Ray Bradbury: “I Am Not Afraid of Robots. I Am Afraid of People” (1974)


Any­one remem­ber Michael Crichton’s West­world (or the Simp­sons par­o­dy)? In this dystopi­an 1973 sci-fi, tourists vis­it a tri­umvi­rate of fan­ta­sy theme parks staffed by robot­ic his­tor­i­cal re-enac­tors: Roman World, Medieval World, and the tit­u­lar West World, with its “law­less vio­lence on the Amer­i­can Fron­tier.” When a virus infects the parks’ androids, James Brolin must fight a ruth­less robot gunslinger—played by a stone-faced Yul Brenner—to the death. The film may look laugh­ably dat­ed, but the fears it taps into are any­thing but: 2001, Ter­mi­na­tor, Bat­tlestar Galac­ti­ca, I, Robot, and even a West­world remake in the works—the peren­ni­al theme of man vs. machine, as old in film at least as Fritz Lang’s silent Metrop­o­lis, becomes ever more rel­e­vant in our drone-haunt­ed world.

But are evil—or at least dan­ger­ous­ly malfunctioning—robots some­thing we should legit­i­mate­ly fear? Not accord­ing to vision­ary sci-fi author and Dis­ney enthu­si­ast Ray Brad­bury in a let­ter to Eng­lish writer Bri­an Sib­ley, penned in 1974, one year after the release of theme-park hor­ror West­world. The main body of Bradbury’s let­ter con­sists of a vig­or­ous defense of Walt Dis­ney and Dis­ney­land, against whom “most of the oth­er archi­tects of the mod­ern world were ass­es and fools.” Sib­ley recalls that his ini­tial let­ter “expressed doubts about Disney’s use of Audio-Ani­ma­tron­ic cre­ations in Dis­ney­land.” “At the time,” he explains, “I… had prob­a­bly read too many sci-fi sto­ries about the dan­ger of robots tak­ing over our human world—including, of course, some by Ray—and so saw it as a sin­is­ter rather than benign exper­i­ment.”

After his praise of Dis­ney, Brad­bury writes two agi­tat­ed post­scripts explod­ing what Sib­ley calls “ill-informed and prej­u­diced views” on robots.  He class­es auto­mat­ed enti­ties with benign “exten­sions of peo­ple” like books, film pro­jec­tors, cars, and pre­sum­ably all oth­er forms of tech­nol­o­gy. Notwith­stand­ing the fact that books can­not actu­al­ly wield weapons and kill peo­ple, Brad­bury makes an inter­est­ing argu­ment about fears of robots as akin to those that lead to cen­sor­ship and enforced igno­rance. But Bradbury’s coun­ter­claim sounds a mis­an­throp­ic note that nonethe­less rings true giv­en the salient exam­ples he offers: “I am not afraid of robots,” he states, emphat­i­cal­ly, “I am afraid of peo­ple, peo­ple, peo­ple.” He goes on to list just a few of the con­flicts in which humans kill humans, reli­gious, racial, nation­al­ist, etc.: “Catholics killing Protes­tants… whites killing blacks… Eng­lish killing Irish.…” It’s a short sam­pling that could go on indef­i­nite­ly. Brad­bury strong­ly implies that the fears we project onto robot­ic bogey­men are in real­i­ty well-ground­ed fears of each oth­er. Peo­ple, he sug­gests, can be mon­strous when they don’t “remain human,” and technology—including robots—only assists with the nec­es­sary task of “human­iz­ing” us. “Robots?” Brad­bury writes, “God, I love them. And I will use them humane­ly to teach all of the above.” 

Read a tran­script of the let­ter below, cour­tesy of Let­ters of Note, and be sure to check out that site’s new book-length col­lec­tion of fas­ci­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal cor­re­spon­dence.

June 10, 1974

Dear Bri­an Sib­ley:

This will have to be short. Sor­ry. But I am deep into my screen­play on SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES and have no sec­re­tary, nev­er have had one..so must write all my own letters..200 a weekl!!!

Dis­ney was a dream­er and a doer..while the rest of us were talk­ing ab out the future, he built it. The things he taught us at Dis­ney­land about street plan­ning, crowd move­ment, com­fort, human­i­ty, etc, will influ­ence builders archi­tects, urban plan­ners for the next cen­tu­ry. Because of him we will human­ize our cities, plan small towns again where we can get in touch with one anoth­er again and make democ­ra­cy work cre­ative­ly because we will KNOW the peo­ple we vote for. He was so far ahead of his time it will take is the next 50 years to catch up. You MUST come to Dis­ney­land and eat your words, swal­low your doubts. Most of the oth­er archi­tects of the mod­ern world were ass­es and fools who talked against Big Broth­er and then built pris­ons to put us all up in..our mod­ern envi­ron­ments which sti­fle and destroy us. Dis­ney the so-called con­ser­v­a­tive turns out to be Dis­ney the great man of fore­sight and con­struc­tion.

Enough. Come here soon. I’ll toss you in the Jun­gle Ride Riv­er and ride you on the train into tomor­row, yes­ter­day, and beyond.

Good luck, and stop judg­ing at such a great dis­tance. You are sim­ply not qual­i­fied. Dis­ney was full of errors, para­dox­es, mis­takes. He was also full of life, beau­ty, insight. Which speaks for all of us, eh? We are all mys­ter­ies of light and dark. There are no true con­ser­v­a­tives, lib­er­als, etc, in the world. Only peo­ple.


(Signed, ‘Ray B.’)

P.S. I can’t find that issue of THE NATION, of the NEW REPUBLIC, which ever it was, with my let­ter in it on Dis­ney. Main­ly I said that if Dis­ney­land was good enough for Cap­tain Bligh it was good enough for me. Charles Laughton and his wife took me to Dis­ney­land for my very first vis­it and our first ride was the Jun­gle Boat Ride, which Laughton imme­di­ate­ly com­man­deered, jeer­ing at cus­tomers going by in oth­er boats! A fan­tas­tic romp for me and a hilar­i­ous day. What a way to start my asso­ci­a­tion with Dis­ney­land! R.B.

P.S. Can’t resist com­ment­ing on you fears of the Dis­ney robots. Why aren’t you afraid of books, then? The fact is, of course, that peo­ple have been afraid of books, down through his­to­ry. They are exten­sions of peo­ple, not peo­ple them­selves. Any machine, any robot, is the sum total of the ways we use it. Why not knock down all robot cam­era devices and the means for repro­duc­ing the stuff that goes into such devices, things called pro­jec­tors in the­atres? A motion pic­ture pro­jec­tor is a non-humanoid robot which repeats truths which we inject into it. Is it inhu­man? Yes. Does it project human truths to human­ize us more often than not? Yes.

The excuse could be made that we should burn all books because some books are dread­ful.

We should mash all cars because some cars get in acci­dents because of the peo­ple dri­ving them.

We should burn down all the the­atres in the world because some films are trash, dri­v­el.

So it is final­ly with the robots you say you fear. Why fear some­thing? Why not cre­ate with it? Why not build robot teach­ers to help out in schools where teach­ing cer­tain sub­jects is a bore for EVERYONE? Why not have Pla­to sit­ting in your Greek Class answer­ing jol­ly ques­tions about his Repub­lic? I would love to exper­i­ment with that. I am not afraid of robots. I am afraid of peo­ple, peo­ple, peo­ple. I want them to remain human. I can help keep them human with the wise and love­ly use of books, films, robots, and my own mind, hands, and heart.

I am afraid of Catholics killing Protes­tants and vice ver­sa.

I am afraid of whites killing blacks and vice ver­sa.

I am afraid of Eng­lish killing Irish and vice ver­sa.

I am afraid of young killing old and vice ver­sa.

I am afraid of Com­mu­nists killing Cap­i­tal­ists and vice ver­sa.

But…robots? God, I love them. I will use them humane­ly to teach all of the above. My voice will speak out of them, and it will be a damned nice voice.

Best, R.B.

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ray Brad­bury: Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion

The Secret of Life and Love, Accord­ing to Ray Brad­bury (1968)

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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