People who know me well, know that I've been obsessed with Ray Bradbury's fiction most of my life. I'm not sure I've read everything he's ever written, but I bet I've giddily consumed about 90% of his catalog. Few writers combine brilliance and prescience with Bradbury's swoon-worthy gift for story-telling and language.
As a tribute to Mr. Bradbury, who died earlier this week at the age of 91, I'm breaking my habit of posting purely original content in order to repost this thought-provoking list compiled by The Washington Post. People who scorn readers/writers of science fiction would do well to consider the frequency with which their "flights of fancy" prove prescient.
- Earbuds. The people in the “Fahrenheit 451” society sport “seashells” and “thimble radios,” which bear a striking resemblance to the earbuds and Bluetooth headsets of today.
- Flatscreen TVs. Members of “Fahrenheit 451’s” futuristic society are also as obsessed with their large, flat-screen televisions as are any of today’s technophiles, and the viewing screens in Bradbury’s stories often take up an entire wall.
- "The Wall". In fact, the novel mentions that people are talking to their digital friends through the wall — the same terminology that Facebook would use years later for the digital hub that enables friends to post and see messages.
- Social isolation. The loneliness that can come from constantly paying attention to the screens around you, rather than the life around you, is a prevalent theme in Bradbury’s work. He explores it in his short story “The Pedestrian,” in which protagonist Leonard Mead is arrested for the dual crimes of taking a walk and not owning a television. Far ahead of the research and analysis that have spawned books on the effects of technology overload, such as Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together,” Bradbury outlined how he feared televisions would change the world. In this passage, he compares a neighborhood of television-watchers to a tomb: “[He] would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind he windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomblike building was still open.”
- Self-driving cars. “The Pedestrian” also features a self-driving — and self-thinking — car that arrests and commits the protagonist to a mental hospital. While far less advanced and much less sinister, self-driving cars are already on U.S. roads, as part of a Google project. As of last month, Google’s cars — clearly marked — can legally drive on Nevada’s roads and highways as long as two people are in the car during the tests.
- Rising electronic surveillance. The idea of electronic surveillance also popped up in Bradbury’s work, way before closed-circuit television became a fixture in major cities around the world. He was early in warning people about how such surveillance could be abused — worries that still echo today.
- Short attention span "news". Bradbury’s criticism of the coverage of live media events in “Fahrenheit 451” is fodder for media critics’ columns today. Bradbury disparaged constant, sensationalized news.
- ATMs. Bradbury also envisioned automated banking machines in the novel, which bear a striking similarity to the ATM and provide 24-hour financial information to their users.
- Artificial intelligence. In “I Sing the Body Electric!” and other stories, Bradbury explored artificial intelligence and the philosophical implications of advancements in AI that could perhaps produce thinking, feeling machines.
- E-books. Books as a medium aren’t banned — thank goodness — in today’s society, but reading a paper and glue version of a story isn’t as common as it once was. Bradbury loved actual, physical books, as my Washington Post colleague Alexandra Petri points out in her tribute to the writer, and would not allow “Fahrenheit 451” to be published as an e-book until last November, the Guardian reported. He once said that e-books “smell like burned fuel” to him, but he allowed his classic to be published digitally because it wouldn’t be possible to have a new contract without e-book rights.