Best futurists ever: How Ray Bradbury’s Fahnrenheit 451 foretold the social tensions and technology of today
By Jenna Owsianik
The chilling censorship of the McCarthy era weighed heavy upon Ray Bradbury’s mind as he wrote Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel about a future in which reading is illegal and firemen burn the remaining outlawed books.
While it didn’t become an instant classic when first published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 has since grown into a cultural touchstone thanks to its insight on the significance of recorded knowledge and freedom of expression in a democratic society.
Yet Bradbury’s influential writing is remarkable for another reason. The American author was not only attuned to the dangers presented by the increasingly repressive political climate of his day. His description of future inventions inside Fahrenheit 451’s fictional world reveals a prescience regarding technological innovation.
Below are some of Ray Bradbury’s predictions on technology and media from one of his most famous stories, Fahrenheit 451.
Scent-tracking mechanical Hound
Known as the “mechanical Hound,” this robotic dog with eight legs helps the firemen track and kill dissidents harboring books. Its sensitive nose “can remember and identify 10,000 odor indexes on 10,000 men without resetting.”
In June 2018, researchers from Kyushu University in Japan announced they had developed their own robotic bloodhound capable of tracking ground scents. Yet unlike the one in Fahrenheit 451, it doesn’t destroy or harm people with poisonous fangs.
Bradbury gives a frightening description of his imagined beast when it is first mentioned in Fahrenheit 451:
“The mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the fire house. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and copper and the steel of the faintly trembling beast. Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubber padded paws.
Nights when things got dull, which was every night, the men slid down the brass poles, and set the ticking combinations of the olfactory system of the hound and let loose rats in the fire house areaway. Three seconds later the game was done, the rat caught half across the areaway, gripped in gentle paws while a four-inch hollow steel needle plunged down from the proboscis of the hound to inject massive jolts of morphine or procaine.”
Portable audio and radio rose to popularity in the 1980s after the release of the Walkman. Although users of early cassette and CD players used wired headphones and earbuds for listening, today wireless earbuds using Bluetooth technology are the new trend.
Tech giant Apple has also helped push them on the public, removing the headphone jack from its iPhones and launching its AirPod wireless earbuds in 2016.
Bradbury envisioned a similar technological device he called “Seashells.” The protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, a fireman named Guy Montag, offers a description of these “thimble radios” while imaging his wife Mildred lying in bed:
“And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.”
These earbuds are again mentioned when Montag finds his wife waiting for her breakfast:
“Mildred watched the toast delivered to her plate. She had both ears plugged with electronic bees that were humming the hour away.”
It wasn’t until the late 2000s that flat-screen televisions overthrew bulky TV sets equipped with cathode ray tubes. However, decades earlier in Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury had presented readers with his concept of TV parlors that displayed moving images on walls.
Here is an excerpt in which Mildred speaks to her husband about her flat-screen TVs, including their interactive function:
“Well, this is a play comes on the wall-to-wall circuit in ten minutes. They mailed me my part this morning. I sent in some box-tops. They write the script with one part missing. It’s a new idea. The home-maker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines… It’ll be even more fun when we can afford to have the fourth wall installed. How long you figure before we save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in? It’s only two thousand dollars.”
In the dystopian future of Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag rides an air-propelled train.
The Hyperloop concept, which received public support from tech magnate Elon Musk in 2012, is perhaps the most well-known and topical example of a such a project. Yet the proposed transportation system is still in the development phase. Some critics also question whether the technology would be practical.
A different air-propelled public transit system does, however, exist in our reality. In 1989, the Brazilian company Aeromovel first installed an atmospheric railway system, which uses air pressure to move train cars, in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“He walked out of the fire station and along the midnight street toward the subway where the silent air-propelled train slid soundlessly down its lubricated flue in the earth and let him out with a great puff of warm air onto the cream tiled escalator rising to the suburb.
Whistling, he let the escalator waft him into the still night air. He walked toward the corner, thinking little at all about nothing in particular. Before he reached the corner, however, he slowed as if a wind had sprung up from nowhere, as if someone had called his name.”
The danger of media as spectacle
Fahrenheit 451 shot to the top of bestsellers’ lists following the 2016 U.S. Presidential election that elevated Donald Trump to the role of Commander in Chief. Dubbed the “reality TV president,” Trump ran an unprecedented campaign that revealed an astute understanding of how to create and harness the spectacle of the media to promote his personal aims.
In fact, some critics said Trump hijacked conversations on important political issues and steered criticism away from himself by making distasteful personal attacks against rivals and holding choreographed rallies.
The novel’s renewed popularity may in large part be due to its warnings about the harms of such sensationalist media tactics as well as the increasingly polarized media climate separating the right and the left.
Montag laments how the cacophony of the TV parlors is overtaking the voice of everyday people:
“Nobody listens anymore. I can’t talk to the walls because they’re yelling at me, I can’t talk to my wife; she listens to the walls. I just want someone to hear what I have to say and maybe if I talk long enough it will make sense.”
In the next two quotes, fellow rebel and former professor named Faber describes the power of the media to distract the public and deter nuanced, critical thought:
“The average TV commercial of sixty seconds has one hundred and twenty half-second clips in it, or one-third of a second. We bombard people with sensation. That substitutes for thinking.”
“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus every now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels any more. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily. Can you dance faster than the White Clown, shout louder than ‘Mr. Gimmick’ and the parlour ‘families’? If you can, you’ll win your way, Montag. In any event, you’re a fool. People are having fun.”
The rise of alternative facts and fake news
Another warning from Bradbury is how sensationalist media may not simply hide the truth, but distort it.
In the Trump era we’ve witnessed the rise of fake news, a term that’s been used to describe both false news stories and, more troublingly, accurate news items that a person or group may find unflattering or inconvenient to their political narratives.
U.S. Counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, also introduced the phrase “alternative facts” into the political lexicon in 2017 when defending the spurious claim that Trump’s inaugural ceremony drew a larger audience than any previous presidential inauguration.
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury cautions against the rise of media manipulation and the downfall of truth.
After Montag tells Faber that his wife says “books aren’t real,” Faber responds by saying:
“Thank God for that. You can shut them, say, ‘Hold on a moment.’ You play God to it. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlor? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth. Books can be beaten down with reason. But with all my knowledge and skepticism, I have never been able to argue with a one-hundred-piece symphony orchestra, full colour, three dimensions, and I being in and part of those incredible parlors.”
Captain Beatty also explains the use of such manipulation tactics to promote a particular political agenda:
“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. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”
The rise of the anti-intellectual and white nationalist
Populism helped usher in the Trump era, as so-called average, everyday Americans became increasingly distrustful of the political and intellectual elite that had dominated previous presidential candidacies.
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury portrayed a public that praised athletics over academic pursuits and a world in which “the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”
While the dystopian novel doesn’t address racism specifically, the ideology of the fictional future favors homogeneity and the erasure of difference. In our reality, the rise of populism in America has coincided with a resurgence of white nationalism and a traditionalist view of what it means to be an American.
In the America of Fahrenheit 451, Captain Beatty utters worrying language that echoes sentiments of this worldview as well as the danger reading poses to maintaining such a restrictive culture:
“We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”
These are only some of the accurate predictions and prescient warnings found in Ray Bradbury’s writing.
Keep following us as we’ll come back and re-examine more of his work and the uncanny speculations he explores.
Image source: MDCarchives