Fahrenheit 451 Vindicated Anew: On the Poor (and Daft) Being More Prone to Using Screens

At one point, in the genesis of smartphone culture, the cost of an iPhone was astronomical, a luxury good intended, as always, to appeal to the rich as the initial demographic to get a taste of the future (think that prime example scene of 80s yuppie Glenn Gulia [Matthew Glave] in the The Wedding Singer coming in the house with a CD player and bragging, “I got you something. It’s called a CD player. Cost me seven hundred bucks but the sound quality is outstanding”). As time has hurled us all forward, the shift in the allure of the screen, formerly attracting all like flies to a blue light, has once again vindicated the dystopian predictions of Ray Bradbury in his seminal 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451 (fittingly, for the purposes of paving the way for screens, “…the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”).

Detailing a society in which literary censorship and the according eradication of knowledge is how the government exerts unprecedented control over its “people” (though drones is a more fitting word), Guy Montag is the embodiment of the morally conflicted participant in helping to carry out the continued “dumbification” of the nation in his stead as a firefighter. A job title now signifying the burning of all remaining traces of literature. Bradbury, who later stated the novel was intended to be set in 1999, divides the book into three parts, “The Hearth and the Salamander,” “The Sieve and the Sand” and “Burning Bright.”

In the first section, Montag encounters the free-spirited Clarisse McClellan, an adolescent who doesn’t fit in with her peers and is forced to go to therapy for being too “rebellious” (i.e. not succumbing to the mental handicap expected of her). It is she who first sends Montag into a tailspin of questioning the meaning and quality of his life as she and her family pass judgment on the present state of the world as a fundamentally hollow existence. To that end, it is Clarisse asking the simple question, “Are you happy?” that shakes Montag to his very core, returning, “‘Am I what?’ But she was gone–running in the moonlight. Her front door shut gently.” This image of the pureness of Clarisse, her in-touchness with nature and the true ways that a life ought to be lived affect Montag in such a manner as to drive him to steal a book from an old woman’s house that he and his team have been tasked with burning. Her vast collection of literature set ablaze, the woman poetically decides to burn herself rather than go on in the vegetative state that everyone else has contented themselves with.

Though putting himself at risk for being prey to the “Mechanical Hound,” a book-sniffing, eight-legged robotic dog that now serves as the modern emblem of the firehouse canine (as opposed to the once innocent Dalmatian), Montag’s eyes have been too widely opened by Clarisse’s “unadulteratedness” to resist the temptation of reading, of free-thinking. He not only trusts her for her earnestness, but is deeply respectful of her amazing force of will to have persisted as an unalloyed essence in a society that banks on having transformed everyone into their pawns via the highly addictive tool of mass media. The very mass media that was once so coveted by the wealthy, a group now veering away from “all that” as the latest luxury service to have cropped up is that of engaging in human interaction. Where once screen time was something covetable, it is now, just as the case in Fahrenheit 451 unavoidable (most especially with regard to employment), unless, of course, you just so happen to have the kind of money it takes to evade it. In fact, it is those who run companies that are allowed the so-called luxury of “disconnecting” while, in contrast, their employees are at the mercy of 24/7 availability thanks to the culture of being “reachable” that technology has created.

Even worse is the fact that the conditioning of the population to be dependent on screens now begins early on, with public schools opting to cut costs where they can by allowing use of computers to mold minds and impart lessons as opposed to receiving the more dendrite-stimulating benefit of instruction from a real person. On this note, affluent parents have jumped onto the private school trend of a totally “screen-free” education, while the rest of the average “dummos” are left to the pack of mind-numbing wolves called “that blue light.” It’s the very picture of Mildred, Montag’s grotesque wife, being perpetually engrossed in her “parlor walls”–Bradbury’s then futuristic concept of wall-to-wall TV pervading the average American’s home. So entranced by (read: addicted to) the “entertainment” displayed to her at all hours of the day that she can’t even be bothered to care for Montag when he falls ill, Mildred is an eerily prophetic epitome of what it now means to be “ordinary.”

But there is nothing ordinary about the way humans–specifically of the lower class–live in the present, debased and manipulated into thinking that constant contact with a screen is completely normal and not in any way damaging to one’s intelligence and potential for expanded consciousness. What’s worse, even when the few cognizant members of civilization attempt to impart their wisdom onto others, they do not want to be bothered. Are, indeed, offended to the point of enragement (the inferior pituitary gland of a feeble brain, perhaps)–by any effort to restore to their mind some semblance of humanity and critical thinking. This much is manifested when Montag tries to read a poem called “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold to his wife’s friends (with the doltish Mrs. Phelps being particularly distraught by it) when all they want to do is soak up the brainless content of the parlor walls. In his best effort to make any of these women actually think, he disarms with lines like, “…for the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new,/Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;/And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” It is that last phrase that most succinctly exudes the climate of now, with the rich–the very people who have profited from selling gradually instilled ignorance to the masses from their perch in Silicon Valley–hovering above from the zenith of wealth that gives them the advantage of averting any such clash by said ignorant armies.

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