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Ray Bradbury Got It Exactly Right

August 20th, 2020 · 20 comments

Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Murderer, first published in his 1953 collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun, begins with a psychiatrist arriving at a mental hospital. He’s there to see a prisoner named Albert Brock, who calls himself: “The Murderer.”

When the psychiatrist enters the interview chamber, he frowns. “Something was wrong with the room.” He soon realizes the problem: the wall-mounted radio has been torn down and smashed.

As the psychiatrist sits down, Brock reaches out and quickly steals the visitor’s wrist radio, crunching it in his teeth like a walnut, before handing back the ruined device with a smile, explaining: “That’s better.”

It’s soon revealed that Brock is not imprisoned because of any harm he caused to other people. His crime was instead the wanton destruction of all the information, entertainment, and communication devices in his life: he fed his phone into his kitchen garbage disposal, shot his television with a gun, poured water into his office intercommunication system, stomped his wrist radio on the sidewalk, and spooned ice cream into his car’s FM transceiver.

As Brock elaborates, he’d become fed up with the constant communication, distraction, manipulation and digital anxiety that defined the near future world in which Bradbury’s story is set:

“It’s easy to say the wrong thing on telephones; the telephone changes your meaning on you. First thing you know, you’ve made an enemy. Then, of course, the telephone’s such a convenient thing; 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 music, it was interoffice communications, and my horror chamber of a radio wristwatch on which my friends and my wife phoned every five minutes.”

These changes were not the result of an Orwellian imposition, but had instead emerged naturally; unexpected cultural side effects of innovations that were celebrated when first introduced:

“It was all so enchanting at first, the very idea of these things, the practical uses, was wonderful. They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

It becomes clear that the psychiatrist cannot relate. “Can I go back to my nice private cell now, where I can be alone and quiet for six months?”, Brock finally asks.

Confused, the psychiatrist heads back to his office, where he renders his dismissive prognosis: “Seems completely disoriented, but convivial. Refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them.”

He recommends commitment of an “indefinite” length, before his attention is drawn away:

“Three phones rang. A duplicate wrist radio in his desk drawer buzzed like a wounded grasshopper. The intercom flashed a pink light and click-clicked. Three phones rang. The drawer buzzed. Music blew in through the open door. The psychiatrist, humming quietly, fitted the new 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 phones ringing again, and his hands moving, and his wrist radio buzzing, and the intercoms talking, and voices speaking from the ceiling…”

All the while, The Murderer relaxes in luxurious silence.

If we could bring Bradbury forward into our current moment, he’d look around, nod his head with resignation, then quip: “Yep. This looks about right.”

20 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury Got It Exactly Right

  1. If I had a garbage disposal unit in my house I would be feeding my phone, iPad, laptop into it right now … It always amazes me how writers somehow manage to predict with such apparent clarity the issues we will face in the future, based on lessons from the past. Its a shame we never seem to learn though.
    It reminds me of reading The Machine Stops by E.M Forster and his apparent invention of the internet and video calling.

    Thanks for sharing – I’m going to go and read this now (while I take a break from working deeply on my PhD thesis …)

    1. Stephen says:

      So, You have no way of throwing your phone away without a garbage disposal? Of course you do. What You mean is you have no intention of doing it. You just like the idea that you could.

      Some people would even find it difficult just to turn off everything for an hour. It, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

  2. Pierre says:

    Love this. Hoping for more commentary through great fiction.

    1. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano” is eerie in this regard.

  3. Love this!

    As a teacher and a writer, I find these things at odds. I *need* some of these technologies to make my classes happen right now, but I know that they are also creating unwanted distractions in my life.

    Live in the tension, I suppose…

    1. James says:

      I think the issue is whether we make technology the focus, or whether we make our goals the focus with technology as a means to our ends.

      Like you, I need technology for my job. If it weren’t for email, telephones, instant messaging, and other technological marvels, it would take me a week to do what now takes hours. That’s not speculation; my work is similar to that of my father and grandfather, so I can draw fairly direct comparisons. By judicious use of these tools I advance my goals and make my projects function better, faster, safer, and cheaper. It’s injudicious use that’s the problem.

      I have a pretty simple metric for this: I ask whether I’m defining my goals and then selecting my tools, or if I’m selecting my tools and then defining my goals. If it’s the former, technology serves my purpose–whether that be a crochet hook, a circular saw, or YouTube (I spent last night listening to a reading of William Bligh’s account of the mutiny on the Bounty, for example–something I’d been meaning to do for a while). If I’m selecting my goals based on the technology available, it’s likely that I’m acting mindlessly.

    2. Joe says:

      K-12 or college?

      I’m an instructional designer at the university level, but I’ve also taught at the K-12 level. The biggest key for classes right now is understanding that online learning puts a good 80-90% of the work in the preparation for the course. I’ve been reviewing courses for our fall semester, that starts for two of our programs on 9/2, for the last few weeks. Our graduate instructors already understood this, and have worked this way for years, and even our undergraduate adjusted well to it since they’ve been using a more flipped approach for the last 3-4 years.

      The biggest thing is that we’ve defined, for faculty and students, clear intentions for the various tools and communication items we have in place. They know that faculty/student course communication takes place in the LMS email tool, that technical issues and anything not specific to a course takes place in our Outlook email, and that there are clearly defined parameters for real time help versus a delayed response. That allows us to define how we use things while controlling expectations. This also means that we’ve had time to teach our faculty to use our new monitoring software during exams, how to better make use of the video and audio tools we’ve had for a while, and how to create better assignments and assessments.

      It’s not easy, at first, but once things are in place and you stick to them for a bit then the vast majority of people comfortably fall in line.

  4. George says:

    Most people no longer are capable of enjoying simple pleasures. A friend whom I interviewed for a book told me how, when he managed a small health food store, he hated stocking, but when he began to do it with sole focus, lining up the cans just right, he found that it brought him pleasure. Oddly, the brain centers where deep focus us localized are also where certain kinds of calm joy live. I remember being bored out of my skull while waiting at a mall for a friend, and discovering that by paying one-pointed attention to one thing, the time passed very enjoyably. At 78, I spend the hour from 4:30 to 5:30 a.m. singing – the more with undistracted mind, the more enjoyably.

  5. Mrs. says:

    Right-on. Ditto Louise, going to read it but later. Going back to deep work for now…

  6. MP says:

    I normally don’t comment but this was a great metaphor for how we conduct ourselves in 2020. When I’ve tried to explain my argument to others with their hive of gadgets, I get this: “why would you want to go back in time when we didn’t have these amazing machines. It’s so much better with them than without.”

    I’m oversimplifying but you’ve talked about this: there only needs to be ONE small, reason a user adopts a technology for them to deem it okay to introduce into their life. As someone who still struggles to delete my NYT news app from my phone, this post is scary and timely reminder.

  7. Sarah says:

    I read this story years ago and have often thought about it in recent years, and in conjunction with your work. It was certainly prescient. Bradbury is one of my favorites, and absolute master.

  8. Gavin Herbert says:

    Amazing. And so on the money of where we are today.

  9. Jordan says:

    Upon opening up this email and reading the first couple paragraphs, I was so intrigued by the Ray Bradbury story (which I’d never heard of), that I stopped to read it before finishing your post. And what can I say but, oh my goodness, it’s as if Bradbury were psychic. The uncanny accuracy is almost frightening, what with our constant connection via mobile phones, smart watches, 70″ TVs, and nary a restaurant, gym, or waiting room without walls lined with more TVs. In one sense, I’m glad Bradbury isn’t here to witness how close to the mark The Murderer turned out to be. On the other hand, having given this trajectory forethought, he may have been able to provide some wisdom with managing our dependence on these devises and their apparent inescapability. Then again, that’s what public thinkers like you are here for, Cal. Keep up the good work.

  10. Great! Very interesting. Maybe he is a time traveller =) . I heard this thing is possible

  11. Chioma says:

    I started using all the methods for studying that were recommended by Cal when I read his “How to become a straight-A student” book. I just started my exams today and I will be back in a few months to share my results.?

  12. Mark says:

    Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors and he had a lot to say about the importance of time invested in learning and developing thought. Fahrenheit 451, one of his most famous books, fits right into the philosophy of Deep Work. He commented many times publicly that Fahrenheit 451 was not about government censorship, but about the danger of television turning us into a passive, entertainment-driven public. He warned against letting constant streams of “snippets and factoids” make us “feel full” but preventing us from really learning and understanding a subject. The format of a book forces you to spend time with that subject, absorb it, and formulate your thoughts.

    Television almost seems quaint compared to the bombardment of notifications and social feeds most people subject themselves to today.

  13. Matt Cardin says:

    Thanks for this, Cal. Right on the money. Just like Bradbury’s story. I’ve taught this one several times in college English classes (plus several of his other stories and novels to both college and high school students), always with the intention of A) introducing others to the enduringly delightful marvel that is Ray Bradbury and his work, and B) inviting them to consider how his mid-twentieth-century vision of a dystopian future enabled and typified to a large degree by the absolute disruption of human society and the human soul by intrusive technologies is actually our present reality.

    Another story of his that pairs wonderfully with “The Murderer” is, of course, “The Veldt” (available at https://preview.tinyurl.com/ybvd4umc), which essentially invented the concept of virtual reality back in 1950, and which remains a particularly nightmarish warning about the way in which a childhood that’s utterly enveloped and pervaded by such technologies might warp the soul in truly awful ways.

  14. Phones are annoying, but even more annoying are people who expect that one answers them.
    And those who really do so, even while sitting down for dinner with someone else. I have stopped meeting friends who can’t switch it off while having a conversation with me.

  15. the wrist-radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the phones ringing again, and his hands moving, and his wrist radio buzzing, and the intercoms talking, and voices speaking from the ceiling

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