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In MONTAG's Today’s Dystopia series, our writers explore the dystopian worlds of classic fiction, and see if our world has slipped closer to the fictional one since it was published. Is our cool new technology bringing us closer to a future we’re afraid of - or is it already here?
In MONTAG's third look at yesterday’s tomorrow’s dystopias today, we take a trip to what initially seems to be an utterly remote future with few parallels to our own.
Yet is the world that Ray Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451 – a controlling, authoritarian horror-show, occupied by puppet-humans for whom individual thought is, erm, unthinkable – actually so different to 2017? The technology we have today - VR headsets, social media, drones – all have clear parallels to technology that, in the book is used to shape a terrible future.
Upon publication in 1953, the New York Times described Fahrenheit 451’s vision of a near future as “frightening… an insane world, which bears many alarming resemblances to our own.” And that was in 1953, when the world was still slowly rebuilding itself from the devastating horror and stupidity of the Second World War.
*The original cover of Fahrenheit 451, via bookriot.com*
Fahrenheit 451 is also a shockingly slim book. It takes just over a hundred pages to fully describe both a brutally dictatorial world and the terrifyingly perverse logic that keeps its occupants in line, unquestioning, and removed from information that could change their world view.
Feasibly, you could read it in between breakfast and lunch and still have time to walk the dog and ponder whether, on reflection, it’s all still worth it.
Fahrenheit 451 is, famously, the temperature at which books burn.
The book's hero, Montag, is a fireman. Stirring stuff: except in this reality, a fireman's job involves rushing out to the homes of people who have been secretly hoarding books, and burning them down.
While fire is humanity’s oldest technology, the book also describes a coherent set of “future” tech which ensures docility and unwavering support for an invisible regime.
And seeing as much of the the book’s plausibility comes from the brutal effectiveness of technology, has 60-odd years of technological development brought us to a point where we can recognise the “future” in the present?
We’ve identified key themes of Fahrenheit 451 and marked how similar our world is to it. Spoilers ahoy, naturally - but then, if these "fictional" things have already happened, can they really be classed as spoilers?
Self-elective shielding from information - 3 firemen out of 5
The people in Fahrenheit 451 choose to keep away from books - partly through fear, partly though education (they are convinced that the content of books is an idiotic waste of time and space) and partly because they are absorbing so much easy pleasure from an array of technology.
Books have not suffered the same fate in our world - in 2016, 674 million new books were sold in the USA alone.
But just as the people in the book are not truly aware of the reasoning behind their disavowing of information that challenges their world view, today, we may not realise how carefully shielded we are online from views that challenge our own. Most of us now live in a bubble.
Social media and search engines algorithmically select information to show us based on what we want - creating a "Filter Bubble". The knock-on effect means that your existing views are hardened through confirmation bias: hardly good for the growth of tolerance and community.
If you're interested in poking around outside of your own algorithm, apps like Escape Your Bubble allow to you learn about the "other side."
The Mechanical Hound - 4 firemen out of 5
In Fahrenheit 451, the Mechanical Hound is an automated robot dog that can hunt people down and administer death via a poison syringe. The Hound lives at the fire station where Montag works, and sniffs him with undisguised suspicion. Montag is in perpetual fear of The Hound (and rightly so, as the book later reveals in its breathless final few pages.)
Which brings us neatly to robot dog that Boston Dynamics made. They call it “Spot,” and have put a fun flashing light on its bottom. You can push Spot around and it’ll jump back on its feet and carry on its merry way, as opposed to immediately trying to initiate painful death.
Spot seems useful and kind of cute until you consider that attaching the Mechanical Hound's death-bringing equipment to Spot would be a simple technological challenge.
Still, as long as Spot keeps tottering around at a nice sedate pace, we’ll be OK. Except that Boston Dynamics have built a dog-like robot that runs at 35 KPH.
Hope still exists, kind of: when Google bought Boston Dynamics they immediately cancelled the company’s military contracts. But now they want to sell – and call me a cynic, but I’ll bet that the first email from whoever buys the company is to ask the design team to attach a gun to poor old Spot.
A surprise nuclear attack - 2.5 firemen out of 5
In Montag’s world, no-one is really sure where the steady stream of bombers streaking through the sky are going, or who they are at war with right now, but nuclear weapons are used with impunity and without warning. For the citizens of Montag’s city, that’s OK - because it’s other people that get bombed, not them… right?
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, and Kim Jong-Un’s second-grade Bond villain posturing, we suddenly live in a world where a couple of unstable men with a point to prove have easier access to nuclear weapons than they do to, say, rational thought. Or to a nuanced understanding of what nuclear war would mean.
(Don, Kim, on the off-chance you’re reading this, SPOILER ALERT: it actually means that we all die; which means there’s no-one to read your tweets or watch your parades.)
All-consuming, immersive media - 4 firemen out of 5
In a world where the flow of information is strictly controlled, Montag’s wife, Mildred, is an information addict. She spends her days cheerfully joining in interactive soap operas, or discussing the gossip of the characters with her similarly dreamy friends. Her nights are spent with the “seashell” device in her ear, which feeds her stories, music and propaganda as she sleeps.
In a perpetual state of disconnected ennui, Mildred is so absorbed in her unreal-reality that she doesn’t even consider questioning it.
And hoo-boy, this is an easy comparison to draw with 2017. On a basic level, we have wonderful examples of the immersive technology that Bradbury describes: VR, AR, and bluetooth headsets like Apple’s Airpods are virtually identical devices.
But on a deeper level, it’s the concept of constant, immersive distraction that could be the most damaging outcome on today’s world.
It’s not the Kardashians’ fault – they didn’t choose to be born into wealth, or a world ready to follow every agonising minutiae of their lives. But their success and ubiquity (and that of the many “reality” shows like theirs) across every single media platform is a sign that people are more than willing to engage with fantasy over reality.
Today, if you want to pretend you are riding in an endless string of limousines with Kylie Jenner, you can just follower her on Snapchat, and make her your glamorous best friend who chats directly to you.
In not-unrelated news, the USA's top-rated reality TV star has just been voted President of the USA. Now that’s immersion.
Restriction of information and learning – 3.5 firemen out of 5
Montag’s crime is curiosity: it swells inside him despite his best attempts to bury it. When he can no longer hide it, his attempts to learn about the world change the world itself.
Restriction of information is nothing new: it happened before Ray Bradbury wrote the book, when books were ceremonially burnt in Nazi Germany, and it happens now in China, where the the internet is unceremoniously filtered by the government's "fire"-wall.
But the type of information-denial Montag is revulsed by is essentially misinformation: the people are first told, then convinced by, then articulate acolytes of, misinformation. They believe that the free thinking that accompanies reading books is bad. An endless avalanche of carefully-orchestrated misinformation induces fear – and nudges people towards embracing an ideology based on compliance and fear.
Today, it’s hard to tell exactly how history will view the election of Donald Trump (it’s hard to tell what he’s about to do tomorrow). But one thing is for sure: the impact of false stories on social media, the "leaking" of real emails mixed with fake ones, and the overwhelming onrush of unverifiable information had a dazzling effect on the behaviour of voters in the US election of 2016.
Meanwhile, intellectualism is under the cosh: people asking questions about human rights are belittled, while those who toe the line are rewarded with the praise that true patriots deserve. Fear and the compliance that follows are visible today.
So, how close are we to Fahrenheit 451's vision of the future?
Average score: 3.5 firemen out of 5
Hmm. I suppose that score could be worse, but it doesn't bode well. Fahrenheit 451 is a critique of the censorship of information, the chilling effects of a dictatorial government, the pliancy of the majority, and mass distraction through technology. Worryingly, all of those things have nudged their way into our, real, world - to an extent.
But the same innovative technology is also allowing a fight back against the creep of totalitarianism. A VR headset can also be used as an empathy machine, allowing us to walk in each other's shoes. A mechanical dog like Spot can be used to take vital medicine into disaster relief areas.
And social media apps on our iPhones can be used to introduce followers to new, peaceful ways of thinking. We just need to get the Kardashians on board.
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