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The Noise in the Background

Updated on September 12, 2013

What role does technology play in your life?

Don Delillo’s White Noise is a post-modern novel about how influential technology can be on the lives of people. In the novel, technology is satirized for the dependency that people have put on it and how they cannot seem to go on with their daily lives without it. Even though the advancement of technology has made life a little easier, it has also threatened the lives of humans. The form, structure, and satirical style of Delillo’s novel helps to convey the message that experience is the mediator between technology and humans; therefore, the advancement of technology eliminates the need for humans to experience.

White Noise follows the activities of Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney and his family as they go throughout their daily lives engulfing themselves into the world of technology. Each day, the family has their daily dose of television and/or radio while never really interacting intimately with each other unless it involves some form of technology. They watch television together, listen to the radio together, and yet they have no normal everyday conversations. Most of what they talk about is philosophical or “white noise,” just background noise drowning out everything else. Jack and his fourth wife Babette have many children from different marriages, four of which live with them. The couple is seemingly happy except for the fact that they are both afraid to die. Delillo plays with this obsession of dying of the couple by bringing it up constantly throughout the novel and ultimately brings it to the surface in Jack Gladney’s character as he is exposed in an airborne toxic event and when Babette gets hooked on an experimental drug called Dylar, which is supposed to help suppress the thought of death. When Jack and his family evacuate their town and Jack gets out of his car for gas, he is exposed to possible harmful substances that make him more prone to dying sooner than he expects, even if it will take many years for him to die. After the evacuation is over, the family returns home and a company comes into town trying to prepare them for the situation if it should ever happen again.

SIMUVAC, or simulated evacuation, is a state program holding a series of simulation events, after using the real Airborne Toxic Event as a model, in order to practice for the real event. This is an example of how technology has overly influenced the lives of people because the simulated evacuation is being used to predict what will happen in a real toxic event, whereas the event occurred before the simulation. If there had been a practice before the event had occurred, the people of the town could have been more prepared for it. The first simulated event is mocked by Delillo as the head operator of the simulated event says, “The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing. Life seems to work that way, doesn’t it? You take your umbrella to the office seventeen straight days, not a drop of rain. The first day you leave it at home, record breaking downpour. Never fails, does it” (206). Even with practice there is nothing like the real thing. The mockery of technology continues as the operator gives his instructions to the participants in the simulation.

As people participate in the simulation of an “all- purpose leak or spill” the operator states, “We learned a lot during the night of the billowing cloud. But there is no substitute for a planned simulation.” He says this in a way as if a disaster that was planned existed and people could be prepared for it by practicing for it. The insincere attitude of the operator continues as he tells his participants, “If reality intrudes in the form of a car crash or a victim falling off a stretcher, it is important to remember that we are not here to mend broken bones or put out real fires. We are here to simulate. Interruptions can cost lives in a real emergency” (206). This man gives the impression that the only important thing is the simulation, and what happens in real life is not important. He is telling his participants to put the practice over the lives of people in need of help. The way these directions are given on the SIMUVAC broadcast system seems as if it would be like an announcement in a supermarket, where the store would be having a sale on an item, or like the emergency broadcasting system that is used on radio and television to test the frequency. It usually starts with a high pitched noise and says something like “This is a test of the emergency broadcasting system. If this were an actual emergency you would be hearing instructions. This is only a test.” This ridiculous simulation for evacuation is a major scene by Delillo that causes the reader to laugh out loud.

The situation is funny in a way, in that the operator of the simulation tells the people playing victims to remember not to “scream or thrash about” because “We like a low-profile victim. This isn’t New York or L.A. Soft moans will suffice” (206). He says this as if these two places are the only places that experience disasters that would cause that much commotion, referring back to earlier in the novel when Jack first learns of the toxic event and tells his family, “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed area,” as if they could never happen to him and his family (114). The influence that technology has on the Gladney family goes unnoticed by them all, and the only person who seems to make sense out it is Murray, another major character in the novel.

Murray, another professor at The College on the Hill, has his own ideas about technology. He tells Jack something very interesting when Jack asks about humans’ fascination with disasters. Murray says, “For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set” (66). The message becomes clear when he says to Jack, “This is what comes from the wrong kind of attentiveness. People get brain fade” (67). People are so wrapped up in the media and the newest technology that they do not realize how it is affecting their communication with the environment around them and each other. The characters in the novel don’t know how to get back to basics because of what technology has given them. Murray said it best when he said, “They’ve forgotten how to collect data” and “This is why people’s eyes, ears, brains, and nervous systems have grown weary. It’s a simple case of misuse” (67). If people do not remember to think for themselves and connect with each other, the only thing they will rely on is technology, and eventually, they will not be able to do anything by themselves. Through satire and a consumerist approach, Delillo conveys the message that experience is the mediator between technology and humans; and therefore, the more technology advances, the more it interferes with human behavior.

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