When he was writing Fahrenheit 451 in the early 1950s, Ray Bradbury was trying to invent a dystopian world where learning and free thought were threatened. He was worried about censorship, and about the way new mass media—like television and movies—were changing society. So he included a futuristic idea in the novel: a wall-sized, interactive TV that was always on.
Reading the book in 2019, that bit of technology is striking, because it’s so familiar now. Most of us may not have wall-sized TVs, but there are some very large ones for sale in every big-box store near you. And most of us are connected to laptops and tablets and cell phones where we watch videos and share GIFs and more. What was terrifying to Bradbury is commonplace for us.
Thankfully, though, the rest of our world isn’t like the world of Fahrenheit 451. In the novel, books are illegal. Instead of putting out fires, firemen like the protagonist, Guy Montag, are tasked with burning any books they find. All the ideas, the beauty, and the potential found in the history of in the written word are outlawed.
Montag is tempted, though. Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of him questioning these rules, and of risking everything to explore the world opened by books. In the process, Bradbury tells a story of power, knowledge, and social control—one with important lessons for today.
As the Internet continues to remake our society, we have to pay careful attention to the technology powering YouTube algorithms, new social media platforms, changing relationships with online life, and all of the other impacts. There is tremendous potential—but also tremendous risk. Books (books!) like Bradbury’s play an important role in helping us to think critically about all of those changes.
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