left behind? Ever wonder if the public library’s computer system tracks what you’re reading? Ever feel like your job is a production line, widget in, widget out? Ever feel irritated and powerless - OK, like screaming because you can’t reach a human being on the voice-mail system of that company that keeps promising a refund but won’t deliver?

Are you in control of how technology affects your life, or is technology in control of you? And just because you do, at times, feel overwhelmed by the pace of modern life, does this mean the negative impacts outweigh the conveniences technology provides?

The central point of the Unabomber’s manifesto, which is said to be long enough to fill seven newspaper pages, is that the impact of economic and technological changes in our society is largely negative, according to Tyler, the social psychology professor who received the Unabomber’s manuscript.

The manifesto by the bomber, who has killed three and injured 22 since 1978, reportedly outlines a nightmarish vision of a deteriorating society in which humans are at the mercy of intelligent, manipulative machines designed by power-hungry forces. Tyler published a response to the bomber in Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle.

“Your concerns about widespread feelings of inferiority and over-socialization into conformity with society’s rule are widely shared, as is your suggestion that many people do not find their lives are very satisfying,” Tyler wrote in part. “Many people today do feel that they have little control over their lives and few opportunities for autonomy.”

He disagreed, however, that violent acts would hurry solutions for the societal problems technology creates. In fact, he wrote, violence makes people less willing to listen to new ideas.

Besides, he added, ” … the revolution you advocate is already occurring. Instead of being trapped in the system through psychological or biological manipulation, people are finding ways to live better lives. … Of course, many people’s lives continue to be difficult, and change takes time.”

Janelle Cooke, 29, is a reservations agent who lives in the suburbs. She owns a tan stucco house that is the mirror image of her neighbor’s because some developers see subdivisions as merchandise to move rather than habitats that encourage connectedness. The front porch is too tiny for a chair on which to sit. A Georgian column hints at wealth, although not very convincingly.

Like most of her neighbors, Cooke commutes to and from work on eight lanes of shimmering cement stretching toward the city. Sometimes on the way to work she stops at the ATM for a little cash to see her through lunch. She sees no one; says “Good morning” to no one. No one says “Good morning” to her.

Between the freeway and home she passes scores of houses, but rarely sees anyone except for those encapsulated in cars next to hers. At home, three phones and two TVs await her use. When she’s not manning the phone at work, she checks in on client needs from her PC at home. For dinner she eats mostly quick, low-fat microwaveable meals in front of the TV in the family room, which is called this because the main thing many families do together these days is watch TV.

Her life is full of conveniences, exhausting and not very satisfying. What she doesn’t realize is that the definition of living embraced by her society - from freeways to sit-coms to the must-have PC she’s still making payments on - do little to nurture the human spirit. They alienate, when what she desires are meaningful connections with other human beings.

“I’ve accrued all this stuff and work all these hours because something in all the messages society sends out told me I should,” she said. “But am I happy? Is my life filled with joy? No, I wouldn’t call it joy. I always tell my mom, who lives in Ohio, that I haven’t met anyone because I’m so busy working.”

And what does all that work get her? “All this stuff, none of which I’d die without,” Cooke said. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle.”

As the serial bomber called the Unabomber wrote, there are sometimes valid reasons for apparently crazy actions. He is a dangerous and frightening killer, but an argument can be made that his frustrations with modern life are, in an exaggerated sense, our own.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Diana Griego Erwin McClatchy News Service

Click here to comment on this story »