Fahrenheit 451: Bradbury's Views on Technology

April 8, 2013 | Andrew Lesk

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Editor's Note: As part of this year's One Book community read, University of Toronto's Andrew Lesk will give several book talks about "Fahrenheit 451," focusing on author Ray Bradbury's views on technology.

I find that Ray Bradbury’s very cautious views on technology - mostly implied in the book - reveal a somewhat conservative point of view. This seems to be at odds with the book’s more liberal trappings that are concerned with the necessity of free speech.

It’s as though Bradbury can’t quite resolve a paradox perhaps known to his readers: We live in a world that invariably progresses; in many ways, good and bad. But the progress Bradbury sees is only bad, apparently, and so he appears to takes sides against progress.

Montag, for example, is frustrated that “nothing’s connected” in the modern world around him, and so he looks to the past - all those books - for knowledge and answers. His friendship with Clarisse, who is linked to the non-technological world of nature, and who feels “ancient,” is another symbol of this link to a past that is perhaps somewhat idealized.

Similarly, Clarisse talks about the art in the museums being “all abstract”; one assumes that more traditional forms of art - perhaps the great Masters, and the Impressionists - are those to be admired. Implicit too is that then-modern, abstract art is somehow less stable and, again, this is conservative gesture reveals a desire for the past.

On the other hand, progress means mostly technologies that control and oppress. The hound is perhaps the earliest and best of these examples. It contrasts with the nature-bound Clarisse, in its comparison to a honey bee that possesses a “poison wildness.” And it is like the Eye: it “doesn’t like or dislike; it just functions.”

As Beatty says, the hound “doesn’t think anything we don’t want it to think.” This suggests that this technological innovation arises from someone’s desire to control; but also that such “unthinkingness” is also part of human nature, here in its worst incarnation. Technology can run amok and become divorced from the human and natural world, and thus the hound, ‘man’s best friend,’ has here been perverted into its opposite, or baser, nature.

Beatty promotes the mindless technology of the type that is the Hound: he is giving us exactly what we apparently want. He is similar to Clarisse, whose face is like a mirror to Montag, the every person of the novel, who “take[s] of you and throw[s] back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought.” Is it then that the conflicting impulses of the novel are found in looking at the uncomfortable similarities between Clarisse and Beatty, both of whom ‘know’ more than they let on but who are taking different paths using that knowledge?

Similar to all dystopic novels, though, Bradbury can’t predict the actual future; its relevance for today, though - with our easy conformity to technological marvels such as the Internet and smartphones - is quite outstanding.