Fahrenheit 451 and the Sociology of Tyranny

65 years after Ray Bradbury published his novel Fahrenheit 451, the story has been filmed, for the digital age, and is now an HBO movie. This is fitting, because Bradbury described a society where power and civilization become utterly separated. People end up glued to TV screens, taking pills to conceal their awareness of their mortality, while the government prepares for nuclear war. The popular abandonment of all things public is then completed by government-mandated destruction of books, which always threaten to bridge that public-private gap. Firemen in Bradbury’s story famously start fires instead of stopping them.

Bradbury bitterly warned that we would no longer even be citizens after we lose the practical knowledge that sustains our sense of human dignity. He described an America where we give up our rights willingly, to receive, in return, expert scientific administration. Science could solve the human problem, he feared, by replacing self-knowledge—ever an uncertain, troublesome quest —with obedience. This is Bradbury’s highest achievement: understanding science fiction as the ultimate confrontation between science and fiction, that is, poetry.

The power of the new sciences, obvious everywhere from tech-based entertainment to nuclear warfare, would cause poetry to collapse. The victory of science, seemingly permanent, would mean people no longer turn to stories to learn who they are or what it means to be human. This gives the story its urgency and encourages us to suspect Bradbury hit on something truly important. In the three generations since the novel was published, we have stopped fearing nuclear war—we don’t fear TV will turn us into zombies either—but the threat that science would destroy our ability to understand ourselves through poetry is as urgent in our times.

The poet T.S. Eliot certainly worried about it. He warned we might end up creating a system so perfect that none of us would have to be good. He meant, with Aristotle, that virtue is mostly good habits, so that if we come to find those habits unnecessary, we might prefer a way of life that’s easier, being automatic. Marx, too, in one of his moments of unsettling clarity, said that the true agent of the revolution is the machine.

Thus, we have beaten the Soviet Union without any nuclear war—but we might now fall prey to machines that run the world for us, with our passive consent, because we feel we can no longer deal with our own affairs. We might resign ourselves to an essentially inhuman view of progress where we no longer make things happen, but things happen to us without our doing them or consenting to them—we might feel fated to be superseded by machines of our own creation. In our dissatisfaction, we could even end up believing we don’t deserve any better.

This is what makes the movie so timely. Just now, what’s exciting in the American economy except “tech”, which is tacitly understood to mean digital technology? Tech thus understood is really the replacement, in more and more ways, of human institutions and human judgment—with algorithms. Neither our personal musical tastes nor our opinions of where the country is going make any sense to us without algorithms and technologies, from polling to Spotify. At the same time, our personal lives are no longer private—they are curated experiences in more and more ways, including on social media, of course, and whether we understand it or not, most of the work is done by algorithms.

This is what writer-director Ramin Bahrani had on his mind in updating Bradbury’s story of scientific tyranny for our times. He shows us a near-future where languages themselves have been replaced by a new digital construct half-emoji and half-hieroglyphs. Words are replaced, to an impressive extent, by images. Literacy dwindles and a gullibility known only in nomadic barbarians becomes routine. This image-based form of communication doesn’t help abstract reasoning, but it’s ideal for expressing sentiments and judgments encouraging the largest possible agreement. The less nuance, the better the machines do and the stronger the forms of conformism elicited by the combination of government and technology. The sense of sameness becomes as unbearable as it is unavoidable.

This works because the American future in the movie is defined by Augmented Reality. The cities are under full technological surveillance, which means each one of us can experience life as a spectator sport. Our fans and followers, starting with the government, of course, can judge our every action as it happens—and we have access to that virtual arena, too. Put together surveillance cameras, drones, GoPro, YouTube streaming, live-tweeting, etc. and you can see it happening already! With 5G, we’ll probably be able to pull it off and call it progress. The UK has long prided itself on public surveillance (CCTV) that in America is only featured in paranoid thrillers, but China has gone much further and now directly monitors the brainwaves of factory workers and conditions access to the digital economy on obedience to the regime.

Further, physical America becomes overlaid with screens pouring forth digital images, from advertising to propaganda. America becomes the ultimate social medium, but each American can only be what the people and the government allow. The movie, in contrast, reveals reading and writing to be secretive activities, the only loneliness left to man. Both personal love and existential doubts are possible in that privacy, forcing us to face the fundamental questions without the reassurance of social conventions. To be alone in such perplexity might mean to be nothing. People might flee that into an abstract world of entertainment and embrace its tyrannical underpinning.

This is the sociology of tyranny. The politics associated with it is also crucially dependent on digital technology. The movie replaces Bradbury’s fears of Cold War with a Second Civil War which has already occurred before the story begins, tying it to our own political predicament. The fireman leader, Captain Beatty, justifies the ultimate digital tyranny to his men as the necessary conclusion of political correctness and identity politics. Black people didn’t like Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, because of the use of nigger. White people didn’t like Native Son. Feminists didn’t like Hemingway and Henry Miller. All these books were burned, as well as everything else that was offensive, and eventually everything was offensive.

We already know there are words we cannot say, because they’re now effectively fighting words, and we have no way to fix that. We’re already turning social media into an arena for fictive wars that nevertheless bear some relationship to the increasing mutual hatred between partisans. The movie uses this to bring out Bradbury’s contention that the desire to limit freedom of speech in our situation is specifically leading to banning freedom of mind. Digital technology above all shows a tendency to make enemies of us even as it makes it harder and harder for us to ignore each other. We become omnipresent at the same time as we are reduced to symbols—ultimately, the one all-powerful symbol: You’re what’s wrong with America. We cannot tolerate each other’s ghostly digital presence and cannot help fantasizing that if only people we dislike disappeared, we’d finally be happy. This leads to tyranny, to install a regime where no one has to go through that anger—because there is no disagreement left.

Unlike the book and the first movie, made by Francois Truffaut in 1966, the new movie spends little time looking at the stupefied and satisfied majority distracting itself to death. The people have been reduced to digital ghosts. Instead, the focus is on the few who do the burning—they are treated like a fraternity, like an army, like men who understand their own superiority to the past by their unquestioning obedience and their superiority to the present by their contempt for therapeutic tranquility. Their very dissatisfaction with the regime is turned into fire. But they have no future.

The movie also insists far more than the book does on the broad domain of the muses. Prints of famous paintings are burned along with books—music is present, too, as scores. Human creativity is contrasted to the destructive character of our anger to show us again the problem with digital technology. We do not turn our anger and suffering into a discipline to bring forth something beautiful. We instead destroy others’ attempts to make sense of their paradoxical humanity. This is evident everywhere on social media and again it shows how many facets of our everyday life make sense in the picture of despair Bradbury painted.

The biggest change the movie creates is in protagonist Montag’s mission. The book concluded with a walking-talking version of the medieval university saving ancient wisdom. We would have to do, in the coming dark age, what the monks had done in the previous one. In the movie, there is indeed a way to save the heritage of our civilization for a time when tyranny can be dislodged—but technology is required to encode it within living beings. DNA-based encryption would seem to turn nature into the repository of the only providence our history has afforded us. The movie does very little to explain what this might mean, however, nor how it is possible to dislodge a tyranny that has turned our very lives digital.

This is something we have to reflect on, because as much as Bradbury, we face the question of introducing poetry into a world dominated by technology. We have to defend our attempts to understand ourselves, to attain a certain freedom from our technological habits, and to discover again what it means for us to be ensouled creatures. We have to turn digital technology into a servant of friendship and aid to community, not a replacement for them. I do not know what story teaches us how to do it, however.

Our stories about the future are now almost invariably fantasies of technological tyranny and yet our famous dystopian stories are never filmed, certainly not in successful versions. Most Americans don’t know these books and yet we assume an adjective like Orwellian is common knowledge. It is not and this is something we have to fix if we’re going to at least learn to be alarmed in a thoughtful way about our predicament.

So far, we have only one version of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, an English production written and directed by Michael Radford in 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. It was not famous and it’s now forgotten, but it’s better than Animal Farm, which has never been filmed. Huxley’s Brave New World has been filmed twice, both versions utterly forgotten, so we effectively have nothing. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has now been filmed twice, and hopefully it will attract some attention and stir the conversations we need to have about how we can foster the virtues that make our freedom worthwhile.

We owe HBO, Ramin Bahrani, and his co-writer Amir Naderi a debt of gratitude. We need more such films, because these famous dystopias still have a lot to teach us. And although it might be better to have stories that can plausibly describe a way out of our predicament, it is meanwhile very important to learn to analyze it carefully. Such stories can teach us again how to think about tyranny and what in us tempts us to give in to it. Bradbury has the added virtue of showing that we want our poetry to face up to scientific nightmares and to face them down in our behalf. There is fame awaiting the poets of the digital age who are interested in making this new technology friendly to our nature and our habits. And there is much wisdom awaiting the careful student of such stories where drama is used to lay bare the human soul.