Bradbury was wrong

In 1953 Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451. As you may know in this book all the books on earth are burned and everyone stays home every night watching TV, that’s controlled by the State. That never really happened. We’ll just accept that it is a metaphor, but, even as a metaphor it made some mistakes. It has some other more unpleasant aspects also, which I’ll touch on at the very end.

Though it has become about censorship, it was originally about the corrosive effects of Television, or more generally Mass Media, and, lets not forget, the fear that small minority groups would start trying to have books destroyed that they felt were dangerous to them. The Jews would destroy Shylock, the Blacks would eliminate Nigger Jim, etc, etc. This would lead to more and more books being destroyed as people crawled ever more tightly into their little glowing boxes of ignorance and apathy. Their eyes blindfolded by wall size TVs, their ears covered by personal loudspeakers. Sound Familiar? He postulated a tyrannical government exploiting these technologies to control the people. It’s sort of close to Orwell’s 1984 in that sense. Bradbury’s twist was that the people did it to themselves. The tyranny being as much a result of the technology as it’s cause. My issues? I never did get how books fit into this.  It was always a jump that was just to big for me. Also, I was never sure this wasn’t just a new version of the same old thing. Everyone just hiding away like that just never seemed natural to me. People don’t live that way or use technologies that way.

I think Bradbury made three major mistakes. He misunderstood how people really use technology. He ignored that books and TV share more in common then they have differences, and he ignored women. Okay, okay, I can hear all those heads scratching. A SciFi master not understanding technology? Didn’t he just call x, y, and z technology correctly? That’s turning him into the circus mentalist I discuss here. It’s not that wall size TVs don’t exist, it’s that they don’t conflict with books, and they haven’t sucked the soul out of humanity.

In dealing with technology Bradbury was very conservative. Old technologies that he knew were fine, but new ones were treated with suspicion. He was aware of the double edged sword that all technologies are by they’re nature. He never rejected progress, but I don’t think he ever took the trouble to learn and understand how things really worked. The theme that runs through his books is always the joy and light of the past and a dark anxiety about the future. One thing he didn’t get is that people assimilate technologies. Is anyone reading this really having to think about buttons? Not the ones on your keyboard, the ones on your shirt. Speaking (or writing) about your shirt, how about cloth? Cloth making is a huge technology. We can move ahead, how about eye glasses? In door plumbing? Any technology that existed when he was a child was fine, they were taken for granted, things that came after were a problem.

In Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury was worried that information would become disjointed factoids without the context provided by books. The error: information was always a series of disjointed factoids. Just because information is presented using a particular medium doesn’t provide any assurance of the quality or context of that information. Television wasn’t going to do anything new, the long history of yellow journalism shows the extent of manipulation possible with out TV. Literature itself is full of misinformation and propaganda. Shakespeare toadied up to the Tudors like no ones business.

In 1953 what books and TVs had in common is that they were both tightly controlled by a small group of gatekeepers. Whether producers or publishers, both chose what you did and didn’t see in the media channel they controlled. This reveals that, books, like TVs, aren’t  individual technologies, they are products made of dozens of technologies. They are also the ends of distribution channels. A book, just the thing you hold in your hand, is made of four basic separate technologies: paper, ink, writing, bookbinding. Each of these can and does exist separately from the others. You can write on anything, not just paper, and not just using ink. All of the technologies in TVs are also used separately. TVs are some sort of display device (CRT or Plasma for example), an antenna and a tuner. The real difference is that the book is the means of transmission of information, while the TV displays information that is being sent from somewhere else. A single TV signal can be seen by any TV that can receive it, while books are difficult for even two people to read at the same time. What Bradbury didn’t account for was that the once assembled the parts of the TV would be split again. The display would mutate into computer screens and tablets. The antennas and tuners would shrink to become our wireless world. TVs themselves would continue, but the information channel (not Tv channel) control that made him so worried (you would only think what the network told you you could think) has faded. TVs now accept inputs from many sources from Game Consoles to Cable boxes to the internet via things like Apple TV

Next time, more Bradbury and how women fit into this. A hint: Playboy, and no pictures, just reading.

Was Bradbury always right?

It’s become a ritual to stand around and gawp at the great Science Fiction prognosticators. This both acknowledges their contributions and at the same time trivializes them as artists. Science Fiction authors are judged by their ability to guess the future of technology. The more accurate the guess the better. Like carnival mentalists who can guess your name (you’re often wearing it), or tell you that you mother’s favorite color is blue (it’s only the most common one). This strips the stories of anything else they might be. Is Blade Runner really only about cloning technology?

In order to turn this on its head I’d like to look at some of the things that Bradbury got wrong, why they were wrong, and what we can learn from his mistakes. I’m not going to list the guesses he missed, they may still come to be. The US Army is testing a Mechanical Hound right now. A new larger rover will be on Mars in a little over a month. Wall size TVs are getting common. Then how was he wrong? I want to avoid the discussion of some specific technology, but instead discuss how Bradbury thought about how we and technology interact.

I’ve become known as a tech geek, but most of my training and schooling is in the humanities. Anthropology is called a science, and Biological Anthropology meets a lot of those criteria, but after that — Naaah. Classical Archaeology has a huge amount of Art History. It assumes that a culture explains itself to itself through art; and that we, as fellow humans, can listen in on the conversation by studying the art. This isn’t just looking at what is represented, but by the choices of media and the constraints that assumptions make. I’ll make an example: Egyptian Statuary (all images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org). What ideas, or mistakes, ruled the conventions that defined Egyptian art (or at least a small subset of them).

What we are looking at is a wooden statue about 8 inches tall, and a 20 inch high statue of Hathor. The point? Egyptian art doesn’t really have a 3/4 view. It’s meant to be viewed either from the front, or full profile. The 3/4 becomes awkward, that moment when we pass from one place to another, one truth to another, seeing parts of both but the entirety of neither. The art becomes fully resolved again as we complete our change of view. Was this some sort of technical limitation? Did the Egyptians simply not know how to make art fully in the round?

Above are images of a large statue of Hatshepsut, from her Mortuary Temple at Deir al Behari, most likely part of an outside walkway; and a small wooden female statuette, found by Howard Carter and dated to the Dynasty prior. It is most likely a household object. It could be anything from a ritual object to a toy. Both Hatshepsut and the small wooden female figure show more effective 3/4 views. Though neither reaches what was done in Greek art of the classical period (about 800 years later), neither are they accidents; both are what their creators set out to make. The head and face of Hatshepsut are far more effective then the body. The wooden female figure is very different then the others. It is schematic, without the extreme idealization of the others. Both the statue of Hatshepsut and the wooden female figure existed in places that weren’t at right angles. This shows that the artists and artisans of  Egypt were up to tackling creations that were out of the norms of right angles that they were used to. And, that the norms weren’t technical limitations, they were choices. The question is why did they choose what they did. Or, why did they make the mistakes that they did?

The standard answer, and one I agree with, is that the Egyptians lived in a square world. This, to a smaller extent, means that they thought of the universe as a square, but more, that they built a square world for themselves to live in. Their granaries are often round and domed, so they knew how to make round buildings. They could make round pillars of any size that amused them, so they understood the geometry of circles. But, they lived in square places. Places full of straight lines and right angles. Think of the Great Temple of Karnak — It’s linear in its design. The village of the workers for the Tombs of the Valley of the Kings was also a rectangle. This means, when an artist was making something, he looked at it from one side, then walked around and looked at it from the other side. You didn’t stop at the corner, any more then you wanted to sit at the corner of a table, or the corner of the room. It just isn’t a good place to sit, either you have no room and are banging elbows with your neighboors, or have to share what room there is with dust bunnies. A preference to stay out of the corners led to mistakes in the art.

I’ll join Ray Bradbury in pooh-poohing the political correctness of saying that artistic and cultural choices can’t be wrong. In this context it provides an excellent lens for critical thinking, and a means for us to break out of our own assumptions. By looking at the mistake of the poorly done 3/4 view we are forced to consider how the Egyptians saw themselves and saw their world.

So, what about Ray Bradbury? What assumptions led him to make mistakes in his art that same way that the Egyptians made a mistake in their 3/4 view statues. The mistakes I will look at occur in two stories. The Toynbee Convector and Fahrenheit 451.

More Later …