by Glenn Reed
(Swans - November 5, 2012) Ray Bradbury's classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, presents a dystopian view of the future. It's a society where books are banned and there is no printed word. Houses of those who have broken the law are burned to the ground by firemen such as the dystopian novel's main character, Montag.
Some of the images that stick most in my mind from that book are Montag's wife, Mildred, lying on her bed with seashells stuck in her ears, pumping in music or interacting with a live soap opera surrounding her on three floor-to-ceiling screens. She is utterly oblivious to her husband, the world outside, any true reality. I easily imagine her glassy, empty stare and vapid responses to other people, including her own husband.
These images are particularly striking to me now because I see Mildreds each and every day. Not just a few. Many. A growing majority. Especially among the younger generation that is growing up addicted to constant auditory and visual input, digitized, artificial realities that consume hours each day, interactions with other human beings that are based entirely on instant text messages, clever tweets, the latest Facebook posts that let all of their hundreds of virtual friends know what they are eating or if they had a bad day.
Mildred nearly ran into me yesterday because her eyes were completely glued to her iPad as she walked down a college building hallway. Not even an excuse me as she brushed my arm and briefly looked up with that utterly vacant stare.
Mildred's glance was glued in my direction at the supermarket last week, her lips moving, her voice inflecting as I got closer and wondered what she might be saying to me. Then I noticed the tiny device in her ear, barely visible through her long locks of black hair. She displayed a moment of annoyance that I actually thought she might be speaking to me.
Mildred forced me off the side of the road last year as he tapped out a message on his iPad with one hand, the other hand on the wheel was left on auto-pilot, and his car swerved into the wrong lane. Not even a glance from him as I honked my horn and he meandered on his way.
Mildred sat on a slab of bedrock on the mountain that I hiked last month, sweating from the effort of the climb, putting down his knapsack and reaching inside. Then his voice drowned out the slight breezes and the mournful call of the white-throated sparrows. Everyone needed to know about his investments and how they were doing on this sunny Sunday.
A group of Mildreds passed me in a small town last spring as I headed to the general store. It was an unseasonably mild day and the first purples and oranges of crocuses were poking through leaf litter on the sides of houses and the public library. But the Mildreds were utterly oblivious, unseeing, not present. One was blathering on a cell phone while the other two stared into the devices literally clutched by their fingers. Occasionally they'd glance up to avoid a tree, or show each something on the tiny screens. Perhaps a pixilated picture, as a thousand pictures surrounded them.
The disconnect between people and the world around them has been growing by leaps and bounds along with the ever-lauded wonders of technology. Virtually everyone is addicted to their little devices that allow perpetual contact with others, non-stop input of favorite and hand-picked tunes, access to countless bits of information that lead you from one Web site to another, like a four-year old in a giant warehouse full of candy and toys, but no Rosebud moment.
The medium is the message on steroids. It's all you can eat at the lowest prices. It's the proverb that more is better and quantity beats quality every day, every minute, every second like the barrage of images in a Hollywood action-flick trailer where, afterwards, you feel that you've seen the whole movie but can't ever say what it's about.
The disconnect between people and the world around them leaves them oblivious to the subtle changes in color of the foliage as summer slides into autumn, but it also renders them unable to detect the trends in the climate that scream out something is very wrong. Walks in the woods have become too quiet and too frightening. Who knows what instant message you might miss if you took the time to examine the tuft of bluets growing near a rock? Better check your hand...every ten seconds.
Why worry about taking some real action for change when you can just sign an on-line petition and feel that you've done your part? Anyway, at such times, without the essential ear-plug and palm-sized devices, you might be forced to be alone with your own thoughts and that seems to be more and more terrifying to people these days. You can't avoid the reality of death, the reality of what we're doing to the planet, the reality that your feelings can't be tapped out in simple one-liners, the reality that you can't resolve personal issues without actually spending time processing them, reflecting on them, suffering through what you have to suffer.
It's so much easier to drown that reality with technology. It's so much easier to let your eyes glaze over, reduce the inconveniences walking by you to irrelevance, never say thank you or hello, only show the emotion of annoyance to those that would dare disturb that digital bubble and break the convenient, addictive trance.
There's no time to meditate and empty the clutter from your head. There's no time to actually sit back and discuss with a friend the actions of your significant other who may have hurt you. There's no time for feeling when you've got all of that information always at your fingertips and the answers to everything can be tapped out in a witty acronym and flashed to your entire world. There's no time to smell any roses because their color can be captured in high-resolution digital form, downloaded to your laptop, uploaded to your Facebook page and favorite digital photography Web site, and your ego can be stroked for a day or so with comments on how wonderful your photo is and your ability to press a shutter release. Maybe it'll go viral.
There's no time to actually be present in the here and now. There's no time to just...be.
Mildred, in Fahrenheit 451, suffers an overdose early on in the book. It's noted that this has become a commonplace occurrence in that soulless society. After having her stomach pumped by indifferent emergency personnel, the next day she is right back to her seashell ear-plugs and wall-to-ceiling video family.
Bradbury was so prescient on this one that he deserves more recognition. Perhaps I should share this thought on Facebook and do a search to see what others think. As I sit on the front porch, hear the jabber of a blue jay, and notice the branches shake in a cool breeze, I think I can hear Mildred whispering somewhere...
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)