The Perihelion Effect

Kranzberg, Delillo, White Noise, Science, Technology, Fiction

A few examples help to show how the technological mindset, has altered the personal relationship to the world itself.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer demonstrates how technique changes not only our view of the world around us, but enables us to see ourselves as totlally changeable objects within that world. In Neuromancer no form is sacred. The world is made over as a tool to be used, to be reshaped again along with the reshaping of our needs themselves. The society which Don Delillo describes in his novel White Noise is one where technology is pervasive to such and extent that it is invisible until it is catastrophic. Every item in the world of White Noise is in some way a product of technique. There is an established tradition of critiquing technology of which the science fiction genera has subverted.  Melvin Kranzburg states that man himself is the result of technological change. He points out that the only clear line of distinction which can be drawn between our species from that of our primitive ancestors.

“Man made tools”, Kranzburg sums up his anthropological argument, “but tools also made man”.

A Heidegerian type response:  As this line of reasoning has no glaring flaw I will tentatively accept tool fabrication and use as the essential part of man’s being. It is by technology that mankind has been able to dwell upon this earth. What is more interesting is that in recent times this same essential characteristic has created the possibility of his dwelling removed from the earth. (In using the term Earth I refer not only to the planet itself, but to the traditional physical constraints which man until recently was subject to while he was confined by the planet as well.) Technology is what defines a culture, it shows how a set of people have come to cope with the environmental demands of the region, or time, that they inhabit. Culture is the collective project of tool making which sets the disposition which individuals have toward their dwelling place and the people within it. We may even define man by the type of tools he employs in his life upon the planet. Winner suggests that technological artifacts embody particular political ideas and social understandings. Archeology seems to support this belief, for it attempts to determine the immaterial political and social structure from the remnant artifacts of long vanished civilizations. We assume that are able to be successful in this task of understanding because we assume that the same conditions must have human life at all times on the planet. At the most basic level this amounts to saying that if all humans are the same biologically, that they all have the same need for food and shelter and the implements which make these activities possible, we can understand the basic forms which the men living in that vanished culture must have shared as well. By examining present day cultures we find that the highly diverse living conditions presented by the earth, breed common social forms for humans. By this anthropological understanding, we imagine a common bond between all men at all times. That bonding must be quite basic since anthropology claims they exist throughout time and place. I suggest that the basic bond which has tied all men to one another, which ties all cultures to each other in a basic manner must be the earth itself. Thus tools have defined the way that man looks at himself upon the earth. Tools have made living upon the earth possible, and provided the most basic component of human culture. Removing the earth must change man’s understanding of himself. If it is natural for man to use tools in his dwelling upon the earth, as Kranzberg suggests, the possibility of living outside of the planet’s constraints has changed our relationship to our tools. If our tools are also the way we look at ourselves, technology which has defied the traditional limits of earth have also changed the way we understand and relate to our own thinking.

Don Delillo’s White Noise

Delillo’s White Noise, 1985,  brings to the foreground the change in our thinking about ourselves which technology causes. The society which Delillo describes is one where technique is pervasive. Every item in the world of White Noise is in some way a product of technique. Food is no longer an object of nourishment but a packaged product. A barn is not simply a barn, but the most photographed barn in America. All things in Jack’s sensory environment become objects to be interpreted, information to be understood, data to be processed, and not things as they are themselves. Jack’s world is shaped by the interpretation of data more than the direct experience of the world itself. The level of mediation in this world is acute. In fact it often seems that people will accept this mediated information above their own experience. One example of this level of mediated belief is Heinrich’s unwillingness to formulate an opinion about if it is raining or not lest he contradict the prediction of the radio weather report. When asked by Jack to come to some opinion about the “truth” of the rainfall he apparent is seeing, Heinrich responds: What truth?…the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy?…the truth of someone in orbit around a nutron star?… My truth? My truth means nothing. In a later episode, Jack’s daughters are convinced of the ill effects which they have suffered due to the, so-called, “airborn toxic event”. Steffie and Denise have overheard that the side effects of exposure are sweating and vomiting, and subsequently experience these ‘predicted’ symptoms. Even after the effects are up graded to include coma, convulsions, and miscarriages, the children continue to experience the former set of responses. This is explained by Jack as being due to the fact the the girls had missed the latest set of symptoms on the radio, and were thus unaware of just what the effects should be. One might ask if this is consistent with the assumptions which I have made about the nature of the relationship between technology and self-image. Is this lack of unmediated personal knowledge due to the type of technology we find in Jack’s world?

Information, and interpretation seem to be obvious themes which Delillo hope to explore in his book. If it is not too much of an assumption to associate the technology of our world with that of Jack’s, it is obvious what his self image must amount to. In our world information is a pervasive theme in our technology. Information is presented to us by media, newspapers, TV, and radio. It is interpreted for us by commentators, experts, and specialists. Information is transformed from the experiential to the mathematical, changed to binary code, processed by high speed computers, and interfaced through data networks. Our world is filled with methods of information retrieval, techniques of data organization, and sciences of information gathering. To be sure if we are not a society obsessed with information, we certainly value it highly. How does this preponderance of information effect our self-image? This is the central question which Delillo raises. When we are exposed to such an explosion of ‘expert advice’, scientific method, and ‘objective conclusions, we are presented with ‘facts’ without a fundamental basis for judging them. The characters of Delillo’s world are inundated with information to the point where they can not assimilate it. In such instances they tend to disregard their own experience of the world in favor of the trusted opinion of experts. In doing so they shape the way we they are disposed toward the experiences themselves. Mediated experience is the only way this amount of information can make sense of the sheer mass of data which the characters encounter in their everyday world. However, Delillo also seems to imply by his title that this assimilation eventually Degrades into an incomprehensible mass of information. White noise is oscillation at all frequencies, a confusion rather than a clarity. In a world where even interpretation must be interpreted no information is fact in and of itself. The characters of White Noise struggle to make meaning of their own experiences, to sort information, in a society where information is itself the genre of technique. I would like to suggest one other example of how the prevailing technology, or man’s relationship to his tools, effects his regard of own self.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer

William Gibson’s Neuromancer demonstrates how technique changes not only our view of the world around us, but enables us to see ourselves as changeable objects of the world. The world of Neuromancer is one where no form is sacred. The world is made over as a tool to be used, to be reshaped along with the reshaping of our needs. The world is seen as a mutable object, which is only a means to the particular end its inhabitants pursue. The technological milieu of Neuromancer is consistent with Ellul’s distinguishing characteristics in that it is artificial, autonomous, and self-determining. It is however the artificial which most interests me here, for the world of Neuromancer has accepted the fabricated in the place of the natural. If technology serves us to facilitate ends, the reasoning of these people goes, I myself can be technological according to my particular ends. The persons of this world look at the effectiveness with which their world has been transformed and see how its efficiency has been increased with regard to the particular ends of those who have transformed it. While they may realize that this transformation represents a choice between alternatives, the natural and the artificial for example, they are content to accept the artificial demands and limitations if it will aid them to achieving their own ends. Thus the artificial is a totally acceptable alternatives to the natural. In such a society no form is sacred, only more or less efficient at achieving ends. Thus the characters of Gibson’s world even come to see themselves as mutable, changeable, perhaps even perfectable, with regard to their particular ends. These persons transform themselves at will through a variety of technologies, without regard to the “natural”. If we can judge a person’s self-image by his appearance, and by his care taking of his body, it is obvious that the people Gibson describes to us are fully at home judging themselves by the same standards by which they judge their technology. While I don’t wish to pass a judgement about the validity of such a standard, I want to point out that this equation is strange to say the least. By this equation of the artificial as an acceptable means of dwelling, man is forced to run his life by the same precepts which govern technique. Man in Neuromancer is forced to see that the traditional place of morality, of value, of worth, is incompatible with the circumstances of his world. The only values for man when he equates himself with his tools are those which he applies to his tools. When his tools support a value system removed from the demands of the natural world, the earth, man’s values become grounded not on natural demands, but on values foreign to his original Being. I have tried to deomnstrate the effect which technology has on man’s self image. In bring forth examples from ficition it is clear that the type of technology, the tools which are employed, are not only part of the social/political structure of a society. If tools are an essential part of man’s being, the relationship which he has to them is a self-reflective one. Man’s defines his relationship to the world by the tools which he employs, but this relationship to the world also defines man himself. The character of the tools is then the character of man’s self embodied. Tool are not simply artifacts with distinct political undertones, they are the means by which men relate to their world, to one another and ultimately to themselves. 

Melvin Kranzburg, “Technology and Human Values”, in Philosophy, Technology and Human Affairs, Larry Hickman ed. p.223 

Delillo, White Noise, p.23 ibid. p.125 9

Joseph Schuster

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