Just finished Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. That's the one where the main character is a Fireman. And Firemen burn books for a living. Now read this bit, and tell me if a man writing in 1953 didn't have just a slight inkling of where the media would be in 2009:
"When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours [Fireman], how did it come about, where, when? ...motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass."
Montag sat in bed, not moving.
"And because they had mass, they became simpler," said Beatty [that's the fire-chief]. "Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books levelled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?"
"I think so."
Beatty peered at the smoke pattern he had put out on the air. "Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending."
"Snap ending." Mildred nodded.
"Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours. Do you see?
...Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man's mind around so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!"
Twitter, anyone? That's another story though. Beatty's argument goes on to claim that because nobody has time or taste for deep thought, books only exist to make people feel stupid. What's more, they are frequently (self-) contradictory, full of nonsense, and socially divisive. Why have them, when people can get their news newer and their pleasure more pleasurable from the joys of modern technology?
Why indeed? Well, here's where a bit of pop-psychology comes in (doesn't it always). As well as direct, kinetic pleasure, the average human is looking for something they can dialogue with over a long period. A sort of one-sided companionship or relationship of commitment. We can see this in the watching of soap operas or time-vacuum dramas like Heroes. And it's why books, like meals, are a little less satisfying if you race through them as quickly as you can. Nevertheless, Bradbury's vision of the future might well have come to pass but what he thankfully didn't forsee was the way that we'd manage to tell stories - indeed, publish whole books - online. It's nice that marketers have in some cases led the charge, probably because we have the money to make it happen. But it's a classic example of taking new media, and instead of turning culture to a grey intravenous mush Bradbury-style, using it to challenge and stimulate human nature. 'Cause no matter how fast technology changes, I don't think that'll alter for another few thousand years.
(append: I shortened that passage so it would fit the internet. How's that for irony?)
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