We’re Reading Fahrenheit 451 Wrong

I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 a day or two ago while reading Ian Bogost on Apple’s Airpods. Bogost examined Airpods’ potential long term social consequences. “Human focus, already ambiguously cleft between world and screen,” he suggests, “will become split again, even when maintaining eye contact.” A little further on, he writes, “Everyone will exist in an ambiguous state between public engagement with a room or space and private retreat into devices or media.”

It’s a good piece, you should read the whole thing.

It reminded me of Bradbury on two counts. First, and most obviously, Bradbury’s novel imaginatively predicted Airpods before earphones were invented. In the novel they are called Seashells, and they are just one of the ways that characters in the story sever their connection with the world beyond their heads, to borrow Matt Crawford’s formulation. Second, Bogost’s fears echo Bradbury’s. Fahrenheit 451 isn’t really about censorship, after all, and it’s unfortunate that the novel has been reduced to that theme in the popular imagination.

Bradbury makes clear that the firemen who famously start fires to burn books are doing so only long after people stopped reading books of their own accord as other forms of media came to dominate their experience. Actually, to be more precise, they did not stop reading altogether. They stopped reading certain kinds of books: the ones that made demands of the reader, intellectual, emotional, moral demands that might upset their fragile sense of well-being.

Fahrenheit 451, in other words, is more Huxley than Orwell.

Fundamentally, I would argue it is, like Huxley’s Brave New World, about happiness. “Are you happy?” a young girl named Clarisse asks Montag, the protagonist. It is the question that triggers all the subsequent action in the novel. It is the question that awakens Montag to the truth of his situation.

At one remove from the question of happiness, is the matter of alienation from reality effected by media technologies. In 1953, when barely half of American households owned a television set, and primitive sets at that, Bradbury foresaw a future of complete immersion in four wall-sized screens through which people would socialize interactively with characters from popular programs.

Speed also severed people from meaningful contact with the world and became an impediment to thought. Literal speed—billboards where as long as football fields in order to be seen by drivers zooming by and walking was deemed a public nuisance—and the speed of information. An old professor, who knew better but did not have the courage to fight the changes he witnessed, explained the problem to Montag:

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic? Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

Social media was still more than fifty years away.

This same professor, Faber, later went on to lecture Montag about what was needed. Three things, he claimed. First, quality information, from books or elsewhere. Second, leisure, but not just “off-hours,” which Montag was quick to say he had plenty of:

“Off-hours, yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the fourwall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”

The third needful thing? A society that granted “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two.”

Not a bad prescription, if you ask me.

Earlier in the novel, as Montag travelled by subway to meet Faber for the first, he clung to a copy of the Bible that he had stowed away. He knows he will have to surrender it, so he attempts to memorize as much as he can. But he discovers that his mind is a sieve. He recalled that when he was a child an older relative would play a joke on him by offering a dime if he could fill a sieve with sand.

As he travelled to meet Faber, “he remembered the terrible logic of that sieve.”

But, he thought to himself, “if you read fast and read all, maybe some of the sand will stay in the sieve. But he read and the words fell through, and he thought, in a few hours, there will be Beatty, and here will be me handing this over, so no phrase must escape me, each line must be memorized.”

But his material environment undermined his efforts. As in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron, distraction undid the work of the mind. In this case, Montag’s focus and concentration battled and lost against the tools of marketing. An ad for Denham’s Dentrifice blared over a loud speaker as he tried to commit what he read to memory. The brief memorable scene portrays a scenario that should feel all-too familiar to us.

He clenched the book in his fists. Trumpets blared.

“Denham’s Dentrifice.”

Shut up, thought Montag. Consider the lilies of the field.

“Denham’s Dentifrice.”

They toil not-

“Denham’s–”

Consider the lilies of the field, shut up, shut up.

“Dentifrice ! ”

He tore the book open and flicked the pages and felt them as if he were blind, he picked at the shape of the individual letters, not blinking.

“Denham’s. Spelled : D-E-N ”

They toil not, neither do they . . .

A fierce whisper of hot sand through empty sieve.

“Denham’s does it!”

Consider the lilies, the lilies, the lilies…

“Denham’s dental detergent.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” It was a plea, a cry so terrible that Montag found himself on his feet, the shocked inhabitants of the loud car staring, moving back from this man with the insane, gorged face, the gibbering, dry mouth, the flapping book in his fist. The people who had been sitting a moment before, tapping their feet to the rhythm of Denham’s Dentifrice, Denham’s Dandy Dental Detergent, Denham’s Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice, one two, one two three, one two, one two three. The people whose mouths had been faintly twitching the words Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice. The train radio vomited upon Montag, in retaliation, a great ton-load of music made of tin, copper, silver, chromium, and brass. The people were pounded into submission; they did not run, there was no place to run; the great air-train fell down its shaft in the earth.

“Lilies of the field.” “Denham’s.”

“Lilies, I said!”

The people stared.

“Call the guard.”

“The man’s off–”

“Knoll View!”

The train hissed to its stop.

“Knoll View!

“Denham’s.” A whisper.

Montag’s mouth barely moved. “Lilies…”

Attention is a resource, and, like all precious resources, it must be cultivated with care and defended. It is, after all, that by which we get our grip on the world and how we remain open to world.


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Renewed Projects

If you were reading this blog a couple of years ago, you’ll remember reading something about my being the director of the Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology. Not much came of that then for a variety of reasons. However, I’m pleased to say that I’m renewing my efforts on that project, this time with a little more help and a sharper focus. Chiefly, this will involve a more explicitly theological approach to tech criticism. The idea, as I’ve articulated here before, is that trenchant and worthwhile tech criticism cannot take a view from nowhere; it needs be rooted in explicit understandings of what people are for, to borrow a phrase from Wendell Berry.

You can read about our relaunch here. [Update: If you’d like to keep up with CSET you can subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed and/or follow on Twitter.]

I’m also happy to say that I’ve got an essay in the summer issue of The New Atlantis. It’s paywalled currently, I’ll share a link when it becomes available. I’ll have some more work coming out with them later this year. TNA is a terrific journal that I’ve been reading for years, so I’m rather pleased to be writing for them.

Not too worry, though. I’ll continue posting to this site and putting out The Convivial Society, a new installment of which should be out in a week or so.

Shame On You, Devil: A 1959 Challenge to Technologists-in-Training That Still Resonates

A little while ago, I cited a couple of passages from Romano Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race on the theme of consciousness. Guardian was a Catholic philosopher and theologian active during the first half of the twentieth century. Although largely forgotten today, he was widely known in his day and left his mark on the thinking of several better-remembered contemporaries, including Hannah Arendt, who sat under Guardini’s teaching in her undergraduate years. Guardini’s work was also prominently cited in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si.

At some point in the near future I may have more to say about Guardini and his reflections on technology in the Letters, which were originally during 1924 and 1925. Here I only want to draw your attention to parts of a 1959 address Guardini delivered to the Munich College of Technology, an address which is now included with the translation I’m reading.

It was especially interesting to read Guardini’s address to these technologists-in-training in light of the recent burst of frustration with Silicon Valley and, more broadly, with technologists and technologies that increasingly disorder our private and public experience.

At the outset, Guardini acknowledges that he does not have much to offer by way of technical know-how, so his theme would not be “the actual structure and work of machines,” but “what they mean for human existence, or more precisely, how their construction and use affect humanity as a living totality.”

In many respects, Guardini was about as friendly a critic as these technologists could’ve hoped for. What he has to say “will have the character of an existential problem, and it will thus necessarily reflect concern.” He adds that he “will have to consider primarily the negative element in the phenomenon of machines,” but he insists that they are “to see here neither the pessimism that we often sense in current cultural criticism nor the resentment that comes with the end of an epoch against the new thing that is pushing out the old.”

I think Guardini was in earnest about this. This same attitude was ultimately borne out by this Letters written nearly forty years earlier. “The concern I want to express,” he tells them, “is the positive one whether the process of technology worldwide will really achieve the great things that it can and should.”

“A healthy optimism,” he writes, “is undoubtedly part of all forceful action, but so, too, is a sense of responsibility for this action.”

Having made these preliminary comments, which, again, set about as irenic a tone as could be expected, Guardini briefly laid out a taxonomy of technology that included tools, contrivances, and machines. He goes on to explore the human consequences of machines, chiefly focusing on the power machines granted and the ethical responsibility this entailed.

“To gain power is to experience it as it lays claim to our mind, spirit, and disposition,” Guardini claimed. “If we have power, we have to use it, and that involves conditions. We have to use it with responsibility, and that involves an ethical problem.”

“Thus dangers of the most diverse kind arise out of the power that machines give,” he elaborated. “Physically one human group subjugates another in open or concealed conflict. Mentally and spiritually the thinking and feelings of the one influence the other.”

Interestingly, Guardini noted that in order to assume ethical responsibility for our machines it must be presupposed “that we freely stand over against machines even as we use them, that we experience and treat them as something for whose operation we have to set the standards.”

“But do we do that?” Guardini wondered. “Does any such ethos exist? That remains to be seen. It is a disturbing fact that people often see the attempt to relate to machines in this way as romantic. As a rule today people find in machines and their working given realities that we cannot alter in any way.”

Near the end of the talk, Guardini cites an example from a story that had appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which, he adds, “is certainly not against technology.”

The example is of how “machines spur us to go into areas where personal restraint would forbid us to intrude.” The article, he goes on to explain, “shows us in sharp detail what is the issue here—namely, the possibility of committing people without their even being aware of it. But that involves a basic threat to something that is essential in all human dealings—namely, trust.”

“The possibility of committing people” is an interesting phrase. It’s translated from German and I have no idea what the underlying German word might be nor could I make much of it if I did. I take Guardini to mean something like compromising someone without their consent or somehow gaining some advantage over them without their awareness. This seems to fit with the case Guardini goes on to describe.

As Guardini summarizes it, the article discusses the commercial availability of something like a Dick Tracy-style watch that can surreptitiously record conversations. In the article, a salesperson was asked “whether people might be bothered by them and would want them.” The response was straightforward: “Why should they bother us?” Moreover, people were already buying them, the salesman added. “We cannot prevent this,” the reporter added, “but we are permitted to say: ‘Shame on you, devil.'”

Guardini went on: “The reporter said, ‘Shame on you, devil,’ giving evidence of ethical judgment in the matter. But most people seem not to have such judgment. At issue here is not a romantic fear of machines but the fact that power is impinging on something that ought not to be challenged if the very essence of our humanity is to remain unthreatened.”

What struck me here was how Guardini’s concerns paralleled those being articulated today about digital media. We are at every turn committed or compromised without our full awareness or consent by the gamut of digital tools we either submit to or are otherwise subjected to. Tech companies routinely “go into areas where personal restraint would forbid us to intrude.” Trust is everywhere eroded and undermined. Those who urge responsibility and restraint are accused of being anti-technology romantics.

Near the end of this talk, Guardini acknowledged that “a kind of anxiety exists that leads to distinct distrust of active people,” but he nonetheless concluded that “we should not forget that those who take up practical tasks,” by which he meant engineers and technologists, “can indeed very easily ignore the problems. Or else they can have a belief in the power of progress, think that everything will come out right, and feel that they themselves are released from responsibility.” This, too, sounds very familiar.

I’ll give the last word to Guardini:

The fact that the machine brings a measure of freedom hitherto unknown is in the first instance a gain. The value of freedom, however, is not fixed solely by the question “Freedom from what?” but decisively by the further question “Freedom for what?”

 

The Point of Technical Convergence

The following passage is taken from one of the last chapters of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, originally published in 1954.

However, one important fact has escaped the notice of the technicians, the phenomenon of technical convergence …. Our interest here is the convergence on man of a plurality, not of techniques, but of systems or complexes of techniques. The result is an operational totalitarianism; no longer is any part of man free and independent of these techniques …. It is impossible to determine, by considering any human technique in isolation, whether its human object remains intact or not. The problem can be solved only by using the human being as a criterion, only by looking at this point of convergence of technical systems.

[….]

Our highly specialized technicians will have a vast number of problems to hurdle before they are in a position to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The technical operations involved do not appear to fit well together, and only by means of a new technique of organization will it be possible to unite the different pieces into a whole. When this has finally been accomplished, however, human techniques will develop very fast. As yet unrecognized potentialities for influencing the individual will appear. At the moment such possibilities are only dimly discerned in the penumbra of totalitarian regimes still in their infancy. It should not be forgotten, of course, that while our technicians are trying to synthesize the various techniques theoretically, a synthetic unity already exists and man is its object.

I submit that we can read this prophetically and find the fulfillment of the “new technique of organization” that will unleash “unrecognized potentialities for influencing the individual” in digital technology, perhaps even seeing in the smartphone the symbol of technical convergence. A whole assemblage of political, economic, psychological, and social techniques find in this digital device a focal point upon which to converge on the human being.

Media Ecological Perspective on Free Speech

Rhetoric in oral cultures tends to be, in Walter Ong’s phrasing, “agonistically toned.” Ong noted that speech in oral societies was more like an event or action than it was a label or sign. Words did things (curses, blessings, incantations, etc.), and irrevocably so.

This was so, in part, because speech in oral societies was uttered in the dynamic and always potentially fraught context of face-to-face encounters. The audience in oral societies is always present and visible. It is literally an audience, it hears you. Writing, by contrast, creates the possibility of addressing an audience that is neither visible nor present. The audience becomes an abstraction. Cool detachment can prevail in writing because there is no one to immediately challenge you.

It was also so because in oral societies one couldn’t conceive of a word visually, as a thing; it was an auditory event. In literate societies one can’t help but conceive of a word as a thing. As Ong says at one point, a literate person inevitably thinks of the image of letters when he thinks about a word. (Try it for yourself: close your eyes and think of a word, not the thing that word represents but of the word itself.) This thing-like quality is reinforced by the fixity of print. A word conceived of as an inert thing can also be conceived of as a harmless thing, its there, lifeless, on the page. Words conceived of as an active, dynamic force will not so easily be experienced as harmless in themselves.

A maximalist doctrine of freedom of speech, then, may be most plausible when speech is imagined primarily as inert words-as-things. It is not surprising then that freedom of speech is historically correlated with the appearance of print.

The psychodynamics of digital media, however, are more akin to those of orality than literacy.

Discourse on digital media platforms, from comment boxes to social media, is infamously combative. On digital platforms, words takes on a more active quality. They can no longer be imagined as inert and lifeless things.

This is so, in part, because digital media reintegrates the word into a dynamic situation. The audience in digital media is not always visible, but it can be present with a degree of immediacy that is more like a face-to-face encounter than writing or print. Moreover, the pixelated word is more ephemeral and less-thing like than the printed word. It is both more ephemeral and more likely to initiate action.

Digital media, thus, reanimates the inert printed word, and the living word is experienced as both more powerful and more dangerous.

Under these circumstances a maximalist account of freedom of speech loses a measure of plausibility; it loses its status as a taken for granted and unalloyed good.