Whatever its form, whether a power loom or a typewriter, no new technology has ever won unambiguous and unalloyed praise in its time.
It has tended to polarize its users, spitting them into opposing camps of the enthusiasts, apologists, and critics.
If today, there are worries about the thought-fragmenting effects of the Internet, in the heyday of the electronic era, the television was perceived as an “idiot box,” often reviled by oppositionists for its brain-enfeebling power and its pernicious effects on the human mind.
But today, more than ever, there is agreement on the idea that technology is a life-enhancing force.
It’s regarded as indispensable, portable, entertaining, vital, interactive, deft, beauteous—but certainly not frightful. An iPhone, or a high-definition screen, or an ultrabook, do not (yet) fill us with a sense of foreboding.
But turn the clock back to the 1980s, to the twilight years of the analog age, when the scope of digital devices, at least, to those outside of the scientific and technological disciplines, meant clocks and calculators; when the cathode-ray tube was the centerpiece of the American living room; the Trimline telephone drew cachet, the Cold War was cooling off; and eco-consciousness hadn’t awakened.
“White Noise,” by Don DeLillo, a notable postmodern literary work, demonstrates how the technology of the time stirred contradictory emotions of awe, hope, confusion, gloom, and doom.
Jack Gladney, founder of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, a scholar of immense renown, lives with his fifth wife, Babette, and their four kids and stepchildren in a calm Midwestern town, “not smack in the path of history and its contaminations.”
Babette, a woman of “careless dignity,” without “the guile for conspiracies of the body,” is one he takes complete joy in, deeply cherishing her as a soul mate and a domestic partner.
Far-removed from urban density and its allied anxieties, their lives are fulfilling, struggle-free, and unhurried, awash with brightly packaged consumer bounty from large supermarkets, with diagonal parking.
Like their neighbors, and their neighbor’s neighbors, they’re encircled by a dense matrix of “waves and radiation” emanating from the fluorescent screens, radios, microwaves, and radiators.
“For most people there are two places in the world: “where they live and their TV set.” The hold of the television over the lives of people and the human consciousness is total; its grip, python-like, tight and unrelenting.
An instrument of mass media, it’s both a reflector and refractor of mass culture that ignites latent desires, kindles passions, embeds cultural codes, and stokes deep-seated fears.
For a couple that believes in the power of corporations to manufacture fear and the television to amplify and disseminate it, they seem to be afflicted by the worst case of it. Jack and Babette harbor an existential secret.
“Who will die first?” is a question that makes Jack wake up in cold sweat at “odd-numbered hours” of the night and Babette forget things, but which neither confronts till an “airborne toxic event” intervenes.
In their relentless, silent ruminations about death, they imagine it to be an indeterminate state, bathed in “white noise,” which is a reference to the hotchpotch of broadcast waves—raw, nerve-grating, and uniform. Life is Technicolor. Death is white.
On a cold winter morning, the rupture of a train car carrying a deadly, déjà vu-inducing chemical effluent, releases a “black billowing cloud,” forcing the family to evacuate to safety.
A pit stop for gas exposes Jack to the noxious mass, moving across the sky “like a death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings.”
The encounter pries lose his dormant dread. He’s “tentatively scheduled to die,” he is callously told by a SIMUVAC (short for “simulation evacuation”) worker, on the basis of a computer’s diagnosis. “It won’t happen tomorrow, or the next day, but it is in the works.”
A knowledge that should have sounded as nothing more than obvious, instead, rattles his very core. But it also throws into the open a shattering truth, hitherto unknown to him.
His spouse, his pillar of strength, someone whom he hadn’t thought “might muse on death,” confesses to not only privately obsessing over it herself, but also having taken an unsavory route to rid herself of her dire “condition.”
Babette sees life in a tabloid ad that reads: “FEAR OF DEATH?” She signs up to be a test subject in a covert, if dubious, R&D project to develop a highly experimental “psychopharmaceutical” drug, code- named Dylar that would eradicate the fear of death.
In lieu for an uninterrupted supply of it, she offers her supplier, in a manner of “capitalist transaction,” her body. The little white “flying saucer-shaped” pills, with a “polymer membrane,” and a “laser-drilled hole,” sadly, don’t work.
Technology, DeLillo highlights, is a two-edged sword, a malaise and a panacea in one. “It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other.”
Jack’s colleague and friend Murray J. Siskind, a pop culture maven, is the voice of Socratic reason, who suggests an antidote to him. “You could put your faith in technology. It got you here, it can get you out,” he tells, paternalistically.
A despondent Jack, quivering with desperation like jelly on a saucer, is a believer in Dylar’s potency. He scavenges the kitchen garbage pail in hopes of finding even a single discarded tablet, but to no avail.
Driven to the edge, he ferrets out its dopey maker, shoots him in a shabby motel at the edge of town, gets himself shot in the process, and then, drives the injured pair to a nun-run clinical facility.
In the end, however, no one’s in control—but destiny.