Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, is Ray Bradbury’s famous depiction of a totalitarian future, where firemen, put out of work by flameproofed houses, are reassigned by a repressive government to the task of burning books. Books with their tendency to make people think and question, are seen as a threat. They are destroyed while people get on with consuming a diet of what appears to be endless soap opera playing on wall-sized television screens.
After first reading it in paperback at school, I thought I’d have a look at Fahrenheit 451 again to see how it was doing in the age of the Kindle. My reluctant conclusion is, not well, certainly in the predictive sense. Bradbury imagined a future where culture becomes monolithic, with everyone consuming the same lowest common denominator TV drivel. In reality, culture is much more fragmented than it was. Rather than a tool of uniformity as portrayed in Fahrenheit 451, information technology increasingly allows people to pick and choose. Television viewing with its fixed schedules and limited channels has fallen steadily – a 10% drop in the UK between 2012 and 2016, according to the Reuters Institute. People are increasingly finding their own cultural niche, via all kinds of on-demand services, video streaming and social media. This has caused its own problems, which are the opposite of the problems Bradbury envisaged. America, for example, where Fahrenheit 451 is set, has seen increased polarisation between people holding opposing political beliefs. During his time as President, Barack Obama noted that the choices offered by modern media allowed people to more easily shut away things that challenged a particular world view. He encouraged people to try and find a way outside their bubbles.
So the book’s look into the future has not exactly played out. Let’s also think about the way it views the past.
To accept the premise of Fahrenheit 451, you also have to accept the pompous nineteenth century view that the tastes of the mass of people, will drag down the achievements of the intellectual elite. The reality is there is no fixed distinction between high and low culture. Imagine the sixteenth century football crowd atmosphere of the Globe Theatre in raffish Southwark, during an exuberant performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The bankers on the north side of the Thames would be looking down their noses at such carry on. Neither the people in Shakespeare’s audience, nor the bankers on the smart side of London Bridge, would have imagined the reverence that Shakespeare would one day enjoy. Ray Bradbury himself ran into this irony during his unsuccessful searches for the work of H.G. Wells in the local libraries of his youth. He could not find those books because at that time they were not considered sufficiently literary.
So reading the Kindle edition of Fahrenheit 451 has been an odd experience. Reading a book about the malign effects of technology on books, using technology which makes it easier to read books, was disconcerting. Having a think afterwards, it seems to me that maybe lots of people who now work for internet companies also half remember Fahrenheit 451 from their youth, because these days governments and internet companies do not seem to get on. A lot of them operate in a country so programmed to fear totalitarian government that the population has free access to guns which they use to shoot each other regularly. Those left alive vote incompetent people into government who don’t actually believe in government, since their version of totalitarism is personal rather than institutional. In Bradbury’s book, we only learn the President’s name, but he is a faceless prescence. There is no sense that institutions can actually defend us from the vagaries of individuals. Perhaps once-young fifty somethings who run things should read Fahrenheit 451 again, just to remind themselves how different the real problems we face are from the ones we thought we would have to face fifty years ago.