Much of Fahrenheit 451 is devoted to depicting a future United States society bombarded with messages and imagery by an omnipresent mass media. Instead of the small black-and-white TV screens common in American households in 1953 (the year of the book's publication), the characters in the novel live their lives in rooms with entire walls that act as televisions. These TVs show serial dramas in which the viewer's name is woven into the program and the viewer is able to interact with fictional characters called "the relatives" or "the family." Scenes change rapidly, images flash quickly in bright colors, all of it designed to produce distraction and fascination. When not in their interactive TV rooms, many characters, including Guy Montag's wife Mildred, spend much of their time with "Seashell ear thimbles" in their ears—miniature radio receivers that play constant broadcasts of news, advertisements, and music, drowning out the real sounds of the world.
Throughout the novel, Bradbury portrays mass media as a veil that obscures real experience and interferes with the characters' ability to think deeply about their lives and societal issues. Bradbury isn't suggesting that media other than books couldn't be enriching and fulfilling. As Faber tells Montag, "It isn't books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books.... The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not." In an interview marking the fiftieth anniversary of the novel's publication, Bradbury indicated that some of his fears about mass media had been realized. "We bombard people with sensation," he said, "That substitutes for thinking."
Books are banned in the society depicted in Fahrenheit 451.When they're found, they're burned, along with the homes of the books' owners. But it's important to remember that in the world of this novel, the suppression of books began as self-censorship. As Beatty explains to Montag, people didn't stop reading books because a tyrannical government forced them to stop. They stopped reading books gradually over time as the culture around them grew faster, shallower, intellectually blander, and centered around minor thrills and instant gratification. In such a culture, books became shorter, magazine and newspaper articles became simpler, cartoon pictures and television became more prevalent, and entertainment replaced reflection and debate.
Another factor that contributes to the growth of censorship in Fahrenheit 451 are minorities and what we might call "special interest groups." In order not to offend every imaginable group and sub-group—whether organized around ethnicity, religion, profession, geography, or affinity—every trace of controversy slowly vanished from public discourse, and magazines became "a nice blend of vanilla tapioca." In time, the word "intellectual" became a swear word, and books came to be seen as a dangerous means for one person to lord his or her knowledge and learning over someone else. Books, and the critical thinking they encouraged, became seen as a direct threat to equality. By making widespread censorship a phenomenon that emerges from the culture itself—and not one that is simply imposed from above by the government—Bradbury is expressing a concern that the power of mass media can ultimately suppress free speech as thoroughly as any totalitarian regime.
Pleasure-seeking and distraction are the hallmarks of the culture in which Montag lives. Although these may sound like a very self-serving set of values, the culture is not one that celebrates or even tolerates a broad range of self-expression. Hedonism and mindless entertainment are the norm, and so long as the people in the society of Fahrenheit 451 stick to movies and sports and racing their cars, pursuits that require little individual thought, they're left alone by society.
However, whenever individuals start to question the purpose of such a life, and begin to look for answers in books or the natural world and express misgivings, they become threats. Their questions and actions might cause others to face the difficult questions that their culture is designed to distract them from. For that reason, in the society of Fahrenheit 451 people who express their individuality find themselves social outcasts at best, and at worst in real danger.
Clarisse McClellan represents free thought and individuality. She's unlike anyone else Montag knows. She has little interest in the thrill-seeking of her peers. She'd rather talk, observe the natural world firsthand, and ask questions. She soon disappears (and is probably killed). Fahrenheit 451's society is set up to snuff out individuality—characters who go against the general social conformity (Clarisse, Faber, Granger, and Montag) do so at great risk.
Why has the society of Fahrenheit 451 become so shallow, indifferent, and conforming? Why do people drive so fast, keep Seashell ear thimbles in their ears, and spend all day in front of room-sized, four-walled TV programs? According to Beatty, the constant motion and titillation is designed to help people suppress their sadness and avoid any kind of intense emotion or difficult thoughts and experiences. The people of Fahrenheit 451 have to come to equate this motion, fun, and distraction with happiness.
However, Fahrenheit 451 makes the case that engaging with difficult and uncomfortable thoughts and experiences is the only routes to true happiness. Only by being uncomfortable, or experiencing things that are new or awkward, can people achieve a real and meaningful engagement with the world and each other. The people in the novel who lack such engagement, such as Mildred, feel a profound despair, which in turn makes them more determined to distract themselves by watching more TV, overdosing on sleeping pills, or letting technicians use a specialized machine to suck away their sadness. The result is a vicious cycle, in which people are terrified to expose themselves to any kind of emotion or difficulty because doing so will force them to face their pent-up despair, though in reality it's their avoidance of those thoughts and feelings that creates their despair. Only after he acknowledges his own unhappiness can Montag make the life-changing decision to find Faber and resist his society's oppressive "happiness" and thought-suppression that he, as a fireman, once enforced.
In the years up to and before World War II, many societies, including Germany, become dangerous and intolerant. Even so, their citizens were afraid to speak out against these changes. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, just a few years after WWII ended, and is very concerned with the idea of taking action versus standing by while society falters. In particular, the novel shows how Montag learns to take action, in contrast to Faber who is too cowardly to act. At the same time, Faber does help teach Montag the difference between reckless and intelligent action, so that by the end of the novel Montag is ready to act in a constructive rather than destructive way.