Wow! Murder, Technology, and Ray Bradbury’s Prescience
Lovely, breezy summer’s day up here in the Keweenaw. What’s it like in your neck of the woods? Hope you are looking forward to a relaxing weekend full of books.
The Murderer (1953) by Ray Bradbury
I’ve been working my way through the short stories in 520) Twice 22 by Ray Bradbury, 1959 (hard copy, library). What gems!
I’ll repeat that, although Bradbury is mostly discussed as a science fiction writer, his writing was actually much broader. And these stories, mostly written in the 1940’s and 50’s read more like scripts for The Twilight Zone tv show than science fiction.
And I guess he had a 1980s tv show – I hadn’t realized this – called the Ray Bradbury Theater that ran this story.
Anyway, in this story Mr. Albert Brook aka “The Murderer” is meeting with a prison psychiatrist. As they move back and forth through the building, they walk through zones where they can hear different classical music pieces playing.
As their discussion evolves, we learn of Brook’s wrist radio (a wrist cell phone), his talking office, ads projected on cumulus clouds (aren’t there ads projected on some urban buildings?), automated houses that talk to you and turn things on and off (Bill Gates’ home! see this youtube video of it), buses playing constant music at you, cars that tell you where to drive, people riding the bus all talking loudly, not to each other, but into their wrist radios…
In short, he told a story of today’s world where you can move from space to space and never be free from a flow of images and sounds and connections to remote people at the cost of connections to the people actually in the room with you.
One day, Albert gets fed up and starts destroying the technology, piece by piece, in fun and innovative ways (like dumping ice cream in it). In his world, this is clearly demonstrated mental illness – how can anyone wish to be free from this constant, “soothing” buzz?
As I read this story, I was blown away by Bradbury’s prescience – writing in the 1950s, he envisioned the world we live in today, in remarkably dead-on ways. One of the things that is fascinating about the story is that it wouldn’t have resonated nearly as much even five or ten years ago when we weren’t nearly as surrounded by iphones, facebook, and airport CNN (my personal favorite scourge).
As I sit here in a my rural community home on the corner of two quiet streets, feeling the curtains touch me from the breeze, listening to my keyboard clicks, the dogs snoring, wind blowing, a neighbor’s dog barking, and a low noise of construction rumbling, I also realize that he had it somewhat wrong. The feel of the story fits beautifully for urban spaces where it seems like everyone is talking on a phone or listening to their ear buds, where electronic sounds and moving images can be all-surrounding, sometimes impossible to avoid and omnipresent. Where people frequently use GPS systems in their cars as they drive to unfamiliar spaces. Not so well for rural spaces.
Happily, it remains fairly easy for most of us to slip away from all this and enjoy a quiet morning in the park, a weekend away from technology in the mountains, or an email-free Sunday. By and large, we aren’t forced to listen to things (airports in the US remain a key exception). But where are we heading?
When I was growing up, people often played radios as background music throughout the day. I don’t remember finding this too annoying. I definitely cannot bear televisions going all the time with no one watching them (one of my neighbors, whose living room is very visible from my house, seems to have his television on, literally, 24 hours a day – I would definitely have to pull an Albert Brooks on it if I lived there). In today’s world, so many people’s tolerance for omnipresent noise and video seems far higher than mine. What about ten or twenty years from now?
If you really want to scare yourself, find a copy of Bradbury’s The Murderer, read it, and then watch that video about Bill Gates’ house – you will be stunned by the parallels between the story and the Orwellian environment created by one of our world’s great technology leaders and humanitarians.
On another note…
You want this octopus? Just try and get it!
Happy reading, ruby