DAT602 – “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury

Homework

Read the short sci-fi story “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury. Make a blog post (300-500 words) that explains your thoughts in relation to this story and ubiquitous computing. Include related literature references.

In ‘The Veldt’, George and Lydia Hadley appear to inhabit a futuristic ‘Happylife Home’. The house seems to be both the epitome of post-war era optimism and economic boom of the 1950s that many western countries experienced, and a vision of a futuristic dwelling.

This is illustrated from the outset of the short story through references to  the stove that does the cooking, the automatic lighting, the flues that transport the Hadleys around the house, and, of course, the nursery with its crystal walls and ‘odorophonics’. While the appliances that coset, comfort, and entertain the Hadleys and their children are certainly not what we would recognise as computers, from these references: the all-pervasiveness of labour-saving paraphernalia, a parallel can be made to the concept of ubiquitous computing.

Ubiquitous computing (or “ubicomp”) is a concept in software engineering and computer science where computing is made to appear anytime and everywhere. In contrast to desktop computing, ubiquitous computing can occur using any device, in any location, and in any format.

(‘Ubiquitous Computing’, 2018)

It soon becomes apparent that the nursery is a cause for concern, although George is still very much enamoured with the room: “George Hadley was filled with admiration for the mechanical genius who had conceived this room”, reflecting, perhaps, the tendency that we as a race have to become entranced and absorbed by new technology. However, a warning note sounds within George’s thoughts: “Oh, occasionally they frightened you with their clinical accuracy, they startled you, gave you a twinge, but most of the time what fun for everyone”.

This statement not only foreshadows the events to come but could be seen as a prophetic warning for future generations that there is a danger in surrounding oneself with technology (and technology which is better understood by the younger generation than the adults!) because, unregulated, that technology could become out of control or begin to think for itself. Towards the end of the story, George and McClean even speculate that the nursery has developed feelings or awareness:

“Nothing ever likes to die – even a room.”
“I wonder if it hates me for wanting to switch it off?”

The Hadleys have, more or less, abdicated any responsibility for supervising their children’s activities, probably because the Happylife Home has made any need for intervention redundant. As Lydia says: “ I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid”, noting to George that “You look as if you didn’t know what to do with yourself in this house”.

In turn, this had allowed the children free reign to subvert the room, ultimately to transform it into a trap for their parents.  As the realisation that both the nursery and their children have moved beyond parental control dawns on George and Lydia, a sense of paranoia creeps into the story. The source of this seems to come from the room (the heat of the burning sun on George’s skin), and also from the two children: their dispassion and coldness is is marked contrast to the oppressive heat of the Veldt: “Peter looked at his shoes. He never looked at his father any more, nor at his mother.”

As has been noted, the time that the story was written (the 1950s) was a period of post-war optimism; it was also a period of intense paranoia.

As the energy of fundamentally different ideologies—Communism and Democracy—collided with advances in science such as the nuclear bomb, a dangerous environment ensued that created an atmosphere of paranoia throughout the world and especially, within America.

(Pierce, 2009)

Ultimately, the story ends in tragedy. Is this then a stark warning of the dangers of technology that we could apply to ubiquitous computing? The Happylife Home has infantilised George and Lydia, while the nursery has, to some extent, empowered their children so that it is they, not their parents who have control of the ‘reality’ created within the nursery. The children are addicted to the nursery, as we might be considered to be addicted to our mobile devices. They scream and throw tantrums, even breaking in when they are locked out. The parents are unable to deny the children the thing they want, and, in doing so, cede control to their children. By the end of the tale, when the children have effectively done away with their parents, they are chillingly cold and distant, enjoying a picnic, and seemingly oblivious to the fate of their parents.

References

‘Ubiquitous Computing’ (2018) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubiquitous_computing (Accessed: 27 September 2018).

Pierce, D. (2009) America in the Post War Period.  Available at: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=2  (Accessed: 27 September 2018).

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