What happens when we disregard the line?
One of the most memorable motifs found in Fahrenheit 451 is paradoxical phrases. In Bradbury’s vision of the future, there are big-screen (wall-spanning, actually) televisions, wireless earphones, and smart devices such as police-like drones and kitchen toasters that butter your toast. “The Mechanical Hound” as Bradbury calls the drone, is described as having “slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live.” The bedroom of protagonist Guy Montag and his wife Mildred is described as “not empty” and yet, even with Mildred asleep in that room, “the room was indeed empty.”
Another rhetorical motif that Bradbury employs is nature descriptions for the technology found in the book. In particular, his descriptions of the earphones that people (especially Mildred) constantly plug into and allow endless streaming of sound. Here are just a few examples of Bradbury describing the earphones: “The little mosquito-delicate dancing hum in the air, the electrical murmer of a hidden wasp snug in its special pink warm nest,” “the little seashells…and an electronic ocean of sound,” “the thimble wasps in her tamped-shut ears,” and “electronic bees that were humming the hour away.”
Through these motifs, Bradbury is suggesting that perhaps our future society, with its rapid advancement of technology, won’t be able to separate man from machine or machine from man. That the natural world will be replaced with something that feels natural but is not. And, according to Bradbury, this could greatly threaten what it means to be human–as we once knew it.
Look around. It’s not difficult to argue that people are already forgetting this difference– or, perhaps more alarming, that people are dismissing the importance of preserving this difference. Consider how fast technology has advanced. The line between man and machine is on course to eventually become indecipherable. And at a cost.
The line between man and machine is on course to eventually become indecipherable. And at a cost.
In Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book Thank You for Being Late, he discusses three major factors influencing our world today: technology, globalization, and climate change. Deep in his section on technology, Friedman zeroes in on cognitive systems (such as Alexa and Siri):
Indeed, every day we read about how artificial intelligence is being inserted into more and more machines, making them more supple, intuitive, human-like, and accessible with one touch, one gesture, or one voice command. Soon everyone who wants will have a personal intelligent assistant…This is not science fiction. This is happening today. (p. 110)
Friedman is right about the reality of artificial intelligence. It is happening today. However, one could argue with his claim that “everyone who wants will have a personal intelligent assistant.” The word “want” is misleading. It assumes there is a choice; but the nature of technology always involves taking convenience and choice and turning it into necessity. Consider smartphones and QR codes. Friedman mentions how China has become a “cash-less” society thanks to QR codes. He says, “My Chinese friends told me they don’t carry purses or wallets anymore, only a mobile phone, which they use for everything–including the purchase of vegetables from street vendors” (p. 132).
The word “want” is misleading. It assumes there is a choice; but the nature of technology always involves taking convenience and choice and turning it into necessity.
It’s not a stretch to say that America and other leading countries have similar QR ambitions. The more that a smartphone can do in relation to everyday functions and demands in society, the more society will evolve and rely on smartphones. Convenience becomes necessity. If smartphones (and other smart devices) become a necessity, then by default, we are asking everyone within society to be constantly connected. Therein lies the foundation of Bradbury’s concern: the inability to separate man from machine.
Still not convinced that constant connection between man and machine is detrimental to the indigenous human experience? (And, by indigenous, we mean before the internet colonized reality and claimed it virtual…) Out of Friedman’s point below, in which he proves how much people are already attached to their phones, is Bradbury’s point:
These digital rivers now coursing around the globe, tying everyone more closely together, are only going to become richer and faster as more people connect to the supernova with mobile devices…To drill down, BCG commissioned a poll that asked people in the Unites States, Germany, South Korea, Brazil, China, and India this headline question: ‘Which of the following things would you give up for a year rather than give up personal use of your mobile phone?’ Dining out? Sixty-four percent said they would give it up. Having a pet? Fifty-one percent said they would give that up. Going on vacation? Fifty percent. One day off a week? Fifty-one percent. Seeing friends in person–some forty-five percent were ready to let that go. Then they really got serious and asked: What would you give up for a year first–your mobile phone or sex? Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they would give up sex for a year rather than give up their mobile phone! (p.129)
Such percentages are concerning as they suggest (particularly the last two) that people are willing to give up an aspect of human relationships that once seemed to be ingrained in the human experience: real human contact. In Bradbury’s novel, his character Clarisse McClellan (who we could say is equivalent to today’s less connected flip-phone user, if you will) does the old “dandelion test” to Montag, in which she playfully rubs his chin with the flower. If the flower leaves behind any yellow remnants, then it would mean Montag is in love (presumably with his wife Mildred). However, under Montag’s chin there is nothing, and he is quickly taken back: “‘I am, very much in love!’ He tried to conjure up a face to fit the words, but there was no face” (p. 22). Later, Montag would reflect on this more after his wife’s third failed suicide attempt (see our post “Unhappiness in Happy Places” for more on today’s relationship between social media and happiness):
And he remembered thinking then that if she died, he was certain he wouldn’t cry. For it would be the dying of an unknown, a street face, a newspaper image, and it was suddenly so very wrong that he had begun to cry, not at death but at the thought of not crying at death, a silly empty man near a silly empty woman…
How do you get so empty? he wondered. Who takes it out of you? And that awful flower the other day, the dandelion! It had summed up everything, hadn’t it? “What a shame! You’re not in love with anyone!” And why not?
Well wasn’t there a wall [a wall-spanning television] between him and Mildred, when you came down to it? … No matter when he came in, the walls were always talking to Mildred. (p. 44)
Perhaps we should consider taking a sort of “dandelion test” as a means of assessing our current connections with the ones we claim to love, and the things we claim to enjoy, and what it is we’re really willing to give up.
- A claim is made in this post that “The line between man and machine is on course to eventually become indecipherable. And at a cost.” Consider how technology has changed the way we spend our time, how we communicate with friends and family, how we cultivate relationships and experiences. How has technology improved some of these areas? How might technology be costing us our time, our relationships, and our experiences?
- Think of some movies that have been based on AI (artificial intelligence). What were some of the themes or caveats in the films? Do you think the films are exaggerations of the future or are they an accurate prediction of our current course?
- We spoke of the indigenous human experience with the idea that the internet is rapidly colonizing reality and claiming it virtual. What is it about the pre-internet experience that’s worth preserving? How do we go about it? (And, no, your answer doesn’t have to include getting rid of your smart phone… or going off the grid and moving to Alaska.)
Bradbury, R. (1953) Fahrenheit 451 (50th anniversary ed.). New York: Del Ray Books.
Friedman, T.L. (2016) Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (2nd ed.). New York: Picador.