by Jakob Ryce / 28th April 2018
In Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury creates a hedonistic society that thrives on ignorance, is dependent on technology and constantly distracted by ‘TV parlours’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 31). It’s a novel that’s shockingly prophetic and its concepts go far beyond the author’s own imaginings.
Free-thinkers, or individuals in possession of literature, are seen as a threat to peace, as books ‘… are thought only to lead to political and social idealism, which in turn leads to dissent, unrest and unhappiness’ (Rutten, Kris 2011).
But what can we learn about our contemporary society from novels such as Fahrenheit 451? Do our social values and cultural practices mimic literature or is it the other way around? ‘Who is predicting this future? From what perspective is this future imagined?’ (Rutten, Soetaert & Vandermeersche 2011). This essay will attempt to analyse how digital distractions connect to social and cultural commentaries found in Bradbury’s classic story.
One crucial issue in the novel is society’s dependency and obsession with television – a foresight and a warning that has gone relatively unnoticed, as we rocket towards digital oblivion and endless streaming.
In the novel, Montag’s wife seems to be void of free will. Millie reflects our entire modern culture: obsessed with her ‘three-wall television’, reality TV, known as ‘The Family’ and dependent on her devices; going to bed wearing her Bluetooth ear-buds, described as ‘Seashell ear thimbles’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 30). She is caught in a perpetual loop of digital distraction – ignorant to her surroundings, even when her husband begins hiding books in their home. Moreover, there is a sickness at the root of Millie that she’s not aware of – she self medicates and is completely nescient to the cause of her self destruction. In addition, Millie represents the superficiality of modern culture, as she avoids any real issues, escaping to her TV parlour – a mirror that our own solipsist society is so drawn to: our screens.
What Millie and the rest of society is distracted by is equally important. Bradbury may have been inspired by post-war Nazi Germany (burning of books by the Third Reich), the McCarthy period, censorship and the rise of television (a cultural phenomenon in the 1950s), but it’s possible his novel is even more culturally appropriate today than ever before (Bradbury, Ray 1953 [Afterword] p. 180, 183).
How does a writer forecast reality TV in 1953? In the ‘Golden Age of Television’ producers looked to radio shows and plays to inspire them and viewers were treated to situation comedies and variety shows. Perhaps it was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a sitcom that stared the ‘real life’ Nelson family that inspired Bradbury—however, ‘The Family’ feels far more like a contemporary distraction. ‘He saw her leaning toward the great shimmering walls of colour and motion where the family talked to her … prattled and chatted and said her name and smiled at her and said nothing of the bomb …’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 168).
And while we may not live in a ‘utopian’ society that completely avoids (or denies) reality, we are encouraged to do just that. Individuals are streaming more content than ever before. According to Statista, Netflix reached 125 million subscribers by March 2018 and plans to create 80 movies in 2018 (Statista 2018). Society is subjected to an overflow of information (and misinformation) on a daily basis – the act of making a choice seems almost futile – and it is this same fear that drives Captain Beatty. ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him… give him one. Better yet, give him none … cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed … then they’ll feel they’re thinking’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 73).
Furthermore, Millie is oblivious of the impending war and defends her TV obsession to her husband. ‘My family is people. They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh! And the colours!’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 83). We depend on our TV shows just as much as Millie depends on The Family and live telecasts. According to Nielsen data (Business Insider 2017) Game of Thrones, Season 7 finale set a ratings record of 16.5 million viewers. These characters are family – we know them, we love them, we never want them to die—and if they do, they must be resurrected.
And the colours … Ultra HD 4K TV manufactures now pride themselves on ‘colour realism’. The word realistic has become a marketing pitch. With each generation device (smart-TV, smartphone, tablet) we expect X-times more pixels … X-times more ‘reality’.
Another theme Bradbury raises is one of control. In such a digitally dependent society, where more than 2 billion people own smartphones, with the average user checking their phone up to 85 times a day … who has control: the device or the user? (Andrews, et al. 2015).
Recent studies suggest young people are at risk of obsessive-like behaviours and have a lack of impulse control, often experiencing severe anxiety if they’re unable to access their smartphone. Sociologist Hugh Mackay defines this as ‘social fragmentation’. ‘We are a society in the grip of epidemics of anxiety, obesity and depression — 20% of Australians experience some form of mental illness’ (The Conversation 2017, para 8).
In the novel, the character Faber admits that books aren’t real, but they do offer us the element of control, whereas digital media devices do not. ‘You can shut them, say “hold on a moment”. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlour? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 166).
Video games have become so real that to many gamers, they are ‘the truth’ – and as virtual reality looms, we might stop to consider if it will one day become homologous with the real world around us. Will people prefer to strap on their VR goggles than actually visit Paris; will the virtual world trump the real one? And if so, will we have the power to free ourselves from its claws? ‘You’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall televisor. Why? The televisor is real, it is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think … your mind hasn’t time to protest’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 94).
And yet, the writer hints at a way out of the cycle. His message is clear: all things must return to reality, to their natural order, as the character Faber points out: ‘Somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 165).
More importantly, Bradbury asks us to look at our true selves: ‘Build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors … and take a long look in them’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 164). And this metaphorical mirror serves a thematic purpose throughout the novel as McGiveron suggests: ‘Through the self-examination it makes possible can people recognise their own shortcomings’ (McGiveron, Rafeeq O. 2010).
Comparatively, our society is being reconditioned through social media – perhaps the most distorted mirror of all. ‘The increasing reliance on, and interaction with, a digital interface … is rewriting our brains’ (Jalt 2013). We see ourselves (and others) through a mirror every time we post a photo on Instagram or browse a Facebook profile. We project an image of consistent fabrication – perpetuated by the capitalist motives of corporations, thriving on the exploitation of private data and monitoring consumer habits. ‘Users and their data become commodities, characterised by alienation (users do not own the platform, the contents or the profits)’ (Bekken, Jon 2017).
Moreover, Bradbury clearly acknowledges the dangers of digital distraction: ‘You don’t have to burn books … if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non-learners …’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953 [Afterword] p. 183).
At the same time, social media is used as a protest tool. A tweet is now synonymous with having a ‘voice’, and Twitter has allowed movements such as #metoo to exist; topics (such as sexual harassment, pay equality and other civil rights movements) have become buzzwords that quickly gain traction.
In the novel, Captain Beatty is in denial of his own truth – he reads books, memorises quotes and even resents the system he’s a part of, and yet his single-mindedness prevents him from joining Montag and the ‘book people’ in their plight—nonetheless, Beatty is inadvertently rebelling. ‘Reading literature is presented as a protest, a revolutionary act or even a way of life’ (Rutten, Kris 2011).
Fahrenheit 451 asks us to look at society and consider the dangers we may face as we allow technology to consume our lives. And as Sunjoo Lee points out: it is a book that ‘… seeks to rescue the senses as a vital organ for thinking’ (Lee, Sunjoo 2014).
Ultimately, it is a novel that forces us to consider the virtues of creation and the temptations of erasing and replacing. Perhaps it is fire that has always been society’s pandora’s box, as Beatty points out: ‘… the one thing man wanted to invent but never did … if you let it go on, it’d burn our entire lifetimes out … it’s real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p.138). We have stolen fire from the Gods and perhaps we are flying a little too close to the sun. But Bradbury does offer hope – we must stay informed. ‘All is not lost. There is time … if we truly test teachers, students and parents … if we make everyone responsible for quality’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953 [Afterword] p. 184).
Bradbury, Ray 1953, Fahrenheit 451, Harper Collins, London
Rutten, Kris; Soetaert, Ronald; and Vandermeersche, Geert. “Science Fiction and a Rhetorical Analysis of the ‘Literature Myth’.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 13.1 (2011): <https://doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.1709>
Sunjoo Lee (2014) To Be Shocked to Life Again: Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451, The Explicator, 72:2, 142-145, DOI: 10.1080/00144940.2014.905433
Rafeeq O. McGiveron (2010) “To Build a Mirror Factory”: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 39:3, 282-287, DOI: 10.1080/00111619809599536
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