Science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, one of the world’s leading writers of the genre for more than 60 years, died on Wednesday at the age of 91. Although he wrote many books and short stories that were well-received — and in many cases made into movies, plays and TV shows — he was probably best known for Fahrenheit 451, about a dystopian future in which the government burns books. The story is usually seen as a protest against censorship, but Bradbury said his point was to draw attention to how television and other forms of media were making people less interested in the world of ideas. Given that we are surrounded by more media and entertainment content than ever before, what would Bradbury think of the world we live in now?
In the book (which Bradbury wrote in the UCLA library on a typewriter he rented by the hour), protagonist Guy Montag is a fireman — but that term is used for people who burn things, including books, rather than for people who put fires out. In the future envisioned by Bradbury, people’s lives have been taken over by television, which for most people involves multiple wall-sized screens that broadcast mind-numbingly mundane shows with which the citizens of the future are obsessed. Montag’s wife is one of those people, and he grows estranged from her and fascinated by the books he is supposed to be burning. The book ends (spoiler alert!) with a nuclear war that apparently destroys most of civilization.
Although books are outlawed in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury said in interviews that his main purpose wasn’t to argue against censorship (although that’s clearly a sub-theme). Instead, he said he was trying to paint a picture of where society might be heading, as books and other old forms of media and entertainment were being replaced by what he saw as shallow and frivolous alternatives like television shows. In this future, Bradbury argued that books would become outlawed because people themselves would become increasingly anti-intellectual and see them as suspicious. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he was no fan of electronic books:
Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell… A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.
Bradbury also reacted strongly when Yahoo wanted to publish a book of his online: “You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet. It’s distracting,” he said. In a lot of ways, Bradbury’s views about television and the dumbing down of culture were similar to those raised by author Neil Postman in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and was about the soporific effect of television and its impact on society. It’s not clear what Bradbury thought (if anything) about the internet or the rise of social media, but it seems likely he would see them as just part of the same pattern: shallow amusements that serve to distract people from the pursuit of true knowledge.
Bradbury wasn’t alone: in recent years, others have made similar kinds of arguments about the dangers of the web and social media. Author Nick Carr’s book “The Shallows” tries to make the case that the internet and its non-stop distractions are not only making us less interested in deep thoughts (and less interesting as well) but are actually changing our brains so that this is permanent. And more recently, internet sceptic Andrew Keen’s book “Digital Vertigo” takes aim at social media and the shallow and distracting effects it has on society.
There’s certainly plenty of ammunition for this kind of criticism — from the distractions found on sites like Buzzfeed and the hours people waste on Facebook games like Farmville, to the shallow amusements offered by sites like Perez Hilton or the often darker distractions of a community like 4chan, or the way rumors and hoaxes prevail on a network like Twitter. But does all of this mean that society is becoming anti-intellectual, to the point where people prefer to be amused instead of reading or thinking deep thoughts? I’m not convinced.
One of the things that Bradbury — as great as his vision was — didn’t foresee was how much of the media we consume would be created by us, rather than by some faceless media corporation aimed at serving us mental pablum or lulling us into a false sense of security. The social and user-generated part of social media is the part that makes it truly magical in some ways, whether it’s when Reddit comes together to raise money for a boy like Caine Monroy, or when people in Tahrir Square and elsewhere risk their lives to show us images and video of a war, and thereby help bring it closer than any news show could ever do.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of brain candy out there, or that shallow amusements and distractions created by YouTube or 4chan users are any more uplifting or redeeming than a TV sitcom, because they aren’t. But the tools that we have now are capable of so much more, and there are many people using them for those purposes — and the potential benefits of that are almost unlimited. Bradbury’s dystopia serves as a useful warning about the dangers of amusing ourselves into stupefication, but there is hope yet.
Author Neil Gaiman has written a wonderful tribute to Bradbury that is worth reading, and embedded below is a video clip of the author in 1969, describing what he sees as the social benefit of artistic pursuits like writing:
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