In his 1966 film “Fahrenheit 451”, Francois Truffaut illuminates ideas Ray Bradbury laid down in his 1953 science fiction novel of mass media, information control and personal privacy, thus anticipating our current debate on net neutrality by more than 50 years.
In “Fahrenheit 451” written knowledge is the enemy. Guy Montag is a man whose job it is to burn books, not just some books, all books.
In Montag’s world, televised media is recognized as the legitimate source of information. Instead of reading it for themselves in their voices the citizens of Montag’s world get their information from neat looking, prerecorded talking heads blandly reciting prepared statements. This intel comes in over the large monitors in every room of Montag’s home and in all the public places as well.
When Montag becomes interested in the books he is burning his superiors immediately attempt to seduce him back into conformity. Thus we learn that those ubiquitous monitors also provide the authorities the means to eves drop on Montag.
The opening credit sequence is one of the most brilliant and powerful moments in the film consisting not of the customary flashcard of lines of text crediting writer, producer, director, and keys. This movie begins with an audio track of the credits read aloud to you by a deep, officious male voice. This soundtrack is accompanied by still shots of houses and buildings with row upon row of television antennas mounted on each of them. Even before the story unfolds Truffaut ignites the audience with this flash of genius, an immediate, visceral example of how our world would look, sound and feel were the written word outlawed.
Montag reads enough to see through the media seduction and retreats from his status as book burner. The former enforcer slips out of sight of the monitors. He joins a secret colony of rebels dedicated to memorizing books and preserving them.
What “Fahrenheit 451” illustrates brilliantly is how people are the source of knowledge, not books (nor the Internet). Flash backward from Montag’s to my day and to this time. The Internet is not so much an invention of man as a deepening awareness of our agelessness interconnection.
The Internet will not thrive on greed alone. The Internet will be equally infused with common sense, or else the Internet will die. Same goes for the human race. Knowledge is born and lives in minds, not on hard drives or digital screens. Humans cannot be masters of the Internet any more than humans can master nature.
Attempts to capture and control the truth are futile. Common sense teaches all people the important lessons. Still, we are all curious to know each others secrets. Don’t we all know our dirty little secret anyway? It comes down to this. We are all to some degree, selfish and calloused toward the fate of each other. The net neutrality debate is a perfect example. Those who attempt to control information do so for selfish reasons, then make up excuses for why it is a good idea.
It should not surprise us to find ourselves in this predicament over privacy. We were prepared for the digital revolution’s profusion of lenses well before “Fahrenheit 451” aligned minds. In one of our much older and more popular science fiction stories, John’s hallucination in the “Book of Revelation” describes a lamb all covered with eyes. In that prophet’s endgame, we stand naked before God and the Devil and all eyes are watching.