White Noise’s Warning of Technology

In White Noise by Don DeLillo, a toxic cloud of an insecticide byproduct called Nyodene D. is created when a train transporting the chemical is derailed. Jack Gladney and his family evacuate to Iron City and are inside a building when:

At noon a rumor swept the city. Technicians were being lowered in slings from army helicopters in order to plant microorganisms in the core of the toxic cloud. These organisms were genetic recombinations that had a built-in appetite for the particular toxic agents in Nyodene D. They would literally consume the billowing cloud, eat it up, break it down, decompose it (DeLillo 160).

White Noise warns against the use of technology to create chemicals and microorganisms because it disrupts the natural order and has unknown consequences.

Nyodene D. is a “toxic cloud” and a “billowing cloud,” which makes it seem like a force of nature. Nyodene D. is called a cloud, not only to describe what it looks like, but to disassociate it from being human-made. Nyodene D.’s portrayal as a force of nature provides the scientists with a reason why they cannot contain or neutralize it. This portrayal undercuts the assumption that what is human-made can be controlled by humans. Further, Jack does not know what makes up the toxic cloud as he refers to its components as “the particular toxic agents.” The microorganisms are also described vaguely as “genetic recombinations.” Although Nyodene D. and the microorganisms are human-made, Jack struggles to understand what they are. The passage does not mention who created the microorganisms, and so it seems like they are solely a product of gene technology. Technology takes on a quality of a living being through producing the microorganisms. Nyodene D. is a physical threat to Jack, and others, as well as a psychological threat by being unknowable. The natural order is distorted by humans not being able to control what they make and technology becoming a creator.

The only people mentioned are the technicians, but this word distances them from human flesh and blood into technology. The label “technician” contains “tech” from “technology.” By being called technicians, the people appear to be an extension of technology instead of human. The technicians will “plant microorganisms,” which seems like a natural activity. People plant seeds in order to grow crops to eat. Nyodene D. is a byproduct of insecticide that is produced to protect crops from insects. Instead of humans eating what is planted, the microorganisms planted are eating the Nyodene D. In order to fix this human-made problem, the technicians distort the natural order. Jack is terrified that humankind through new technology is able to make microorganisms to eat Nyodene D. because these organisms are eating death. From the creation of insecticide to the unwanted chemical Nyodene D., these microorganisms that eat the chemical must also have a side effect, but it is unknown.

Nyodene D., the microorganisms, and the technicians demonstrate how technology warps the natural division between the living and nonliving. Nyodene D. and the microorganisms are a threat to human life because they are a disruption of the natural order and were each created in response to the human-made. White Noise is a warning of how the creation of new chemicals and organisms make the nonliving seem alive and puts the living into technological terms to its detriment.

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