What is the role of technology in "Harrison Bergeron"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron” centers on a society dedicated to absurd levels of equality. The opening lines of Vonnegut’s story provide the setting and an introduction to the use of technology in the story:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron” centers on a society dedicated to absurd levels of equality. The opening lines of Vonnegut’s story provide the setting and an introduction to the use of technology in the story:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anyone else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anyone else.

This radical equality is available only through the advanced technology and “vigilance” of an agency called the Handicapper General. Rather than valuing talent, this fictional society has opted to crush it to ensure equality of outcome. The responsibilities of The Handicapper General involve installing and monitoring creative “handicaps” on individuals to ensure that they do not rise above the pack and become overly talented. Some of these handicaps are physical, such as adding weights to those who are stronger or masks to those who are more attractive than the majority. Other handicaps are more technologically advanced, such as the handicap for intelligence, which constituted a buzzer installed in the ear that emitted sharp screeches of energy every few seconds to disrupt concentration. Without the use of technology, the entire equality of Vonnegut’s society would quickly collapse.

Technology is also used in “Harrison Bergeron” to closely monitor society and push propaganda that supports the dominant narrative of equality into the pliant minds of the citizenry. George and Hazel, the two dominant characters, spend the entirety of the plot watching television and encounter propaganda frequently. In their conversation together, both characters parrot the rhetoric that has been drilled into them. George, for example, hates his intelligence handicap but refuses to take it off because he says, “The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?” This shows the degree to which the propaganda has been successful.

In fact, they seem so indoctrinated that Hazel, who witnesses the death of her fourteen-year-old son on live television, cannot remember why she is crying just minutes later. Without the aid of advanced technology for propaganda and the numerous handicaps holding the “equality” of the civilization together, Vonnegut’s futuristic society would collapse. I hope this helps!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," technology is used to oppress and control the population in order to create a uniform society, where everyone is completely equal in all facets of life. Vonnegut illustrates the way that the government utilizes technology to oppress citizens through the use of cumbersome handicaps and devices that interrupt people's thought processes. Harrison's father, who has above average intelligence, is forced to wear a little mental handicap radio, which transmits loud noises into his ear every twenty seconds in order to purposefully interrupt his thought processes. This specific piece of technology limits his ability to think, which allows the government to increase their control over the population.

Another example of how the government utilizes technology to control the population is illustrated by the function of the news station. The function of the news bulletin is to warn the citizens about a dangerous fugitive, who was arrested for plotting against the government and has recently escaped from prison. The government's ability to censor television and use public broadcasting to issue pro-government bulletins emphasizes how they use technology to control the population. One could also consider the efficiency of the handicaps, which have a "certain symmetry" and "military neatness," as another example of how the government uses technology to further oppress the population.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Technology is present in the story in the form of the "mental-handicap radio" that George is required to wear at all times and the television broadcasts supervised by the government. The radio George wears is "tuned to a government transmitter" that frequently and regularly sends out a "sharp noise" to disrupt George's thinking because George's intelligence is above average and must be controlled. The more dangerous George's thoughts, the more severe the noise pounded into his brain. Sometimes the radio emits a low tone, "like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a bell-peen hammer," but a really dangerous train of thought will earn him "a twenty-one-gun salute." This fact indicates that the government possesses the technology to tell not just that George is thinking but what he is thinking. 

The television broadcasts are controlled strictly by the government. People are allowed to see what the government wants them to see. After Harrison escapes, a police photo of him garbed in all his "handicaps" is shown so that he might be apprehended. When Harrison himself takes over the studio, the chaos is such that television transmission continues, showing Harrison's revolt. After he and the ballerina are both shot to death and order is restored, however, George and Hazel's television set suddenly quits working. Obviously, the government had resumed control.

The role of technology in the story is to emphasize the totalitarianism of the government.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team