The rise of film and television in the first half of the twentieth century led several of the era’s major writers to fear for the future of the book. They responded, in their fiction, by presenting a vision of the future in which universal dependence on technology—epitomized in the domination of screens over books—dissolves traditional bonds of charity, and unravels the fabric of civilized society. In retrospect, we can only call them prescient.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—published in 1932, just after the transition from silent film to “talkies”—depicts futuristic cinema experiences called “feelies,” in which metal knobs on moviegoers’ armrests transmit realistic sensations of whatever the on-screen actors are feeling. Some of these are as innocent as the feeling of hairs on a bearskin rug, but most are violent or pornographic.
In 1948, George Orwell likewise tied Western society’s fate to the future of the motion picture. 1984 envisions a world in which televisions are ubiquitous, their screens equipped with two-way capabilities that make it possible to monitor viewers in the privacy of their homes. The daily “Two Minutes Hate” broadcast, featuring only the best political propaganda, is mandatory programming for all citizens.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that another writer, this time an American, tried to picture a world entirely without books. Wall-size screens—sometimes three or four to a single home, and at no small cost—provide for everyone’s entertainment needs. Housewives are willing to pay for live-action roles in their favorite TV dramas. The state, zealous to complete the transition from books to screens, creates a special bureaucratic department to advise citizens on ideal texts and temperature for book-burnings—or so Ray Bradbury pictured things in 1953’s Fahrenheit 451.
In each of these novels—by Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury—books become an enemy because they represent a written record of the past to a dystopian future where the past is something to forget. Books threaten the status quo, undermine the dominant culture, overturn the ascendant social order—and so the powers that be attempt to wean or coerce their subjects away from the written word, with media they control.
Toward the end of Brave New World, Mustapha Mond, the Controller, pulls a few old books out of a safe, including dusty, worn copies of the Bible and The Imitation of Christ. In a discussion with the Shakespeare-loving Savage, an American Indian who was brought to London as a curiosity, Mond explains the relationship between technology and literature: “God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness. That’s why I have to keep these books locked up in the safe. They’re smut.”
In Orwell’s Great Britain, books aren’t locked away as smut, but are simply rewritten to suit the interests of the Party. Like today’s crusaders for the removal of Civil War memorials to Southern soldiers, the Party systematically erases any reminders of the past that stand in conflict with the present: records, photographs, statues, street names, and even dates. “History has stopped,” Winston tells Julia. “Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
A similar theme lies at the heart of Fahrenheit 451. Going about their work, the “firemen” Beatty and Montag learn that mass culture and progressive ideology have flattened their world, leveling every possible value-distinction between media, persons, and ideas. “Once,” Beatty says,
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. . . . Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me? . . . School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?
Though the mid-twentieth century is widely considered dystopian fiction’s heyday, literary warnings about the dangers of mass-media technology have grown only more prevalent, encompassing both fiction and non-fiction.
In Dave Eggers’s The Circle (a 2013 novel and 2017 movie), set in the near future, an eponymous social media monopoly embodying the worst elements of Apple, Google, and Facebook combined prepares to restructure the American electoral process. Everyone must vote, according to the new rules, and all votes are a matter of public record. The Circle spread the Orwellian corporate mantra, “SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT.”
But the non-fiction shelves are even more crowded with prophecies of technological doom. MIT professor Sherry Turkle has written about the effect of computers since, well, 1984, with The Second Self, which considered the computer not simply as a tool but something unique and distinctly personal. Turkle’s concerns only grew with the advent of the internet and social media, and they are well documented in her subsequent writing, including Life on the Screen (1995), Alone Together (2011) and Reclaiming Conversation (2015).
Neil Postman’s work could be said to start with 1985’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, which examined the influence of entertainment and “show business” on politics and public discourse. By 1992, in Technopoly, Postman came to believe that culture had surrendered to technology.
Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains was short-listed for a Pulitzer, and remains an influential volume, supplemented by his collection of related essays, Utopia is Creepy (2016). The list goes on, and other writers strike similar themes. An incomplete tally would include Adam Alter (Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, 2017), Michael Harris (The End Of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, 2014), and Matthew Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, 2014).
But perhaps the greatest prophet to foresee the advent of technological dystopia was Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media critic who passed away in 1980. His oft-cited motto, “The medium is the message,” exposes the way new media have in themselves profoundly influenced the messages we transmit and how they are received. His prediction that “the future of the book is the blurb” successfully distills the theme Fahrenheit 451 into a single sentence.
McLuhan believed that technology relates to culture as modern cities once related to the railroad. “The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society,” he said. “But it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.”
The same goes for any other technological innovation. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” goes another memorable McLuhan phrase. How will we be shaped by our computers, smartphones, and tablets, and by the internet and social media? Are we drawing closer to utopia, or to dystopia? What use will we have for the transcendental—the good, the true, and the beautiful—when all that keeps our attention is comfort and entertainment?
“Civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism,” the Brave New World’s Controller tells the Savage, revealing who really is cultured and who is the savage. “Those things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized political society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic.”
What a poorer world this hyper-efficient one will be. When will we remove our earbuds and listen to these prophetic voices?
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.