Living and Learning in a World of ‘White Noise’: Technology, Youth, and the University

By Jennifer Fisher

When Don DeLillo published White Noise in 1985, he wrote about a society whose proof of terminal decline could be found not in the range of man-made, technologically induced disasters it manufactured but, more critically, in how this perpetual state of crisis had come to eviscerate the formative conditions needed for young people to live and learn with little adult or academic intervention.  From a rampant culture of consumerism, the development of biological and techno-scientific weapons, and ecological catastrophes, to the growth of the “new media” and its attending “sound bite” culture of illiteracy, life for the young characters in DeLillo’s text prove precarious at best.  Yet in the university, where one might expect to find the merger between life and technology being critically deliberated, DeLillo offers the adverse and controversial image of a stagnant higher education system and professoriate whose apolitical discourses, disciplines, and research mandates refuse to speak to the broader public issues and bioethical dilemmas of a troubled landscape.  Portraying the university’s failure to provide a thoughtful or self-reflexive forum in which the thinning “progress” of society and the university’s role therein are recognized, let alone grappled with, DeLillo writes a world where “modernizing” developments and their often ruinous collateral effects – effects that, we should remember, are intimately tied to the research agendas and advancements generated through the university – are traded for the study of “personalities” and celebrity culture by academic society.[i]  Under such conditions, the disquieting noise produced by a contemporary state of living whose technological expansions have unevenly fashioned new states of risk and vulnerability for human and nonhuman life quickly finds itself dissipating into “white noise” in the absence of critical thought.

Both haunting and instructive, White Noise proves to be an important contemporary fiction for many reasons, but I would argue that two inquiries relevant for a non-fictitious present within the novel include: first, the question of how technology has reshaped the terms of living and learning for young people? And second, what ethical responsibility does the university and its faculties of intellectuals share in speaking to, and preparing students for, the problematic effects of what we might term “the biopolitics of technologization” as matters of life and death become increasingly rearranged by the digital and the virtual?

DeLillo’s narrative illustrates the dire consequences inflicted on young populations who live in a society not only increasingly “technosized” and automated but also one in which the university is divorced from addressing historical concerns that are real world, embodied, and material.  And here, DeLillo’s focus on the profound costs of this division, and of a university that fails to employ a capacity for thinking responsibly and acting responsively towards children and youth whose worlds have become differentially marked by disaster, reflects in some sense how a crisis of the social correlates with a crisis of education.

White Noise is evidence of a pointedly dystopian image of the university, to be sure, but it raises important questions surrounding what can happen socially, politically, and culturally when the university and its conditions for thought are in a state of “ruin.”[ii]  White Noise also inspires reflection on how the university has been reformed by technology in recent years – its modes of research, experimentation, instituted fields and pedagogical approaches – while highlighting a crucial challenge.  In the future, the democratic role of the university as a discerning and dissenting public sphere will be contingent upon its operation as a collaborative interdisciplinary space whose gathering of intellectuals share perhaps only one thing in common: namely, an ethical and political commitment to addressing the public concerns and social problems of those made vulnerable, like young people, by the varying impact of technology in everyday life.  On this point, the renewal of commitment to both youth and thought within the university is a particularly important project to recall – all the more so given how, as Richard Powers reminds us, White Noise was written at a time when the reconfiguration of living and learning by technology was in a stage of infancy compared to the permeation that seems “ordinary” to the bulk of young people today: “If you thought the world was awash in noise then, half a decade before the first Web browser, just put your ear to today’s Twitter.”[iii]

Indeed, in North American countries like the United States and Canada, technology has become the primary force that mediates how young people learn, socialize, play, communicate and develop a sense of identity.  Taking into account a wide range of media use including computer ownership, Internet access, mobile devices, television and other information communication technologies (ICTs), the Kaiser Foundation’s Generation M2 report found that the vast majority of young people between the ages of 8 and 18 are spending 7.5 hours on average with media a day, seven days a week.  When factors of multiple media use are included, researchers conducting the Generation M2 study discovered that youth are packing the whopping equivalent of over 10 hours of media engagement into their 7.5 hours of daily media consumption.[iv]

To say the least, children and youth are experiencing a fundamental redefinition of the world as private and public spaces formerly separated, like that of home and school, are increasingly blurred by the intrusion of new technologies.  They are also experiencing what it means to “be in the world” – a phrase that indexes the changing nature of their existence, realities, and relations to others – in terms that are profoundly different than those of the “Silent” or “Babyboomer” generation.  Social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace, have become the principal means of representing or extending a sense of self in virtual times, terms, and spaces.  And as reports from universities and research centers like Generation M2 continue to be published, signaling the vast degree to which “being online” has now become a “new normal” for most young people – or at least a privileged majority – public and scholarly discussions debating the implications of such shifts have abounded, but not in ways that would warrant any praise for their criticality.

The kinds of scholarly responses that have emerged from the university following the growth of digital technologies and their impact on youth include a wide range of competing interpretations, many of which I cannot cover here.[v]  Some scholars at one pole of the debate adopt a fairly conservative and deterministic position, like that of Mark Bauerlein, who sees the increased use of information communication technologies among youth in the U.S. to be responsible for producing what he calls “the dumbest generation”:  that is, a cohort of illiterate, anti-intellectual, isolated, self-obsessed young people who have no interest or understanding of the histories, politics, or cultures of the societies in which they live despite, ironically, having more access to information through ICT forums like the Internet than any generation prior.[vi]  Others, like Marc Prensky, have offered in the opposite extreme a much more romanticized and utopic vision that suggests youth universally represent a new generation of “digital natives”: that is, a cohort of students who are literate, intellectual, connected, publically minded, sociable, and contributing members of digital worlds.[vii]

While these positions appear to be in complete opposition, both of them depend on an unquestioned adoption of ICTs, and specifically that of the Internet, as well as a superficial discussion of technology in relation to youth that I find most egregious.  Despite their contrasting views of youth and the effects of technology, Bauerlein’s and Prensky’s positions prove to be two sides of the same coin.  In equal measure, both authors reflect support for a neoliberal interpretation of information communication technologies by framing spaces like the Internet as one of unrestrained “freedom,” “personal choice,” and “equal opportunity” where youth as disembodied subjects can leave, at least temporarily, the weight of their socio-economic and bodily realities behind (including one’s race, class, and gender) to learn as “digital natives” (in Prensky’s terms) or to avoid these seemingly available and open opportunities to learn, choosing to become “dumb” instead (in Bauerlein’s estimations).

Departing from these positions, I would insist that universities and the variety of public scholars they host have a responsibility to reframe the discussion of digitization and technology by including, first, a more capacious and historical understanding that counters neoliberal rationalities and interpretations of ICT developments as a liberalizing or democratizing force that can independently alleviate and equalize conditions of inequality.  And second, greater attention must be paid to the question of how new media technologies can reflect, reinforce, and even intensify real world, historical, embodied disparities among diverse populations of youth.

Such lines of inquiry have, of course, found support in debates over what is most commonly referred to as the “digital divide” – an area of scholarly study that has long brought critical attention to issues of social inequality in relation to technology, especially in discussions of access, service distribution, and more recently that of literacy.[viii]  But the rhetorical deployment of the term “digital divide” and its attending focus on technological “haves and have-nots,” and even that of literacy and the cultivation of media skills, as Anna Everett rightly suggests, often fall short in paying attention to the more malleable ways in which ICTs not only have perpetuated gender, racial, and class “fault lines in our information age, but have [also] introduced new…divides and novel strategies” for managing different bodies of youth.[ix]  How, then, might the university play a crucial role in rethinking technology as a series of developments situated within a broader ecology of history, power, and culture?  And if, in some cases, it can result in the invention and deepening of social divisions, how must technology be rethought in order to resist the bifurcation of its effects from being naturalized as “white noise” today?

The challenge that DeLillo poses to the university centers, in my reading of White Noise, on this set of concerns.  The university, its faculty, and students have a crucial role to play in thinking critically about the advent of technology as something historical, political, and deeply rooted in a question of ethics.  Contemporary conditions of economic austerity, hollowed out social resources, and mounting global insecurity have left few spaces for young people to create and engage in the kinds of “participatory cultures” so celebrated in research on “digital living” within real world, everyday, embodied conditions.[x]  As researchers and public intellectuals, we commit a disservice when we fail to connect how the increasing number of children and youth moving online is partially linked to the wider collapse of spaces for play, pedagogy, and political engagement in offline environments, the proof of which is not hard to find.

We see it in reports suggesting that black and Hispanic youth in the U.S. spend up to four hours more with ICTs than white youth[xi] – a troubling statistic given that these increased levels of media use are, as one can imagine, intimately tied to conditions of poverty, a lack of safe and supportive spaces for play, and a public education system so disparate in the distribution of its resources and quality that ICTs must stand in for any number of care, funding, and pedagogical absences.  We also see it in reports suggesting that poor minority youth are more likely than white youth to have media used at home by parents – many of whom raise children independently, are required to work more than one job to secure a basic means of survival, and cannot access affordable “childcare,” let alone balance the cost of enrolling their kids in recreational activities – as a pragmatic measure to occupy the attention of their children while tending to household duties for example, or to provide safe forms of entertainment to their children when other spaces and resources are lacking.[xii]  The real and embodied effects of these differences find expression in the increased levels of depression and lower grade results that the heaviest media users have been found to experience.[xiii]

So too, we can see deepening divides in examples of cyberbullying where digital spaces prove to be far from neutral, tolerant, or “colourblind,” functioning instead as a conduit that augments some of the worst social sentiments of racism, sexism, and homophobia.  And we see how, through virtual environments, children and youth are increasingly subject to a number of neoliberal intensifications rather than alleviations – commodification, individualization, and surveillance – through techniques of online commercial marketing deployed at children and individualized “personal” profile networking sites like Facebook, which are also coupled with new opportunities for monitoring and regulating young people.  What concerns me, in short, is how celebratory rhetorics of “freedom,” “disembodiedness,” and declarations claiming a “post-human” age as a result of information communication technologies from scholars within the academy risk ignoring and lending support to a much broader retraction of civil liberties, social resources, and public spaces elsewhere as neoliberal policy grows in popularity and practice.

To advocate for a greater focus on the relationship between online and offline environments is not to suggest that all technology operates deterministically, nor does it aim to simplify the varying dimensions and complicated properties of the merger between life and technology.  Without a doubt, children and youth are collaborating, creating, and reappropriating established structures of power through ICTs in ways that are creative, political, and profoundly pedagogical – as movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Quebec student protest can attest.  The critical use of media and technology demonstrates how they have quickly become a central tool for advocacy and protest within highly different global contexts, providing a few select examples of their productive and imaginative role in public life.  Even in a novel whose vision of society appears terribly bleak, like that of White Noise, DeLillo leaves hope for a better future with his young characters who prove to be critical, aware, and interpretive in their engagements with technology and its attending disasters.  Yet the more central question those in the university must grapple with, as Henry Giroux succinctly suggests, involves how we want to “imagine the new media and their underlying communication systems as contributing to a distinctly different public sphere that offers the promise of recasting modes of agency and politics outside of the neoliberal ideology and disciplinary apparatus that now dominate the contemporary culture?”[xiv]  Such a task, in my estimation, begins by developing collaborative and interdisciplinary modes of research and teaching in the university dedicated to countering neoliberalism’s diminishment of digital life and its implications for the young to mere “white noise.”

Jennifer Fisher is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.


[i] DeLillo’s use of two academic characters in White Noise – Jack, who claims to have pioneered a specialized field studying the life and personality of Hitler (all without any reference to the Holocaust), and Murray, who centers his research around the biography of Elvis Presley – may read in some quarters as a rather conservative critique against scholarly work emerging from the Humanities, particularly in the field of Cultural Studies.  But DeLillo’s focus on the “cult of celebrity” and personality, at least in my reading, is not intended to disavow the importance of studying political persons or icons of popular culture within humanistic areas of research.  Rather, through the characters of Jack and Murray, DeLillo challenges the privatization of scholarly work whose responsibility to address public issues, social concerns, and historical predicaments is evacuated when research becomes reduced to the depoliticized and dehistoricized study of “persona.”

[ii] Readings, Bill.  The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[iii] DeLillo, Don.  White Noise.  Introduction by Richard Powers  (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), pp. xiv.

[iv] Kaiser Family Foundation. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to18 Year Olds  (January, 2010), pp. 1.

[v] Some accounts on youth, technology, and “new media” that offer more nuanced and critical readings include:  David Buckingham,  After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 2000); Kathryn C. Montgomery,  Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2007); Sherry Turkle,  Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995); Henry A. Giroux,  Channel Surfing: Racism, the Media, and the Deconstruction of Today’s Youth (New York, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998).

[vi] Bauerlein, Mark.  The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future  (New York, New York: Penguin Group Inc, 2008), pp. 32.

[vii] Prensky, Marc.  “digital natives, digital immigrants.”  The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting and the Age of Social Networking.  Mark Bauerlein (Ed).  (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2011), pp. 4.

[viii] For an excellent study on Canadian digital divides and the changing nature of digital divide debates, please see:  Digital Diversity: Youth, Equity, and Information Technology.  E. Dianne Looker and Ted D. Naylor (Eds).  (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010).

[ix] Everett, Anna.  “Introduction.”  Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media.  Anna Everett (Ed).  The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning  (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 4.

[x] Jenkins, Henry and Ravi Purushtoma, et al.  Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.  The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation  (London, England: The MIT Press, 2009).  It is important to note that Jenkins is acutely aware of the way historical conditions come to limit possibilities for participation. What interests me is how the uncritical reappropriation of terms like “participatory culture” in scholarly work can become quickly aligned with a neoliberal interpretation of ICTs as tools that create opportunities and spaces for free, unrestrained association.

[xi] Kaiser Family Foundation. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to18 Year Olds  (January, 2010), pp. 11.

[xii] Kaiser Family Foundation.  The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers and their Parents (May 2006), pp. 28-33.

[xiii] Kaiser Family Foundation. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to18 Year Olds  (January, 2010), pp. 4.

[xiv] Giroux, Henry A.  “The Crisis of Public Values in the Age of New Media.”  Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), pp. 76.


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