Learning recently that Ray Bradbury had just died at 91, I started looking through my bookshelves for an old copy of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s great dystopian novel warning of a future authoritarian state in which books were burned as part of authorities’ determination to wipe out the population’s capacity for critical thought. Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 has been read by millions.
The title came from the temperature at which Bradbury’s imagined nightmare state determined that books burst into flames. The novel’s protagonist was a “fireman” named Guy Montag. Montag was part of a team sent around to destroy stashes of books discovered in people’s homes and elsewhere.
Alongside sheer repression, the nightmare state portrayed in Fahrenheit 451 relied on numerous forms of “soft power.” It dispensed drugs designed (as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) to keep the people focused on personal comfort and pleasure. (The masses were supposed to be gratefully unburdened by concern over difficult problems of policy and politics – matters better left to higher authorities.) Money was doled out to obedient, hard-working subjects through automated bank machines that kept users up-to-date on the state of their savings.
The state delivered an Orwellian and Huxlean mix of propaganda and childish entertainment culture into the brains of the people via “thimble” and “seashell radios” attached to peoples’ ears. A more powerful medium for this noxious blend came with large television screens that took up entire walls in peoples’ homes. The “wallscreens” blared constantly, keeping subjects in a constant state of externalized diversion and distraction.
Wallscreen soap operas included a curious feature. The characters would occasionally stop their dialogues and look out at the viewer to ask him or her, by name, what they thought and/or felt about the drama being broadcast. The homebound viewer thereby felt included in the show’s “family,” speaking to his or her “friends” through the screen wall.
Like many subjects, Montag’s anxious, heavily drugged wife rarely ventured into the stark, rigidly controlled world outside her doors. She pestered Montag to work harder so they could purchase an additional wallscreen. That way she could thereby become more intimately involved in her “family.”
At some point in the novel, Montag rebelled against his terrible duties. Unsuccessful in its effort to destroy him live on telescreen, the state broadcast its hunt and murder of another “deviant.” The wallscreen-obsessed populace was fed live images of the chase and kill from the government helicopter that carried out the execution. Montag ended up walking the rails with the last remaining literate and free-thinking civilians – a bedraggled band of hobo-intellectuals who had memorized key books in the western canon.
Distracted Subjects in the New Electronic Garrison State
Thinking back to this remarkable novel (assigned to me in a suburban junior high school), I am struck by how strongly it resonates with numerous chilling aspects of contemporary American life. Yes, I know, books are readily available at Barnes & Noble, amazon.com and the last remaining independent bookstores. The streets and sidewalks of our cities are often full of hustle and bustle and occasionally even host mass protests. Dissenters are not generally hunted down and killed on live television.
Still, I have flashed back to Fahrenheit 451 more than once in recent years and decades. I have done so while sitting mesmerized by vicious football and hockey collisions and police chases and other police and military actions beamed from government and media helicopters – sometimes in real time (as with the OJ Simpson chase, the Los Angeles riot/rebellion years before, and the prolonged tug of war between Chicago police and anarchist protestors last month) – to my own private telescreen (television) or to mounted telescreens looming above me and other captivated souls at a restaurant, bar, airport or gym.
Bradbury’s tiny ear radios bear a striking resemblance to today’s earbuds and Bluetooth headsets. I recently noticed a series of individuals who seemed oblivious to the world around them carrying on private conversations as they walked (hands-free) past ATMs (predicted by Bradbury) and homeless beggars in Chicago’s Loop (where a breathtaking concentration of high-tech militarized local, state, federal and private police recently turned the city’s downtown into an occupied zone to prevent protestors from interfering with the meetings of the global killing machine called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). More people were talking to headsets behind the wheels of gleaming automobiles that swept across an adjacent 8-lane street at lethal speeds. Waiting impatiently at red lights, ready to make engines roar, the cars’ occupants seemed unaware of the urban community around them. They stared vacantly at the changing scene beyond glaring windshields that struck me as curiously akin to television screens.
Millions of Americans are incarcerated daily in a gigantic prison-industrial complex where books are scarce and large mounted televisions supplement batons, chemical agents, sniper rifles, and closed-circuit television-monitoring as an effective, cost-reducing part of the pacification apparatus. Official U.S. politics and policy march in cold defiance of irrelevant majority public opinion and in chilling accord with the imperatives and priorities of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, eco-cide and “national security.” In the name of democracy, the American corporate, military, and police state cows and rolls over popular opposition and various officially designated enemies at home and abroad with a vast, many-sided arsenal that includes Stealth Bombers, Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, Predator drones, Tomahawk missiles, police informants, FBI infiltrators, trumped-up terrorism charges, Pentagon Internet terrorists, pepper spray, tasers, sonic cannons, sniper units, laser-guided bombs, ubiquitous electronic surveillance, cell-phone monitoring, cell-phone tower dumps. obedient universities, global wars on/of terror and drugs, racial divide-and-conquer, planted news items, power-worshiping pundits, Web shadowing, hidden cameras, militarized police, criminal marking, SWAT teams, border patrols, private security firms, finger-print monitoring, DNA databases, gated communities, armed watch captains, special operations forces, digital alarm systems, police dogs, police horses, narcotic squads, red squads, bomb squads, bomb scares, disappeared dissidents, counter-terrorism centers, facial recognition software, electronic monitoring bracelets, ubiquitous felony marking, multiple homeland security bureaucracies, strip searches, body scans, kill lists, agents provocateurs, juvenile detention facilities, warrantless wiretaps, torture manuals, paramilitaries, secret mass graves, targeted hospitals (as in the U.S. assault on Fallujah), targeted media outlets (as in the U.S./NATO bombing of Serbian national television), the School of the Americas, black ops, 850,000 Americans granted “Top Security” clearance, secret prisons, extra-judicial terror squads, military tribunals, targeted assassinations, domestic eavesdropping, overseas jails, an empire of more than 1000 military installations across more than 100 nations, a Pentagon budget accounting for nearly half the world’s military spending, Green Zones, counter-insurgency campaigns, militarized super-embassies, coercive interrogations, extraordinary renditions, torture by proxy, covert detention centers, protestor “extractions,” crowd “kettling,” coup d’etats, indefinite detentions, preventive detention, pre-emptive war, pre-emptive raids, dictatorial client states, arms export, arms production, unconstitutional search and seizure, segregation cells, water-boarding, Supermax prisons, union-busting, stolen overtime, stop-and-frisk practices, anti-gang ordinances, pretext traffic stops, electric shocks, punitive firings, denial of health care, mass arrest, mass imprisonment (the American “land of liberty’ is the world leader by far), endemic foreclosure, crippling debt, endless propaganda, constant advertising, corporate media, sensationalized news, the slashing of social benefits, public relations, crushing overwork, fractured families, devastated pensions, information over-load, standardized testing, regimented curriculum, militarized high schools, militarized law enforcement, the mass distribution of mood-altering psychotropic drugs (dangerously over-prescribed), sham and highly personalized, mass-marketed elections that subordinate meaningful policy debate to the manipulative logic of product advertising, plutocratic control of law and politics, and a sensationalist Orwellian/Huxlean mass media that denies the populace the honest and relevant information and inspired culture meaningful democracy requires.
Serious information is reserved for ideologically safe elites, who have to receive some significantly accurate knowledge to perform their tasks of system management. For the unworthy rabble beneath the owning and coordinator classes, for the rest of us (say, the 80 percent), it’s all about spin, spectacle, display, stimulation, scandal, tittle-tattle, and amusement. Political news for the multitude is riddled with fantastic tales (e.g. Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” and involvement in 9/11, the “left-leaning Obama administration and Democratic Party,” the “grassroots Tea Party,” U.S. support for freedom, democracy and humanitarian ideals abroad, the giant and poor-coddling American “welfare state,” “leftist U.S. universities,” and meaningful democratic elections at home) that are interminably messaged across the vast communications terrain. The grand corporate media complex’s mission is clear: the “bewildered herd” is to be kept deluded, divided, diverted, distracted, drugged, depressed, and de-mobilized so that real and wise men of power can conduct the nation’s affairs with a minimum of “dysfunctional” popular disturbance and dissent. Serious protest is rendered invisible (thrown down Orwell’s “memory hole” the instant it happens) or treated with authoritarian disdain when it is too big to completely ignore.
Along the way, the media sells, sells, and sells, so that the last 2 minutes of a championship sporting event must take 20 minutes to maximize the advertising take. Every pitching change or time out is another opportunity to hawk on air. Candidates are sold like toothpaste on radio and television on a scale that has turned campaign advertising into a significant industrial sector (what Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols call “the money and media elections complex”) in its own right. There’s an endless electronic procession of juvenile product, corporate, and candidate jingles, logos, images, slogans, brands (“Hope” is a recurrent favorite), symbols, and spokespersons.
Sensationalized Telescreens, Kardashianized Twitter Tattle
The readers, researchers and writers of serious books, chapters, speeches, essays and studies that tell the truth about dire threats to justice, freedom, popular governance, security, and the natural environment are relegated to the margins in a Kardashianized mass culture swamped by a stupefying surplus of information, titillation, gossip, and trivia. “Oh I saw that Yahoo link about the vanishing Arctic ice cap, but did you see the one about Jennifer Anniston’s new boyfriend and the one about that little schnauzer dog that ice skates? How about the one about those chimpanzees that ripped off that zookeeper’s testicle? OMG!” Checking out at the grocery story yesterday, I passed a special display of the news and commentary the masters think we need most in these urgent times: an exclusive, in-depth report on “Why Katie [Holmes] has left Tom [Cruise]” (9t has something to do with Scientology). So what if the consensus finding of increasingly terrified Earth scientists (detailed in a large number of readable volumes) is that humanity faces an imminent threat of extinction due to the wasteful use of natural resources? Who has the time or energy to focus on that depressing problem? The books, reports and essays on this and other grave perils are not burned but torching is not required.
When it comes to real news, the deep and detailed story of how and why the dominant elite-serving state-capitalist institutions and policies create ecological collapse, savage inequality, endless war, and mass poverty cannot compete with the latest juicy celebrity tidbit. That story can hardly match the most recent “shock and awe” film footage and excited reporting (played over and over again on 24-hour cable news stations and online) of various tragedies, and atrocities (wealthy homes ablaze in Colorado Springs, trailer parks blown to bits in Tennessee, people stuck on their roofs in New Orleans, nuclear meltdowns in Japan, the opening assault on Baghdad, mass shootings of protestors in Middle Eastern cities, a man standing in front of a tank in China, a police beating and a riot in Los Angeles, a car chase of a celebrity murder in Los Angeles, a dictator pulled out of a drain pipe in Libya, jetliners flying into the World Trade Center, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, etc.) that result from those oppressive structures and policies.
True, our ubiquitous glowing telescreens (I counted 12 wall-mounted flat-screen televisions, all locked on to CNN and positioned ten feet high, in the section of the small Midwestern airport where I began this essay) do not interrupt their dramas to ask us by name for our thoughts and feelings. Still, highly attractive telescreen newsreaders do occasionally encourage us to send them our opinions via e-mail and to vote on political and other matters online or by text message. Televised national talent contests get us to vote by cell phone in competitions that evoke mass personal identifications with individual contenders. Daytime talk shows invite us to share our innermost dilemmas with the likes of Montel, Maury, Oprah, Judge Alex, and Dr. Phil. Yahoo News and other Internet news services encourage us to share our thoughts and feelings (no matter how ill-informed and toxic) in comments sections attached to news and culture items it endlessly posts online. Skype permits us to literally talk back to the screen – well, to each other, through our computer screens.
Meanwhile, screen media have knocked print media to its knees and turned many of the surviving newspapers into hopelessly brief, advertisement-laden versions of sound-bite TV News. Twitter caps communications at 140 characters.
Top public office-holders and politicians have become soap opera characters and entertainers in their own right. Serious presidential candidates appear on the Tonight Shows, Saturday Night Live, and other television venues as a matter of campaign necessity. Their personal lives and foibles often serve as fodder for endless speculation, fascination, and scandal. A population that was told little about President Bill Clinton’s deep policy service to corporate and financial masters was kept riveted on Monica Lewinsky’s salacious servicing of Clinton and the lies he told about “that woman.” A generation of Americans was conned into thinking that they’d learned something meaningful about their nation’s politics because of startling media revelations about Clinton’s philandering (actually quite mild compared to the epic sexual adventurism of the 1960s Kennedy brothers, who carried on in a time when politicians’ sex lives were off-limits for the media). The telescreen and the Internet create a deadly, false and superficial sense of knowing on the part of people who know little that really matters.
And then of course there is the great Internet hegemon Facebook, used by half the U.S. population. The “social network” is more than just another media form that promises us virtual community and connection in a soulless, alienated, authoritarian society. With more than 100 million users, including untold hundreds of thousands who spend very significant portions of their waking life on the “free” service, the digital Leviathan Facebook is a cyber nation of its own.
It’s a very creepy nation, to say the least. Facebook asks “What’s on your mind? What do you think? How do you feel? What’s new in your life? What do you want to say? What is your history? Who are you? What do you like and want? Would you like to show us your pictures? Your beliefs? Values? Would you like to search for people, places, and things? Where to do you want to go today?” The answers are gathered and data-mined by and for a host of corporate and governmental entities with less-than-benevolent agendas – a vast network of hidden Facebook predators and snoopers personal, political, corporate, and commercial. An unseen army of sociopaths and other varieties of psychotic spend untold hours cruising Facebook and other online “communities” for people to “meet,” “friend,” “know,” exploit, and manipulate. Many lost cyber-fried souls create false (often multiple) Web personalities, pretending to be something online they wish they were in real life.
Narcissism is richly fed and nurtured by Facebook, which offers a fresh and colorful way to brand oneself over and over again. Those who accept the brand become part of your “friend” list. Those who don’t can be “de-friended” and “blocked” – cyber-cleansed. Among those who stay, conversations on Facebook or Skype (the latter is set up for video communication) take place through a digital wall that seems more than mildly Bradburyan. For some, Facebook offers a stage for self-display that crosses over into a type of exhibitionism. Participants become actors in their own bizarre dramas, played out for and often including others among their bulging “friends” list (“I’m at 4,000 and climbing…people just seem to love me”).
Along the way, bullying, shaming, hearsay, rumor-mongering, preening and numerous other noxious and destructive forms of conduct are given a powerful new platform. An ever-growing number of people have been driven to suicide by gossip, character assassination and other forms of digital battering on Facebook and lesser cousins that have joined the hegemon in dangerously breaching the boundary between private and public.. The psychological case files of the real nation are bulging with stories of how Facebook Nation and other online semi-states have plugged into and escalated the population’s struggle with such pre-existing mental health conditions as narcissistic personality disorder, bipolar depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, delusional psychosis, erotomania, schizophrenia, and attention-deficit disorder.
Among other things, Facebook and its imitators and relatives encourage mindless and addictive, fake-rebellious flight from lived reality – a fantasy of borderless breakout that ultimately deepens pain and anxiety in real experience. It’s all about diversion, instant gratification, denial of the need for the concentrated focus and plain hard work that goes into such activities as the writing and reading of serious books, the planning and planting of community gardens, and the making of meaningful social movements. It’s about the illusion of escape from the present moment. It’s a bold assault on basic mindfulness and a great weapon in the top-down campaign to induce mass dissociation from harsh realities and real possibilities.
The loneliness and disruption that is created and worsened by continually focusing on glowing screens next to your face rather than the real life around you – a recurrent Bradbury theme – is a contributing factor in the contemporary American depression and anxiety epidemics. The incessantly flashing online world deepens mass dependence on the soul-deadening “anti-depressive” and anti-anxiety concoctions Big Pharma’s expert scientists and marketers have fashioned to intensify the corporate state’s calibration of hearts and minds.
Many Facebook “participants” pretend to be activists (some even call themselves “Facebook activists” – an oxymoron of the highest order) by creating a plethora of online “advocacy” groups that purport to hold real-life relevance in connection with various causes.
The “Facebook community” and “family” can be very anti-book, anti-community, and anti-family. Users are encouraged and enabled to “like” or “dislike” a news or cultural Web-link that flashes across their “wall” (yes, their “wall”!) since it has been posted by some other cyber-entity (usually a Facebook “friend” they’ve’ never actually met in person) who decided it was “on their mind.” “Like” messages often appear instantly, well before anyone could possibly have read the item in question. So much for serious intellectual and effort of the sort that goes into such “elitist” work as the writing and reading of books that matter. So much for the careful construction and appreciation of reasoned arguments attentive to complexity, change, pattern, and nuance. Anyone can be an instant expert and qualified commentator on Facebook and on the web more generally, where everyone’s opinion matters, no matter how reactive and superficial. Dedicated Facebookers and Tweeters are trained to develop dogmatic, mediocre, and steel-trap minds that fixate around stark and snap judgments on frozen facts. This new sort of dullardry is a great menace to democratic prospects.
And so much for the effort involved in the creation or re-creation of genuine, non-mediated connection with actual people in the real families and communities one inhabits. Facebook and its cousins and the web more broadly say that it’s easier to beam yourself out, Scotty – to create an online self and escape into the high-speed and global virtual community located two or three clicks away on your own personal telescreen. This great illusion of instantaneous space and time travel, irresistible for many, has long resonated with the visions (utopian and dystopian) of science fictions writers.
The seductive fake community of “the social network” serves the national and global elite in various ways. “Social media’s” top owners and managers rake in millions from corporations who crave Facebook’s awesome marketing power. Looking for reasons and ways to fire, demote, arrest, convict, torture, kill, deport, hound, harass, shame, and/or collect money (or deny loans and jobs), a vast range of authorities (employers, lenders, debt-collectors, bounty hunters, probation officers, corporate attorneys, cops, the FBI, the CIA, the Assad regime, the Putin regime, the Saudi Arabian and Honduran secret police, etc.) and others (assorted online sociopaths and stalkers, etc.) surf the ocean of personal and political information that has been made so readily (and foolishly) available on Facebook and other rich intelligence targets across the Internet ghetto.
The “community’s” owners become fantastically wealthy while a growing number of humans morph into a stunted new sub-species that “lives,” “likes,” “loves,” “thinks,” argues, “reads,” writes/texts, hates, rages, “mates,” blathers, yaks, socializes, networks, hunts, hurts, kills, and dies in the soulless ether of cyber-space. These distracted, diverted, degraded and de-evolved Web-people pose no threat to the existing order, to say the least. Caught like flies in a cyberspace spider-web, they are trapped in a world wide wallscreen they never made. Their hearts, minds, and bodies are downgraded in ways that do not bode well for a decent future. A wall is a wall.
Scary Streets and Glowing Screens
Meanwhile, contemporary youth play virtual video, Wii and online games (many quite shockingly violent and militaristic) around glimmering telescreens in isolated homes. They have been historically removed from the real-life neighborhoods, parks, streets, sidewalks, yards, allies, ponds, and fields where children once played stickball, baseball, roller hockey, hide-and-seek, football, basketball, capture-the-flag, hopscotch, 500, and more (generally without adult supervision). The private screen attachment (often enough addiction) helps feed an epidemic of childhood obesity that literally embodies the proto-totalitarian softening up of the populace.
But then, the streets of the cities and the sprawling suburban and ex-urban society are not safe for children. They are ruled by racing trucks and cars whose harried pilots dash around distracted by talking GPS screens, cell phones, and radios blaring poison from proto-fascistic shock jocks and political hate-talkers. The bloodshed promoted by socio-pathological video games (one in current circulation dares young participants to go out and knock someone unconscious with a single punch) and movies make the world outdoors seem understandably menacing to parents and children alike. (Living and getting around by bicycle in a university town, I myself have learned that the greatest threat to life and limb is students mindlessly checking their I-phones while driving)
Walking nights around the local streets and sidewalks of Middle America, I am often struck by the curious complementary relationship that exists between the emptiness of the public byways, broken by the occasional fleeting swoosh of headlights and tires, and the ubiquitous glow of telescreens in the living rooms of nearly every home I pass. I am reminded of Bradbury’s short story “The Pedestrian,” in which a man was arrested for refusing to watch television or drive a car.
Occasionally on the interstate in the dark of evening I see a brightly colored telescreen gleaming down at the backseat of a speeding, eco-cidal SUV. This is often parents’ way of pacifying restless children during a long drive across the ex-urban landscape. No need to sing songs or play mind-enhancing word games with your developing offspring as you zoom past chemically polluted, drought-plagued corn and soybean fields. Bradbury would be impressed.
Many young Americans have now been plugged into telescreens since infancy (Huxley would be impressed). Some of them will perhaps make good soldiers in the hidden “homeland” bunkers of the permanent global war on terror, where operatives sit before telescreens to demolish distant Muslim villages with the click of a mouse.
Stepping one cold evening last year into a university library, I noticed that few of the students there were reading actual books. Most of them were online and a good third appeared to be on Facebook. I recalled from my teaching days how difficult it had become to assign even a single book in a college history course (to require reading more than one volume was to court rebellion). I also recalled the large number of students who reported dependence on various anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications (often from remarkably young ages) as they struggled to juggle ever more dumbed-down assignments with poorly paid jobs, daily commutes, and untold hours spent staring numbly at televisions and the Internet.
Call me a techno-phobic reifying Luddite if you wish (it’s incorrect: I regularly publish on the Internet, manage a Website bearing my own name, and check Facebook messages four times a week and my e-mail daily and I am aware of the progressive uses left activists have made of Internet communication modes, including Facebook), but we are not as far as many of us might like to think from the nightmarish vision laid out in Fahrenheit 451. Much the same can be said for other past dystopian novels, including Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1948), Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano  (set in a corporate society where automation has eliminated most blue-collar jobs), and Robert Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up  (prophetic in its imagining of ecological collapse). Bradbury’s dystopia seems distinctive, however, in its appreciation of how authorities would rule through the dissemination and manipulation of private, talking, and fake-social telescreens – a warning that seems all too hauntingly relevant in the age of the high-definition flat-screen television, the I-phone, the personal computer, the World Wide Web, and what I only half jokingly call Facenbook 451.
Throw in his predictions of automobile-ization, earphones, ATMs, de-valued books and print, mass drugging, sensationalized news, tittle-tattle culture and more, and it seems that Ray Bradbuy imagined the future with no small measure of darkly prophetic prescience. His warnings were never about technology per se and they are closer to contemporary reality than many like to admit.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous print books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at [email protected].