In Memoriam: Remembering “Gentle Genius” Ray Bradbury

IT’S HARD TO BE SAD about someone who died at 91, who lived at full-speed to the end and who left a legacy far greater than even he, a man of infinite imagination, could possibly dream.

Ray Bradbury was all these things — not to mention a literary hero to geek-kind and, for me, one of the reasons I keep writing. But to catalog him as a science-fiction writer is to miss the essence of Bradbury and his gift to us.

Bradbury was a social scientist, an interpreter and, in novels like his seminal Fahrenheit 451, a prophet of wicked things now coming this way. His novels, short stories and essays were less entertainments than they were observations of human behavior, the good and the bad. And in works like Fahrenheit, they were warnings.

Bradbury gave us a chance to be better. And although he is gone, he is still giving us that chance through his words.

In honor of Bradbury, a man whom I had the pleasure to meet and peek every so slightly into his gentle genius, I’m re-publishing below a post from May 2008 that was inspired by Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451. It’s one of my all-time favorites and I feel still rings true today, just as Bradbury’s stories continue to make us think and, hopefully, make us the better people he knew we could be.

We Are the Firemen

In May 1993 – the exact date and time escape me – my inner world, the one where thoughts are born, developed and processed, lost its ability to be silent. I since have lived with constant noise, the result of a tumor that, in an ironic nod to God’s comic grace, left me deaf in one ear yet covered in a perpetual blanket of ringing static.

Sometimes it’s not too bad, other times it’s so loud it sounds like there’s a KISS concert in my cranium. But it is always there, never fully abated, never completely quiet. It will never be quiet, and it has been so long I have forgotten what quiet is, what silence sounds like, what kinds of thoughts stillness brings. How much smarter, how less painful the headaches and seizures, how more aware of my environment would I be if only I could hear more – and then, like most people, dial down the volume and hear nothing but thinking.

Rather than go insane, I did the next best thing – I went into marketing. Turns out my decision was less pathos than it was prescience, as I watch my former trade of journalism in some cases melt away, in others morph into a new kind of socially-driven journalism enabled (if not always ennobled) by modern technology.

THE DESCENT OF PRINT alone is not a problem for our society. But the descent of thought is. And this death of reasonable thinking and discourse has given rise to a ringing in all our ears, a cacophony of “social media” for its own sake rather than the sake of the consumer.

Don’t get me wrong (though I guarantee someone will) – I love technology and Web 2.0. I believe in the power of conversation and the promise of connecting people to each other with authentic communications. But in this new silicon rush we far too often discount what’s gone before, throwing judgment into the intellectual pyre like so many worn newspapers.

In other words, in our well-meant effort to broaden and share our knowledge, are we also destroying the very knowledge and reasoned discussion we so boldly claim to seek?

Because we can connect with people like ourselves, we do. And then we act as if other opinions don’t exist — or if they do, then don’t matter. We do this within our social networks, the pseudo social media intelligentsia do it at conferences and on their blogs, and the news media does it by giving us news tuned to whatever ideological frequency we desire.

We jump to conclusions and applaud hyperbole until the slightest chance of digesting an idea is gone. That idea is destroyed forever, lost in the echo chamber of self-important consultants and rash Twitter feeds.

Never before in human history has so much information been available so readily to so many. Yet although we are creating and writing more, we are saying less.

IN FAHRENHEIT 451, RAY BRADBURY’S seminal novel about censorship and intellectual intolerance, a “fireman” was someone who burned books. Well, we don’t burn books per se, but we burn discourse. We don’t destroy newspapers, but our actions are killing them off just the same. We are the firemen.

So this is my warning and my plea: don’t get caught up in the social media panacea. Instead, experiment and decide what works for you and your company. Focus on the customer first and the technology second. It’s okay to take small steps, to do what’s best for your business, to embrace new tools at your own pace even if it goes against the “purists” who argue that there’s only one way to move forward.

And above all, take time to think, to plan, to discuss and learn. Embrace the unknown and reject those who insist they know it all. Find some silence and make decisions without being surrounded by so much noise.

I would give anything for just a few seconds of mental peace and quiet. Don’t squander yours.

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