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Distractions: Survival in an Age of Technology

Distractions, focusing on essential things, simplify

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury‘s famous story, is much deeper than I suspected. I knew it was about book burning and so I guess I expected it to be about ignorance, fear, and suppression. And it is about that. But the commentary I found regarding our ability and interest to connect with each other was eye opening.

If you have not read it, Fahrenheit 451 is a story about Guy Montag, a “fireman” of the future. In 2022, firemen do not fight fires since all houses are fireproofed. Instead, firemen play the vital role of preserving societal happiness by burning books. How does this work you ask? It eliminates thinking and any danger of becoming dissatisfied with the status quo.

Happiness is maintained through constant and invasive vapid entertainment via wall-to-wall TV screens. Even outside their homes, continual ads and promotions assault their ears. Montag is obliviously immersed in this world until he meets his neighbor. Clarisse is a young girl who seems completely uninterested in the prevailing trends of the day. As he converses with her, he discovers that she seems to know and experience things that he lacks.

Sand in a Sieve

Bradbury was a master storyteller, one of the greatest of the 20th century. I love the imagery he offers through Guy Montag’s memory of his childhood. In a flashback, Montag finds himself at a beach with his family. His cousin, an unpleasant sort, instructed Montag to take handfuls of hot sand and fill a sieve. If he did, he would get a dime.

Valuing things over people is like holding sand

The child version of Montag subsequently spends hours trying to fill the sieve. But “the faster he poured, the faster it sifted through with a hot whispering.” This vignette, indicative of a change occurring in Montag’s character, planted a seedling in my mind as well.

No matter how much we try to fill our days and our time with things, with entertainment, or with distractions, we will find that it leaves us just as empty as before. Just like the sieve and the sand, the insubstantial will not satisfy. There is no replacement for memories, for time, or for effort invested with a person that matters to us.

Distractions vs. Interactions

Montag’s wife Mildred represents the antithesis of his journey. She blissfully spends her days ensconced in her parlor surrounded by three full-wall TV screens (lamenting her lack of a fourth). The TV programs offer an escape from a reality she wouldn’t even recognize. Her virtual life is a continual buffet, which she neither remembers nor bothers to understand.

Mildred is hardly unique in their world as almost everyone Montag knows is similarly distracted. Suicides are frequent. Mildred occasionally takes entire bottles of sleeping tablets because she is so caught up in her entertainment that she can’t remember having eaten any. Through Clarisse, Montag realizes the plight of his family, and the world around him. Montag tries to save his family by conversing with Mildred away from the TV.

She is resistant and oblivious. She can’t understand why he would wish to talk when they could instead watch her “family” on the TV. The TV has all the interaction they could ever desire. The effort required to engage with another person was far greater than that of simply absorbing the distractions displayed on the screen in front of her.

Bradbury wrote the book in 1951, but I see firsthand what he wrote about then. At times, my children will be together in a room, each with a Kindle in front of their face not acknowledging anyone else’s presence. At extended family meals that we hold once a week, we (I’m included) will at times all be engaged with our iPhones while sitting in the same room.

There is so much more to life than the next game, the next episode, or the next movie. No one can find real lasting happiness in a screen or a game. There is a time and a place for such things in life of course. Bradbury even ends the book with this quote from Ecclesiastes “to everything there is a season.” But a happy life needs much more than a series of virtual moments can provide.

What Matters Most

When the end of my life arrives, if I get the chance to reflect, I am convinced that I will treasure the time I spent with my loved ones more than anything else. I doubt I will remember the plot to any movies I watched, or wonder what would have happened with the cliffhanger in that one TV episode. I don’t think I’ll wish I had leveled up just a little higher in a video game.

What I do think is that I’ll hope my children had memories of me being a loving father, my wife remembering a loving husband. I think I’ll wish to have spent time with friends in laughter and conversation. Most of all, I think I will be happy if I have spent my days doing things that filled me with joy, rather than just filled my time.

Classic authors, regardless of their epoch, seem to understand universal and lasting truths. Perhaps the issues humans face have just always been the same. Jane Eyre is one of my literary heroes, Charlotte Brontë a wonderful author and wise beyond her technological years. A quote I have loved since the moment I read it is this:

Literary quotes, Jane Eyre, Happiness, Charlotte Brontë

There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

For me, reading Fahrenheit 451 inspired me to look a little closer at where I spend my time. I hope to devote more of it to interactions rather than distractions.



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