A Horrible Thing I Saw The Other Day


“I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.” – Ray Bradbury on Fahrenheit 451

The other day I saw a horrible thing.
It wasn’t a traffic accident on the 101 Freeway, of which there are many on any given L.A. day.
It was not a wounded soldier or a bar fight or a new reality television show.
Nevertheless, what I saw twisted my stomach and made me groan for the future of our kind.
It was an otherwise lovely afternoon and I was walking along the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. As usual it was awash in activity––people of all shapes, sizes, colors, tempers, faiths and costumes sauntering along the street of dreams.
As I am wont to do I was watching faces.
I love watching faces. Each one is a potential character or storyline.
I was content.
I was engaged.
And then I stopped, recoiling in horror.
Okay, it was only an inward recoil. But there it was, as real as the hardened gum on Dick Powell’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A woman was pushing a stroller. In the stroller was a young child, a boy of perhaps two years.
The boy was holding a digital device. His head was down and his fingers tapped the screen like a mad reporter on deadline.
I thought: I have met dystopia and it is us.
In 1953 Ray Bradbury penned an essay for The Nation about science fiction. He began by describing a scene in his novella Fahrenheit 451 where the fireman comes home to find his wife in a virtual stupor, an earpiece attached to her head. She was not reading, for that was forbidden. Aural stimuli were being pumped into her docile brain.
For Ray Bradbury, that kind of passivity was one of the most awful scenarios imaginable.
Bradbury then recounted how he had been out for a stroll recently and saw a couple walking their dog. The woman held a transistor radio with an earpiece (back then, a rather ponderous and rare piece of equipment) plugged into her auditory canal.
The husband, Bradbury noted, might as well not have been there.
Bradbury expressed his astonishment that his prediction of a rather gloomy future was happening much faster than he supposed.
And this was the early 50s! What would the late, great RB think of any given restaurant today? Couples, trios, whole families sitting at the same table, heads bent over phones or tablets, hardly exchanging a word?
And now this, here on Hollywood Boulevard. Is this our future? Will it be made up of little boys and girls who had iPads in their strollers, now all grown up into humorless, unimaginative technocrats unable to engage the real world?
I remember feeling some of this same revulsion when I first saw a DVD player in a motorized vehicle. It was a desert night and I was driving back to L.A. after some event. I pulled up alongside a dark SUV and saw a small monitor playing a cartoon for the denizens of the back seat.
This was a night when the stars could be gazed upon in wonder and the mysteries of desert shadows might stir the imagination.
But not for the children in the car! For them the desert was a bright and colorful Looney Tune with a funny roadrunner and a rather frustrated coyote. 
I’m fearful. I fear that digitized babies are not engaging their world or training their imaginations. I fear they will grow up unable to engage a long-form piece of writing, let alone real people in actual, meaningful conversation.
Am I overreacting?
Let me throw it out there to you, Zoners. Am I engaged in the sort of fogey-ism that is a part of every generation?
Or, like Ray Bradbury, should we be truly alarmed?

37 thoughts on “A Horrible Thing I Saw The Other Day

  1. No, you’re not alone. This problem is getting epidemic and is increasing social isolation, reducing patience, enhancing bad manners and sabotaging people’s ability to enjoy silence (as these techno-devices are seldom without noise).

    However, on a good note, while I don’t think we’ll see a reversal of this problem, I think there will be a rising backlash against tech-obsession. I’ve noticed over the summer semester, while reading assignments of some of the English and Communications classes I’m taking online that awareness of the problem is rising in a variety of adult age groups. So there might be some respite in the offing.

    I was actually interested in writing a paper this semester on why people are so afraid of silence. While this is not just relevant to our tech-obsessed age, it has become more enhanced in our tech-obsessed age. But I could not believe it–I could not find one single scientific article in the psych or medical databases where anybody had examined the fear of silence. Maybe silence is so fearful that psychologists are afraid even to study it.

    That strays a little off the point of your post, but is related.

    Let’s just all set a goal–next time we go out to eat with someone, practice speaking a few words to our compatriot across the table WITHOUT using a phone. Addictions are broken one step at a time. 😎

    • To your final paragraph: True, addictions are hard to break, but the addict has to want to be free of his her addiction… (Now THERE’S a setting: a techno-rehab clinic… Hmmmm… Where’s my i-Pad?l

  2. I’m sure people said the same about the first paperbacks.

    It’s nice that you worry about other people … But they were happy, you weren’t, so maybe we should all worry about you?

  3. The funny thing about dystopian authors is that they always seem to nail down the most disturbing aspects of a future society. I was taken aback by the presence of TVs on every wall in 451 as well. He saw that coming, didn’t he? We’re witnessing a society that consists of 99% people who prefer someone else do their thinking for them. This is a society doomed to lose its freedom. I don’t know what the final outcome of this trend will be, but I certainly don’t hold out much hope when a 40 year old man knows more about a video game than he does about world events. When the enemy comes, be it internal or external, I’m afraid he’ll find easy pickings here in the land of the free.

  4. Excellent discussion topic. Thank you. Only a small part of your concern is fogey-ism. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants up to two years of age have zero screen time of any kind. They also recommend screen-free zones in homes with children. BK, I like your point about fear of silence. I think it’s an epidemic.

  5. I find it to be about moderation. Kids have to be comfortable with tech in an increasingly tech world. And tech let’s me sit here at my desk living in a very small town where I have little in common with anyone (I never attend church or have children or are related to anyone.) I remember how desperately lonely and disconnected I was before the net gave me real friends all over the world.

    That said, I am so tired of frigging smartphones and texting. I walk through Walmart and every set of eyes is on a screen. All I can say to that is, “I’ve met a lot of you all in court, you’re not that interesting.”

    As for the DVDs in cars, I see it as one more way for parents to not have to talk to their kids. On every road trip, my dad talked to me. It was nothing deep or philosophical (my dad was neither) but it was conversation and attention. Little bright spots in an otherwise pretty bleak childhood.

    And, no one thinks for me. All of the tech I am surrounded with connects me to the world. Bloggers and net-denizens like myself are the ham radio operators of this century, passing on news without the network varnish. I think this society is doing just fine. In fact, I never have any problem finding someone willing to give me their opinion.

    What I do worry about is the loss of problem-solving abilities. Schools are so homogenized and helicopter parents are programming every second of little Skippy’s life from the right friends to the right schools.

    When I got my big fresh-out-of-college job, during training, I roomed with one of these hothouse orchids. She had way better grades than me, but couldn’t handle the stress of our diverse class and the lack of outlines, textbooks, and tests. She lasted 6 weeks before she took a job with a company in their research lab.

    I read a great article from a recruiter who said, “Give me a kid who got in scrapes in school, who took apart the family grandfather clock out of curiosity, who built a hotrod in the garage. That’s someone who isn’t satisfied with the status quo and who knows how to solve problems.”

    So my answer to you is no and yes.

  6. Wow. Once again some of the smartest comments in the blogosphere can be found right here at TKZ. Great discussion, folks. Keep it going.

    I do see the need for some sort of balance, as Terri rightly suggests. Which truly requires the “art” of parenting and teaching, doesn’t it? There’s no one size fits all here. But I’d err on the side of human interaction, actual conversation, and yes, the ability to appreciate silence.

    • Yes on silence. The need for continued input makes me crazy. I’m often the opposite. I’m glad I have dogs, otherwise my verbal skills might wither.

  7. I think you’re on target, Jim. I call it the “connected-disconnected syndrome.”

    When you walk down the hall in a small town building and can’t get anyone to look up from their appendage to greet you, when young people sit across from each other at the table and text each other rather than talk, when you walk into a room with people who are paying for your time but they can’t get their head out of their internet connection, when you’ve made an appointment with (and are paying for the time with) a professional but he is constantly interrupted by his cell phone, when you are visited by relatives you only see a few times a year but someone sits at the dining room table with his attention focused on an ongoing text conversation…we have become too connected to our hand held pacifiers and too disconnected from the reality that surround us. In our desperate search for relationship and connectedness we are isolating ourselves from the very opportunities that already exist around us in the “real” world.

    So the next time you see someone you know drive past, with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on their cell phone, wave to them and see which hand they’ll use to wave back.

  8. I don’t have kids so I can’t truly appreciate how hard it is to keep them occupied, esp in close public places (ie airplanes). So I try to be a little tolerant when I see kids with digital toys. They have their place, especially if it prevents the rugrat from kicking my seat.

    However, my heart sinks when I am at my bagel place (where I people watch intensely) and see whole families connected to their earbuds and disconnected from each other. I remember my dad telling us we had to talk to each other at the table, even if it was trivial stuff. That said, I saw two sets of moms today at the bagel place reading the newspaper (ha!) with their kids. And one dad was very earnestly explaining the electoral college to his sons. There is hope.

  9. There is a place for digital entertainment; children are learning to interact from very early ages with devices that give them feedback.

    But that should never replace real life – as much of that as possible. Technology should be a servant (who was that actor? I know I’ve seen him before. Google it!) and an aid to memory, not a replacement for it.

    Too much of it (and a little goes a long way for small children) is like the sugar in our diets: ubiquitous and unhealthy.

    At least you still see extreme skateboarders, girls who spend hours in dance classes, the kid next door driving me crazy with the bounce bounce bounce of his basketball at ALL hours. All is not lost – yet.

  10. You’re right, Jim. The world’s going to Hell in a hand basket. These young whippersnappers don’t engage in the real world anymore. All they do is stare at a screen and type comments to people they’ve never met in real life before. You’ll never catch me doing that!

  11. My ex-next door neighbor was so afraid of silence that if a lull in the conversation developed, she would say, “Hi, how are ya?” I was so happy when she moved away.

  12. I share your concern, Jim. Not only are these little kids not enjoying or at least observing the real world around them, but what kind of damage to their brains, ears, and eyes will a lifetime of staring at screens and listening through earbuds do?

    I often tried to get my sons off the computer and away from the TV to go out and get some fresh air and exercise, but it was almost impossible to pry them out. That’s another point – the lack of exercise and the resulting increase in obesity in our population. And, as you mention, the decreasing ability to converse in person.

    Technology like this is great for handicapped or isolated people, but I really hate to see gatherings of people intent on their cell phones! Maybe some peer pressure there – some of those teens may have no one to text but have to pretend to keep up with the others…

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  13. RE: Occupying kids in cars with tech: I don’t have children, but I have nieces and nephews. And it so happens that all my family lives on one coast and I’m about 2500 miles away. But when I do get to go back for visits, some of my favorite memories are playing games with my niece in the car as we observe things on the long roads back east. For example, if its fall, counting up how many houses have pumpkins on the front step. Or using the alphabet for the alphabet game. (ie. “My name is Brenda and I see Beeswax in the Broccoli” or some such.).

    If those long car rides had been spent with me staring silently into space and her glued to a DVD, there would’ve been no memories to recall.

    • BK: Ha! I am with you on the car games. I was taking a long car trip with my sister and her little guys once and the boy’s Game Boy had cacked out. You would’ve thought the world had ended. We ended up playing a car-game I invented called String Geography. One person names a city or state, say Michigan, and the next person has to name a state or city that begins with the last letter (in this case N). This kept em quiet for two hours. They are adults now and still talk about playing this. And I still play it with my girlfriend and husband when we drive.

    • I’m with you too, BK. I remember all sorts of car games on family drives, one where we’d have to spot letters of the alphabet, in order, on signs. X was always a killer.

  14. I was raised to turn off the TV when visitors came (unless the evening was intended for watching a hockey game). In the old days, it was rude, bad manners, etc.

    Last year at a Christmas dinner, a couple of guests were texting. I made a joke of it, but they got the point and put away their iPhones. Perhaps they cursed me silently, but I don’t care. I still think it’s extremely bad manners to read, watch TV, text, or play games when you’re with people, even if those people dropped by without an invitation.

    I suspect that the impact of global warming may well “get” us before the armageddon of the elimination of creative or critical thinking, but I absolutely agree that the latter seems inevitable.

    • I know! A younger acquaintance of mine does that all the time. We’ll be chatting and her phone goes off, and she has to reply “really quick” and then goes back to the conversation. This happens several times before I start to get annoyed. Isn’t it exhausting to being texting and talking all the time?

  15. I have a toddler right now, and it’s really shocking to me how much parents and caregivers just assume that the kid is going to have access to this sort of tec.

    I’m not a saint and the kid watches TV on occasion, but we’re also outside every day swimming, or kicking a ball, or chasing the lizards (one of these days he’s going to catch one, he’s sure of it). It’s how I was raised–little bit of TV, mostly outside playing. Lots of kids his age or younger have tablets or baby phones and they seem glued to them in lieu of other toys.

    The other thing I can’t get over is how expensive these things are. A kid’s “tablet” is still a couple hundred dollars, and they’re giving them to 3 year olds. It’s not that he’s not smart enough to use it, but he’s still throwing his Legos across the room and making Godzilla noises. I’m sorry, it might make me cheap, but I’m not buying him something that expensive that’s so easy to break. Because he will break it, and then I’ll be upset, and that’s just not fair to put him in that position.

    I do think it’s weird, and even annoying, when people won’t get off their smart phones. My husband and I just got smartphones two years ago when it was time to change our phone plan, and while I like being able to take pictures, and check my email, I also don’t want to feel plugged in all the time.

    I love my computer, I love the internet, and my son is probably going to own a computer at a much younger age than I did (I was 20 and it was a hand me down). I’m not going to cripple his ability to function in society either way.

  16. Well, I had a long post and when I hit submit, it disappeared! So, I’ll try again. I agree with the comments that it is a bit scary. We have stopped talking to one another and when we do, it’s usually in text speak, i.e. u r and u, etc. It is a pet peeve of mine. I wonder what they are teaching the kids in school. I’m retired, but my last job was customer service for Playstation. I recall a conversation of a man frantic to get his unit returned from the repair department. He told me that it was his son’s and he said that he needed his “babysitter” back. In my opinion, there is no reason for a toddler to have any kind of digital device. Yes, now you can see my old fogy-ness showing, and I am sure I am older than you! 🙂 Thanks for such a great post!

  17. It’s way too easy to grump, as I do sometime now that I’m “of an age,”: oh these kids today! I don’t think it’s fair to say kids with digital devices aren’t engaging in the world, theur just not engaging in OUR world, or they’re engaging in the world but not in OUR way. Naturally I prefer my way, because it’s mine. But I’m still able to say, they’re way isn’t necessarily wrong just because it’s differnet. That’s too easy.

  18. It’s just about manners. Whether the technology of the day is Telegraph, or Radio, or TV, or Internet, or Cell Phone, one must Switch Them Off when interacting with other Human Beings.

  19. I’m the ML for my local NaNoWriMo region and we’re nearing the end of July Camp. I held a Retro Write-In where no electronic or tech devices were allowed. All writing was to be done that evening either with pen/pencil and paper or manual typewriter. I received cries of “how am I supposed to work on my project?” and “not even to check for messages?” Well, pretty much yes and figure it out.
    That night, 8 showed up, laden with bags of research books, 3-ring binders, pens and pencils. Two even carried in their manual typewriters. We all wrote, read, pondered, stole glances at each other to see how it went. Mind you, most were between 19 and 30 (me way past that). A few reached for their cellphones but did not utilize them (maybe a little, under the table). Afterwards, we talked about the experience and admitted they didn’t think it would be that much fun. And then they all took selfies around the typewriters posted how cool a write-in it was on Facebook. Sigh.

    • Oh goodness! Selfies? *groans* My pet hate. I wrote my first two novels on paper and really learned a lot from the process. And yes, agree with what most people have said. It’s about manners. I have friends who’ve invited me for dinner only to spend most of the time checking their phones at the table. I remember being at lunch with my sister and apologising profusely to her because I had to reply to an urgent email. Felt so guilty about it! And I’ve been at restaurants where couple and families have spent most of the meal with their heads down, on their phones. Made me want to run around the restaurant naked to see if anyone would notice but thought that was taking it a step too far.

  20. My 7-year-old has a tablet, but he won’t read books on them. He doesn’t consider them books unless he can actually turn the pages. I, on the other hand, enjoy both. About to pull Fahrenheit off the shelf and read it….

  21. JSB–
    I share your sense of desperation. At family functions, in particular, at which every grandchild is staring into the palm of his or her hand. For hours, reluctantly putting aside the toy to eat, then back to it. Etecetera.
    But I think my condition of mind has moved on. I now see the social devolution taking place before my eyes as an oddly positive compensation for being old. Yes, what I’m seeing is sad and depressing–but it has nothing to do with how I spend my own time. I am free in a way the young aren’t.
    And would be even more sorry for my grandchildren, EXCEPT that, before the techno-Pied Piper was fully loosed upon the land, all four children were lovingly, systematically made into readers of books. They still love to read books, so much so that they abandon their toys to do so. God bless their parents, and them. As they age, they will be among the odd ones of their generation–and in fine Bradbury fashion, what do you bet they’ll make readers out of their own children? That’s my hope, anyway. They will form furtive groups, meeting at odd times to share book chat. And when not among their own kind (other book lovers), they will have to do their best to mask their contempt for the Toy People.

  22. Having just spent six days off the grid, in the deep Alaska Bush, with no contact to the outside world and no electronic communications of any kind, I found my creative juices flowing like they seldom do in my suburban home. There’s a lot to be said for disconnecting.

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