The Failure of Technology in White Noise by Don Delillo
One particularly unfortunate trait of modern society is our futile attempt to use technology to immunize ourselves against the fear of death. The failure of technology in this regard is the general subject of Don Delillo''s book White Noise. Throughout this novel, technology is depicted as the ominous messenger of our common fate, an increasing sense of dread over loss of control of our lives and the approach of inevitable death in spite of the empty promises of technology. In this essay I will examine Delillo''s portrayal of technology and its role in our society.
The title of Delillo''s book, White Noise, reminds one of an electronic static of the sort encountered on television when a station goes off the air. But I think white noise can also refer to the indiscriminate flow of information we are exposed to on a daily basis in our modern society, that which ultimately destroys the immediacy of real life. If you see enough people gunned down on television, enough mangled bodies in twisted cars, enough violence, destruction and despair in the newspapers, you grow numb to it. In one sense, I think this is what White Noise is. Have you seen those devices they sell for insomniacs? They are white noise generators intended to put us to sleep. White noise is sound at all frequencies broadcast indiscriminately, and that is what Delillo hints that television and the modern media are doing to us now. The indiscriminate flood of information is not making our society more aware; rather, it is putting us all to sleep.
White Noise is a book obsessed with death at the hands of our own technology. The protagonist is a middle aged man who is the chairman of a department of Hitler studies at a small Midwestern college. He is obsessed with his own inadequacies and the inevitability of his own death. Jack Gladney is on his fifth marriage and his fourth wife, and his world is filled with the clutter of everyday life, with four children around the house and an uneasy sense of "normalcy". Delillo, however, exposes how absurd what we consider to be ''normal'' really is in our technology-dependent society and our compulsive desire to have machines save us from ourselves and reaffirm our personal identities:
In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automated teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed (42).
One day an industrial accident occurs...