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.
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 are now in influential positions in America recall Fahrenheit 451 from their youth. 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 when the book was written.