Radical Ray

In the afterglow of Facebook’s IPO, perhaps it’s appropriate to look at how technology might just be deconstructing our humanity. Ray Bradbury is a sci-fi clairvoyant with a distaste for technology. He predicted technologies that we use today way before their time but spoke of them as dehumanizing tools aimed at human destruction.

Ray Bradbury loves human beings, and his hatred of the digital devices that divide us from us stems from their dehumanizing influence. Sure, they make us more passive and corrode our mental circuits. But of greatest importance, technology, amidst a million obvious benefits, has the overlooked drawback of making human life less human. Basement Internet porn addictions preventing relationships, video games supplanting sports as an afterschool activity, vicarious social life through reality television, and hundreds of Facebook friends without a single true friend are all manifestations of the way technology helps man dodge his fellow man.

Nothing appears so horribly dated to the present as the past’s vision of the future. But for the writer who gets the future more or less right, postdating stories is one way to keep them alive. Reality television, the Walkman, and virtual reality are among the technological developments Bradbury’s fiction anticipated. On the other hand, if his futuristic stories are to be interpreted as predictions, one could as easily say that he wrongly foresaw vacuum tubes delivering our dinners and robot murder becoming a capital crime.

Bradbury’s vision of the future germinated from what he saw in the postwar present: gadgeted distractions, screens separating humans from humans, televisions raising children, the vicarious life replacing life itself, leisure time becoming a waste of time. He sensed in which direction the world spun, and he didn’t want to go there. Alas, fromFahrenheit 451’s televised helicopter fugitive chase to the television-as-babysitter of “The Veldt” (1950), we live in the real world that his fiction had warned us about. Ray Bradbury is the atavist’s futurist.

Bradbury was writing in a class of literature looked at with disdain. He focused on short stories with sci-fi leanings that often left a metallic and bitter taste with his readers and contemporaries.

Wordsmiths were supposed to daydream of writing the Great American Novel. Bradbury preferred the more accessible short story. Pigeonholed as a writer of science fiction, a species of literature then ranking somewhere above soft-core pornography in respectability but below cowboy stories, Bradbury dabbled in the equally gauche genres of gothic horror, weird tales, and detective stories. His work inhabited the pulp ghetto of the newsstand, the bookstore’s mass-market paperback carousel, and such unfashionable stops on the radio dial as “Dimension X,” “Molle Mystery Theater,” and “Lights Out.” That was no way to get in with the in-crowd. Atop all that, he lived in Los Angeles; the literary guardians in Manhattan. They had attended tony schools; he had awarded himself a degree from the public library. For not the first time in his life, Ray Bradbury was uncool.

The clincher for literati acceptance, and superstardom among the literate public, came with Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the paperback juggernaut that became a favorite of high-school English teachers and librarians everywhere. A book about books is a novel way to get booklovers to love your novel, a well to which Bradbury would return often. His short-story plots include a parrot able to recite Hemingway’s lost last work, a mechanical facsimile of George Bernard Shaw keeping an astronaut company on his star trek, and a time traveler seeking to rescue the likes of Tolstoy and Melville from their miserable selves. In Fahrenheit 451, a remnant rescues books from their fiery fate by becoming books through memorization.

In the novel, people stopped reading before the state stopped them from reading. The predictable result was an ill-educated society fit for neither leisure nor the ballot. Women discuss voting for a candidate because of his handsome looks and abdicate the responsibilities of motherhood by dumping their children in front of television sets. The over-medicated, air-conditioned culture is awash in suicide, abortion, child neglect, and glassy-eyed passivity. Sound familiar?

Bradbury seems to be the futurist who knows us better than we know ourselves. But, that’s okay so long as I have the Internet to read articles such as this.


Revenge of the Nerd—The American Conservative

  • michaelferguson

    I think Bradbury often gets pigeonholed as being openly against technology, where it seems to me that it may not be that simple. Some stories, to be sure, advocate a less electronic life, but others (“There Will Come Soft Rains”, “I Sing the Body Electric”) demonstrate a deep, if grudging, respect for new technology and what it can do. Tech doesn’t make us less human, it just enables us in new ways to keep up the same antisocial behaviors present for millenia.

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