Fahrenheit 451

Khilna Shuklaa contributes Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 satirical novel on the relationship between humans and technology, published in the early days of an era that promotes consumers as patriotic citizens. Fahrenheit 451’s spectacle of book burning reminds us how easily our knowledge and identities can be reshaped or destroyed.

Museum of the Anthropocene: Fahrenheit 451

“No one even notices that there is a war going on”

Showing cover of Ray Bradbury's novel 'Fahrenheit 451' (1957 Corgi Books edition, cover by John Richards)
‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury. 1957 Corgi Books edition (cover by John Richards)

Humans have a particularly interesting habit of imagining the future. Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury’s reflections on how Western society was being reconstructed with the introduction of the new technologies he observed around him. Having written it in 1953, a time when the TV was becoming affordable with rapid consumerism post World War II and the Great Depression, this satirical novel reflects on the relationship between humans and technology and how easily knowledge can be reshaped or in some cases even destroyed.

After the Second World War, consumerism became an important component of ‘The American Dream’, whereby consumer spending no longer meant just satisfying an indulgent material desire. The American consumer was praised as a patriotic citizen in the 1950s, contributing to the ultimate success of the American way of life. Families of all income brackets were buying televisions at a rate of five million a year. Some TV shows, like The Goldbergs and The Honeymooners, catered to working- and middle-class viewers. Television provided a medium for advertisers to reach inside American homes.

The society painted in Fahrenheit 451 is gripped with entertainment. Entertainment is not only a distraction, but a way to control people’s behaviours, thoughts, and interactions. There is a particular scene where the protagonist’s wife, Mildred, is watching the ‘parlour walls’ (TV) with her friends, who seem to be taking more notice of the appearance of the politician on screen than the shocking news of the war going on. In retrospect, Bradbury’s reflections on society becoming so interconnected with technology that people often rely on it more than they rely on other people has become a reality for a lot of us; at times we feel more at ‘home’ with our technology than in our physical homes or with family members.

Social media is a transformative technology, and some may argue it has opened up new channels for public debates such as climate change. Technology and social media in particular erode the power of traditional gatekeepers such as political parties and scientific organisations; they allow individuals with a story to tell to reach more people.

Technology allows for revolutionised ways of communicating and so ‘epistemic communities’ are no longer the sole providers of information. Counter-expertise has long been mobilised by environmental movements to contest environmental realities, with the result that ‘public’, ‘local’ or ‘indigenous’ knowledges are increasingly recognised as central to the success of environmental projects.

Knowledge is an important aspect of the Anthropocene. It builds our identity and how we feel about, well, everything. Yet the spectre of book burning throughout Fahrenheit 451 is a constant reminder of a past reality whereby book burning was used to destroy knowledge and suppress communities, for example the book-burning campaigns of Nazi Germany which sought to erase Jewish histories. It reminds us too of a present where controversial books are again being banned from schools and public libraries.

Bradbury may have reflected on the negative effects of technological revolutions, but we can see that the world has become increasingly interconnected through the power of technology. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Could it help us achieve global change in order to tackle the environmental problems of the Anthropocene?


Fahrenheit 451 was contributed by Khilna Shuklaa: “This module is one of my favourite modules I’ve ever taken throughout my geography undergrad! It encouraged me to explore my personal relationship with technology and how I see my smartphone as a ‘home’ where everything I ‘need’ is made available to us within seconds, and often revert to my phone for comfort when in an uncomfortable situation.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was originally published by Ballantine in the USA in 1953, and is currently published by Harper Collins in the UK. 451oFahrenheit (232.8oC) is the temperature at which paper ignites. Why ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Is the Book for Our Social Media Age is a 2018 New York Times review of the book and its ideas by Ramin Bahrani, a writer, director who adapted Fahrenheit 451 for HBO.

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