Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Welcome to the Future

Let me begin with a little nugget of personal biography:

I spent some of my formative years among people who took prophecies about the end times and all that very seriously.

So when I say that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is a prophetic book, I do not mean that it necessarily provides an alarmingly spot on prediction of some future apocalypse (though, in a way, it does). Being prophetic is not so much a matter of accurately predicting future events. After all, neither the use of fire brigades to burn books nor the nuclear war that seemed so immanent when the book was published in 1951 has actually come to pass. Rather, Bradbury's book is prophetic because it does what real prophets have always done: provide a bluntly honest picture of difficult truths we would prefer to ignore.

For example, in Bradbury's futuristic world, people have devices ("Seashells") that they can put in their ears and tune out the world around them: "Wasn't there an old joke about the wife who talked so much on the telephone that her desperate husband ran out to the nearest store and telephoned her to ask what was for dinner? Well the, why didn't he buy himself an audio-Seashell broadcasting station and talk to his wife late at night, murmur, whisper, shout, scream, yell? But what would he whisper? What would he yell? What could he say?" (42).

Or, for those who wanted another, more social form of distraction, Bradbury's vision of the future offers a kind of ultimate large-screen (full-wall) television combined with a Facebook-like virtual relationship. People could literally play roles in the drama of the lives of others (script and all).

Now, in all likelihood, firefighters are not going to show up at your door this evening and demand your copy of Harry Potter in order to burn it. And this is actually Bradbury's point. Although his novel is commonly regarded as a critique of censorship (understandably what with the book burning fire brigades and all), in reality its message is much more profound: "It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals" (58). People's right to free access to information was not forcably taken; it was lost because no one cared.

At some point in your life, you will probably be assigned to read this book, so read it, if for no other reason, than because you must. If not, read it becasue it is a great book, or becasue you are bored, or because you can't get on facebook. Whatever your reason, read it, and find yourself in this distubingly accurate sixty-year-old portrait of ourselves.

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