Is technology about to accomplish what Ray Bradbury imagined in his novel Fahrenheit 451?
Bradbury passed away in June at the age of 91, and in a few months it will be 60 years since the influential science fiction writer first published his anti-censorship saga about fire men who rather than putting out fires set books ablaze. The story imagines a dystopian future in which the citizenry does not read (it's forbidden), people's lives are dominated by large, flat-panel TVs and families are mesmerized by prescription drugs and reality TV-like shows that have no bearing on reality.
It may seem quaint today, but in the 1950s such Bradbury stories seemed rebellious, even seditious, prompting the government to open an investigation into the writer. FBI documents revealed recently noted that The Martian Chronicles made Bradbury a household name and that, according to sources, "The stories were connected by the repeated theme that earthmen are despoilers and not developers." Dangerous stuff that science fiction.
Certainly, there are technologies and trends today that seem disturbingly analogous to those of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
While HDTVs are common in living rooms today, the displays are about to get even sharper and larger. Earlier this month Sony revealed its first so-called 4K set. It can display roughly four times the number of pixels as today's HDTVs, making these new TVs hypnotically realistic. LG and Toshiba have also unveiled 4K sets, each of which is a whopping 84-inches (measured diagonally). One can't help feeling that these monster displays are just the sort of thing that would obsess the hopeless, TV-addicted wife of Bradbury's protagonist (the fire man Montag) in Fahrenheit 451.
Of course, these sets are expensive, over $20,000, and there's no programming available for them yet. Besides, would you really want to see Snooki in 4K?
The other technology trend that people have fretted about is the end of printed books. First bookstores closed in favor of online outlets. Now printed books are succumbing to e-books. Last year marked a milestone when Amazon revealed that it now sells more e-books than hardcover and paperback books--combined. This month the trend spread to the U.K. where the company sold 14 percent more e-books than printed books.
(Yes, Fahrenheit 451 is available in a Kindle edition, in case you were wondering, and ironically there's even a Cliff Notes version.)
The extinction of magazines and newspapers also seems like a foregone conclusion. Even in academia, print is on the outs. The University of Delaware notes that of the approximately 42,000 journals it makes available to students and faculty, 86 percent are now in electronic form only.
The hype surrounding new tablets and Apple's mini iPad due in October reflect that trend (hopefully Apple will choose a better name than "mini iPad"). It doesn't mean people are no longer reading, of course. Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos likes to repeat that e-reader and tablet owners actually buy more books, er, e-books. But the experience of e-books is different from that of printed books. Could that difference effect what we cull from books?
Certainly tablets are more distracting, and I often find myself skimming rather than reading. As several viewers and readers have pointed out to me, they prefer dedicated, monochrome e-readers to tablet computers. Email, games, and social media are too tempting and distracting on an iPad.
There are many other interesting and disturbing similarities between Bradbury's fantastical novel and today's culture: medical practices, anti-depressants, the lack of privacy and pervasive surveillance technologies all seem eerily prescient. Much of what the author imagined has already come to pass.
One ironic twist concerning the novel is that Fahrenheit 451 itself became the victim of censorship. Some 75 sections of the book were excised over the early years of its printing, eliminating "damns and hells" that might offend some readers (the passages were later reinstated).
One salient technology Bradbury didn't imagine in the 1950s was the growth of a global communications network similar to the Internet. The Web, with its relatively open access to information, has changed the way we share ideas. Hopefully, we'll continue to share Bradbury's evocative, brilliant writings as well--even if they are in e-book form.