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.