A Prisoner of Technology
By Cliff Ennico
Sometimes, inspiration for this column comes from the most unusual places.
Each year, my summer beach reading has a theme. This year, it’s “classic science fiction” – the works of fantasy fiction pioneers Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card . . .
And a guy named Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), best known as the author of “Fahrenheit 451”.
At a library book sale last week, I picked up for 25 cents a collection of Bradbury’s short stories entitled “The Golden Applies of the Sun.” Like all the best science fiction, Bradbury’s stories aren’t so much about outer space, rocket science or alien life forms as they are about humanity – how human beings respond to, adapt to and cope with the challenges of a technological future.
Some of the stories were definitely dated, and some were a bit odd – there was one about a dinosaur that falls in love with a lighthouse, for example.
But one story in the collection absolutely blew me away: in about 10 pages, Bradbury nailed exactly how we live today.
Its title is “The Murderer,” and can be found online at www.sediment.uni-goettingen.de/staff/dunkl/zips/The-Murderer.pdf.
A psychiatrist visits a prison to examine a criminal. As he walks down several corridors to get to the holding cell where the prisoner is kept, his senses are assaulted with piped-in music and television screens everywhere, and interruptions from people trying to reach him on his “wrist radio”.
Finally, he gets to the cell. The prisoner’s crime? That he systematically destroyed every single piece of technology in his home, including:
- The telephone (he “shoved it in the kitchen Insinkerator”);
- The television set (shot to death);
- The intercommunications system at work (poured water into it); and
- The radio transmitter in his truck (spooned “French chocolate” ice cream – his favorite flavor – into it).
Why? Bradbury lets the prisoner (named Brock) tell it in his own words:
“The telephone’s such a convenient thing. But convenient for who? It just sits there and demands you call someone who doesn’t want to be called. Friends were always calling, calling, calling me. Hell, I hadn’t any time of my own. When it wasn’t the telephone it was the television, the radio, the phonograph. When it wasn’t the television or radio or the phonograph it was motion pictures projected, with commercials, on low-lying cumulus clouds. When it wasn’t High-Fly Cloud advertisements, it was music by Mozzek in every restaurant, music and commercials on the busses I rode to work. When it wasn’t music, it was inter—office communications, and my horror chamber of a radio wrist watch on which my friends and my wife phoned every five minutes.
When I’m in the field with my radio car there’s no moment when I’m not in touch. In touch! There’s a slimy phrase. Pawed, rather, mauled and massaged and pounded by FM voices. You can’t leave your car without checking in: ‘Have stopped to visit gas station men’s room.’ ‘Okay, Brock, step on it!’ ‘Brock, what took you so long?’ ‘Sorry, sir.’ ‘Watch it next time, Brock.’ ‘Yes, sir!’”
Finally, the prisoner commits an act of terrorism: he rents a “portable diathermy machine” and carries it on the bus with him to and from work. When turned on, it disrupts all of the technology within a several-block radius, driving people insane because there are no longer in constant contact with families and friends. Brock’s wife freaks out when he gets home because he hasn’t called in a half hour.
The story ends with the psychiatrist giving his report (the prisoner “seems completely disorientated, refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them”) and returning to his desk, where he, “humming quietly, fitted his wrist radio to his wrist, flipped the intercom, talked a moment, picked up one telephone, talked, picked up another telephone, talked, picked up the third telephone, talked, touched the wrist radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the two phones ringing again, and his hands moving, and his wrist radio buzzing, and the intercoms talking, and voices speaking from the ceiling. And he went on quietly this way through the remainder of a cool, air conditioned, and long afternoon: telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom . . . “
Look around you right now. How many TV screens do you see? How many people listening to iPods? How many people looking at or talking to smartphones? How many people doing so in their cars? How many people on headsets? Substitute “smartphone” for “wrist radio,” and Bradbury’s classic story is a perfect portrait of life in the year 2016.
The amazing thing is that Bradbury wrote and published this story (wait for it) . . . in the spring of 1952. Sixty-five years ago. Two years before I was born.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and host of the PBS television series ‘Money Hunt’. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2016 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC. @CliffEnnico.