We are all beholden to a mass of digital black screens: phones, tablets, E-readers, laptops and navigation systems in our vehicles; it’s getting to the point where there is no escape. What was once merely a luxury form of entertainment is now seemingly the only way we can exist as citizens in this digital era.
Want to find a job? Well, open your laptop and log on to Indeed, or Monster or whatever jobs board you prefer. Are you lonely and want to find a partner? No need to fret; just download our dating app onto your phone. Don’t you know it’s the only way to meet people today? You don’t want to be a cultural dinosaur, do you? Quick, hurry, subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max and other streaming services to see what everyone’s raving over and then join the discussion on Twitter. Don’t be left out! It never ends.
I want you to try an exercise. If you’re reading this digitally, close your laptop or shut off your phone, sit wherever you are and see how long you can stare into space without looking at a screen. Staring into space was something I used to be good at, until I got a smartphone—of which I was a pretty late adopter, not getting my first iPhone until 2014—up until that point, if I was waiting for a bus or riding on a train if I wasn’t reading a book, I had no choice but to sit there and stare.
When I finally did get that iPhone, I was able to resist that digital siren call, leaving the device in my pocket unless it was absolutely needed. However, sooner rather than later, it wore me down, and I became hooked, just liked millions of other people.
If it sounds like I’m being rather anti-tech, it’s only because rampant technology is the theme of Don DeLillo’s newest novel, “The Silence,” in which an unidentified phenomenon occurs that takes down all human technology. It starts on Super Bowl Sunday 2022, with our trio of characters—Diane and Max Stenner and Diane’s former student, Martin—settling in for the kick-off of the big game, but, even before the national anthem is sung, the television cuts off, and the lights go dark. What they at first assume is a run-of-the-mill power outage quickly turns out to be so much more.
“He and Diane checked their phones. Dead. She walked across the room to the house phone, the landline, a sentimental relic. No dial tone. Laptop, lifeless…” Thus, ends humanity as they know it.
By now, there is nothing profound or controversial in saying technology turns us into zombies, and DeLillo smartly avoids the cliché. What makes “The Silence” engaging is in witnessing how our characters react, or rather, how they don’t. The trio, who is soon joined by a couple from out of town, remains seated in this dark apartment awaiting the return of digital bliss, for the rest of the novel.
“The Silence” is quite a dialogue-heavy novel and it’s not hard to one day see it turned into a play. Normally, such heavy use of dialogue would bother me, but reading the ways these characters interact makes their situation even stranger, as their conversations take on less and less human-like qualities as this new reality sets in. Just as computers and phones engage in conversations by exchange bits of information, binary 1s and 0s, the characters in “The Silence” begin to trade information back and forth, spouting one strange theory after the other.
It’s frightening to realize how much we humans rely on technology to remain human. The night before starting this review, I was watching television when my power went out; frustrated, I figured I could just go on YouTube until services returned, only to quickly remember no power meant no wireless. Then, I thought I could at least get some work done, but again, I realized, everything I wanted to work on was in the cloud, which I couldn’t access until the power returned. So, I ended up standing out on my balcony, unsure of what to do, just as Max Stenner sat in his chair in front of the black screened television waiting for his precious football game to return.
To further drive this point home, in the early hours of December 14, around 4 a.m. Pacific Time, many of the services Google allows us to use went down for several hours. Everything from Gmail to YouTube, Docs to Classroom, to any third-party apps that verify your identity using your Google account didn’t work. Even though this problem only lasted a few hours, it became a major issue for millions of people; now, imagine Google’s problem didn’t last for just hours, but days, or maybe even weeks, what would we do then? What would happen to our economy in this already stressed time?
There is no doubt that technology has allowed us to do amazing things, its benefits are countless, as are the ways it has made our lives easier, but with that comes a tradeoff. As big tech invades our lives more and more, making everything from driving to cooking to shopping a simpler and simpler task, the harder those tasks become when the technology begins to fail.
“The Silence” is not a ground-breaking work of fiction in revealing anything that we don’t already know, but it does give the reader something interesting to think about, especially when the first thing you do when you’ve finished reading it is to check Twitter.
By: Gregory Bertrand