Here's a short version of history:
Person A: I've invented something new.
Person B: Oh, no! We're all going to die!
Seriously, the history of new technology is a history of people freaking out. The printing press, radio, atomic bombs, Google—as soon as you invent one of those, people are going to—you guessed it—freak out.
And they're not totally wrong to be upset. New technology can completely change people's lives (though it doesn't always kill us). Think about it: once you have radio, you don't have to go out to see a concert to hear music; and you can get the news without waiting for tomorrow's newspaper. And once you have the Internet, you can spend hours looking at LOLcats in the comfort of your own home. No need to go hunting nearby alleys for strays.
That's Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" in a nutshell: it's the story of a couple of kids who have an awesome new tech toy—a virtual reality room, like the holodeck on Star Trek. (Be prepared—we're going to talk about Star Trek a bunch.) And these crazy kids use this new technology to get rid of their parents.
Ray Bradbury calls this toy "the nursery" in the story, but in real life, he had another name for it: "television." In the 1950s, when Bradbury wrote this story, television was kind of like the iPad—everyone wanted it. But it was also like heavy metal music in the 1980s—people were worried what it was going to do to the kids.
But the 1950s in America is about more than TVs; it's about vacuum cleaners and new refrigerators and dishwashers. If you have an afternoon, watch some 1950s appliance ads on YouTube and see how companies marketed new and better stuff to make our lives easier and more convenient. So "The Veldt" isn't just about TV and kids; it's about how we loved to buy handy gadgets without worrying about what they might do to our lives.
Of course, we still love to by handy gadgets, but we're a little more worried about their consequences these days. Smart phones, iPads, iPods, Nintendo DSs. All these things are awesome, sure. But they've got their faults, too, as anyone who's tried to text and drive might know.
Bradbury published "The Veldt" in his short story collection The Illustrated Man in 1951, and it has been in print ever since. But it first appeared in 1950 in the Saturday Evening Post, which was a very respectable magazine, not like the science fiction pulps. It didn't, for example, have aliens stealing naked Earthwomen, like those other science fiction magazines. It had Norman Rockwell covers about how America was supposed to be. (Just check out the cover of the issue in which Bradbury's story was featured.)
But the thing is, "The Veldt" is not at all about how America was supposed to be. It's about how bad America could be—that is, if we let our gadgets take over our lives. So consider this one a warning to all you parents out there: don't let your kids watch too much TV. They just might try to feed you to virtual lions. And no, we're not joking.
Why Should I Care?
If you're reading this on the Internet, you're using technology that no one used in the 1950s. (If you're not reading this on the Internet… are you having it beamed directly into your brain? That's probably how we'll get our news one day.) And if Bradbury from the 1950s could've seen you read this, while staring at your fancy computer screen, well, who knows how he would've freaked out about it.
Because new technology can often be scary. It can promise to make your life easier and better, but it might come with hidden costs, too. That's what "The Veldt" is all about: new technology and its hidden costs. And this worry isn't something that we left behind in the '50s; just a couple years ago someone (smart) published an article called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?". We want to say no because we're major Googlers ourselves, but new technology can change the way you think and even remember info. Our brains don't have to work as hard, because with things like GPS, distances and directions are judged for us. That function is no longer required of our minds.
And what about beauty? Now that we have these new-fangled typewriter things, no one learns penmanship anymore. Which is fine on the one hand, because your handwriting can be hard to read. But your handwriting could also be beautiful and personal. Sure, we have some cute fonts now, but without handwriting, we'd never have calligraphy like this.
We're not gonna lie. The Internet is awesome. And with sites like Facebook, we're given opportunities to express our individuality in ways we never had before. Or is it that with sites like Facebook, our individuality is forced into tiny boxes on a screen that make us all the same? Here's the thing: the Internet goes both ways. It's good, and bad, and everywhere in between, just like every other gadget that's come along.
We may look at this story and think that Bradbury is worrying over nothing. (TV isn't that bad.) Or we might read "The Veldt" and find it horrifyingly familiar. (What does Google diabolically have planned for us next? Internet in our eyeballs?) Sure, Bradbury's story may be very 1950s in some ways, but it's pretty universal, too. So read it. Just don't go into the nursery.