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I have made no secret of my strained relationship with technology (see this rant for proof).  As much as I enjoy the ability to procure endless entertainment with minimal effort, I worry about the effect such ease has on our lives.  The old man hiding inside of me looks back to the halcyon days of childhood, when being friends meant more than accepting a request on Facebook.  Playing football meant going out in the front yard and cracking skulls with the neighborhood kids, not turning on the Xbox 360 and pressing buttons.  This wasn’t because technology didn’t exist.  It was because the generations responsible for raising my own recognized the value of actual experience over virtual accomplishments.  My mother limited the amount of Nintendo we could play.  My brothers and I were required to go outside for a certain amount of time each day.  TV was a last resort, saved for family movie nights and rainy days.  The sensibility that limited the impact of technology on my childhood seems to have disappeared at some point in the past ten or fifteen years.  For many people, I suspect it disappeared long before that.  I shudder to think what impact this fundamental shift in our relationship with technology will have on the future.  Apparently I am not alone in my concern. (For the record, I recognize the irony of making such a rant via internet blog post)

Don DeLillo’s White Noise is the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill somewhere in middle America.  Jack’s life with his fourth wife, Babette, and their children is permeated by the omnipresent whine of technology.  The TV and the radio constantly offer commentary and commercials, uniting the family with the rest of America in a great quilt of consumerism.  Jack is happy, only vaguely haunted by the fear of his own eventual death.  This changes when a nearby chemical spill releases a black cloud of insecticide byproduct.  The airborne toxic event forces Jack and his family to evacuate their home.  Although they are allowed to return after little more than a week, the peaceful life the family knew is hopelessly disrupted.  Jack’s possible exposure to the cloud has him focused relentlessly on the possibility of his imminent demise.  Babette is also consumed by her fear of death.  A potential cure for their dread arrives in the form of Dylar, a medication that promises to eradicate the fear of death.  When Dylar fails, Jack resorts to extreme measures to ease his pain.  Through it all the hum of technology continues to surround him.

White Noise is more than a meditation on death.  It is an indictment of the influence of technology and commercialism on our everyday lives.  Jack does not fear his natural death.  It is only when exposed to a manmade disaster that he fears his unnatural demise.  The black cloud seems to rob him of the joy of living.  What DeLillo manages to express is that the white noise surrounding him had already cheapened Jack’s existence.  The black cloud simply makes him aware of that fact.  Jack’s relationships are defined by technology.  The comfort and ease offered by all of the devices surrounding him is enticing but ultimately dulling.  It blurs the line between what is real and what is merely projected.  It is a shame that the internet and social media did not exist in 1985 when DeLillo wrote this book.  I am sure he would have a great deal to say about these developments.

I was immediately captivated by White Noise.  It seems to say so many of the things I have often thought about technology.  What is the price we pay for so much convenience?  Have we given up some part of real pleasure for the appearance of comfort?  These are questions worth considering, and this is a book worth reading. White Noise is like the bastard offspring of Kurt Vonnegut and Marshall McLuhan, full of both dark humor and substantial social criticism.  Turn off the TV and read this book!

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