When Fiction Foresees the Future
Fahrenheit 451 is widely regarded as one of the great American novels and a masterpiece of literary science-fiction. Since its publication in 1954, the novel—considered controversial by some—has become one of the most widely taught books in the American public education system. But a science-fiction novel written nearly 60 years ago must have lost much of its relevancy. After all, technology has advanced so much in the past ten years, that expecting a prediction made half a century ago to be accurate would be ludicrous.
And yet, Ray Bradbury wrote of a world that bears striking resemblance to contemporary society. In the novel, literacy is in decline and the public no longer reads literature widely. Instead, people live in a culture obsessed with mass media and audio-visual entertainment. Television screens cover entire walls, and men and women often spend more time interacting with virtual people than those around them. Sound familiar?
Although Fahrenheit 451 is mostly remembered for its lessons on state censorship and the dramatic imagery of “firemen” starting fires in order to burn books, Bradbury wanted to pass along another lesson to his readers. He wanted to warn the public about the dangers of becoming obsessed with technology and mass media.
The protagonist of Fahrenheit 451 is Guy Montag, a fireman who gradually comes to realize the importance of the books it is his job to destroy. Just as interesting is Guy’s wife Millie, who spends her days in a “parlour” in which three walls are covered by “wall TVs” which display characters whom Millie is able to interact with. Millie’s dream is for Guy to buy her a fourth TV so that she can be completely immersed in her fantasy world. When Millie isn’t in her parlour, she keeps tiny cones in her ears that play music from the radio. She even listens to them when goes to sleep.
Today, we call the “tiny cones” earbuds or headphones, and the “wall TVs” are known as flat-screen televisions. We are able to interact with our devices to an even greater degree than Guy’s wife could with hers. Not only do we have television programming, but video games are becoming more and more interactive and realistic. In many games, players can interact and talk with characters and choose responses, just as Millie does with the fake people on her screens. We can listen to music, browse the web, and purchase whatever we want—all from one device.
Later in the book, Professor Faber, who regrets the repressed society in which he lives, shows Montag his solution to the parlour televisions. As the book describes, “[Faber] took Montag quickly into the bedroom and lifted a picture frame aside, revealing a television screen the size of a postal card."
Faber believes that the screen’s diminutive size will allow him to be in control of it because he can blot it out with the palm of his hand if need be. However, small, portable devices like tablets, laptops, and phones allow mass media to be accessed anywhere, anytime, taking up even more of the public’s attention than the wall TVs in Fahrenheit 451 ever could.
The technologies that Bradbury predicted and the behaviors that result from their use are no longer science-fiction; in many cases, they have become reality. Bradbury stresses that education is the key to combat the problems he describes in his book, such as social isolation and apathy. That’s why programs like The Big Read, which encourages literary reading in America, are so vitally important in today’s society. Early encouragement in reading gives students the ability to not only read and write, but to comprehend the world around them, to think critically, and to take action based on those thoughts. Like Guy Montag, anyone who reads is encouraged to think about the world they live in, and is awakened to the possibilities of how it could change.