Study Guide

White Noise Technology & Modernization

By Don DeLillo

Technology & Modernization

The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire. We finished our lunches in silence. (2.31)

From the get-go, technology makes a sinister appearance in this book. Its sound means that there's danger in the house. Then again, the sound of it going off could mean nothing, since it also goes off if it's battery is getting low. This passage shows you how Jack's attitude toward technology is either neutral or negative. The smoke detector either means nothing, or it means something bad

"It's going to rain tonight."

"It's raining now," I said.

"The radio said tonight." (6.3-6.5)

Jack is an old-school guy. If he wants to know the weather, he'll just stick his hand out the window. But Heinrich is one of these hip new teenagers who get all his info from the media. So if the radio says it'll rain at night, he sticks with that explanation no matter what his senses tell him. In this case, you can get a pretty good sense of how deeply modern media has affected Heinrich's sense of reality. 

Someone turned on the TV set at the end of the hall, and a woman's voice said: "If it breaks easily into pieces, it is called shale. When wet, it smells like clay." (7.28)

Throughout this book, there always seems to be a voice coming from the TV or radio. This is a conscious decision on DeLillo's part, because he wants us to be aware of how modern media is always with us. We might think we're ignoring it, but it's always in the background, gnawing at our subconscious minds. We might not even have any clue how much it's affecting what our eyes and ears tell us about the world. 

Because Mylex is itself a suspect material, the results tended to be ambiguous and a second round of more rigorous detection had to be scheduled. (9.2)

So here's the deal. There's some sort of toxic leak at the local school, so they send these guys in with Mylex suits to check it out. The only problem? Mylex itself is suspected of causing health problems. All these new fancy plastics and materials are totally unnatural, and it's tough to go anywhere in the modern world without encountering something that'll give you cancer or make you sick. 

She waited a long moment, then said evenly, "That stuff causes cancer in laboratory animals in case you didn't know." (10.3)

Denise might only be eleven, but she knows her stuff when it comes to cancer and lab rats. In fact, she knows even more than her mom does, which sort of makes her the mother figure in this case. The reason Denise knows so much is because modern kids have way more access to information than ever before. This means that because of modern technology, they're often the ones who have to teach their parents about key things like staying healthy. 

If our complaints have a focal point, it would have to be the TV set, where the outer torment lurks, causing fears and secret desires. (18.2)

Jack has a beef with his TV. He thinks that it's warping his family's view of the world, and putting desires and secret thoughts into their minds. And, as it turns out, he has a point. What's more, the main tool that television uses to transmit its messages is fear: buy anti-wrinkle cream or you'll lose your mate, buy anti-acne medication or you'll never get a date, etc.

"When plastic furniture burns, you get cyanide poisoning," Heinrich said, tapping the Formica tabletop. (20.48)

Here again, you have an example of a kid telling a parent what's what when it comes to safety in the home. It seems like every material humans have created since 1900 is either extremely poisonous or cancer-causing. 

"Gladney, J.A.K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tap into your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars […] It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that." (21.398)

Spend enough time on a computer and you might start to think that your Facebook profile is more real than you are. After all, that's the side of you that most people see the majority of the time. In a way, doesn't that make your profile the real you? It's all there. All your likes, your dislikes, your history in pictures. Heck, what does that leave for you, the person sitting at the computer right now? 

I think I felt as I would if a doctor had held an X-ray to the light showing a star-shaped hole at the center of my vital organs. Death has entered. It is inside you. (21.401)

For Jack, technology (symbolized by an X-ray) is what tells him whether or not he's dying. His death wouldn't have been a real thing to him if someone hadn't punched his data into a computer and told him how long he has to live. A passage like this shows you the extent to which people rely on media and technology to tell us what's real and what isn't. 

You cannot access your account unless your code is entered properly. Know your code. Reveal your code to no one. Only your code allows you to enter the system. (37.200)

When this passage says that only your code lets you into the system, it's not just simply talking about an ATM pin. It's a metaphor for modern life in general, where every day, we go through our lives punching passwords into email accounts, bank accounts, Facebook accounts… you name it. Without our codes, we'd almost stop existing. 

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