“Where can I find Fahrenheit 451?”
I asked this question to a student worker in Loyola’s Cudahy Library. She smiled warmly and led me to a computer to search for the call number. As I roamed the library stacks for what seemed like hours in search of the classic novel, I wondered how many students actually come to the library to check out books, instead of simply to find a quiet place to study.
This October marks the 62nd anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book that advocates for the power of free thinking in a technology-driven world. But does its message still apply to a modern college campus?
Fahrenheit 451 transports readers to a futuristic dystopia, where technology is the sole provider of happiness. Citizens drive 150 miles per hour, smile at fake families on wall-to-wall screens and rely on an eight-legged Mechanical Hound to hunt down those who don’t follow the norms. The technological reign makes frenzied citizens kill themselves, hurt others and ignore the threat of an impending war. The novel focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman who doesn’t put out fires, but instead finds and burns books, objects that instill independent thought.
Two events force Montag to have a revolutionary epiphany: He witnesses a woman set herself and her books on fire in rebellion against the tech-crazed world, and he meets his neighbor Clarissa, a 17-year-old outcast who enjoys nature and conversation. These encounters provoke Montag’s internal struggle as he questions if he should easily live in the comfort of constant entertainment or overthrow the mindless institution.
And really, don’t we face this struggle every day?
More than half a century ago, Bradbury imagined electronics that work by touch, massive screens that allow audience participation in television programs and “seashells” that whisper thoughts into citizens’ ears. Look around — we are surrounded by these predicted technologies, objects that Bradbury argued drown out independent thought.
When we’re overwhelmed by our assignments, we don’t run into the arms of a loved one; we run into our beds for a Netflix marathon. If we need a homework answer, we don’t talk to a librarian; we talk to Siri. We post selfies, read tweets and skim through pictures on laptops during class lectures. We look down at our phones on the campus shuttle, our fingers frantically tapping the screens.
“There are too many of us, he thought. There are billions of us and that’s too many. Nobody knows anyone. Strangers come and violate you. Strangers come and cut your heart out.”
Bradbury foresaw some of this digital downfall. When he published Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, America was on the verge of a television revolution. In 1949, an estimated 1 million TV sets were used, but by the end of the 1950s, Americans used more than 50 million TV sets, according to a project funded by George Mason University. Shows such as I Love Lucy and The Goldbergs lit up living rooms across America as families huddled around, waiting for the punch line.
Instead of embracing it, Bradbury decided to write about it. He crafted Fahrenheit 451 on a pay-to-use typewriter in the UCLA library.
Many believe the novel is about government censorship, but what’s captivating about its plot is that the government didn’t enact book banning; the people did. Citizens, who no longer wanted to hear controversial discussions, turned their attention to the one thing vacant of emotion: the cold steel of technology.
Others may believe Fahrenheit 451 advocates for a ban on all technology. But the novel isn’t asking readers to break out their typewriters or set free their carrier pigeons. Reading the classic today forces us to evaluate the quality of the techy entertainment we consume.
Today’s college life hasn’t reached the extremes of Bradbury’s imagined dystopia. Instead of censorship, we often see technology used to enact liberating conversation. Discussions erupt from Twitter hashtags such as #YesAllWomen and on controversial Facebook posts, while movies and TV shows transport us into unknown territories.
Technology can be used to entertain or to teach, to comfort or to constrain; its power is controlled by the individuals who use it.
As I walked past Cudahy’s shelves of seemingly untouched books to return Fahrenheit 451, I remembered a 2005 interview Bradbury gave, and his words echoed in my head.
“If I can convince people to stop doing what they’re doing and go to the library and be sensible, without pontificating and without being self-conscious, that’s fine. I can teach people to really know they’re alive.”