Chatting by the fireside

In Don Delillo’s novel White Noise (1984) - which by the way is both hilarious and more relevant than ever with its themes of media saturation, environmental catastrophe, consumerism as religion, and fascism (the main character is a university chair of Hitler Studies) - there is a philosophical exchange on the subject of everything we don’t know about the technologically advanced society we live in. Framed as a kind of Socratic dialogue between father and son (with the son always playing Socrates), the 14-year-old Heinrich describes our diminished agency in a system that casts us only as passive consumers. ‘What good is knowledge’, he asks, ‘if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.’

To illustrate this point he gives a lengthy diatribe on everything we don’t know about the society we live in. The ignorance he describes is highlighted by the community’s helplessness in the face of a catastrophe (an ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ set off by a chemical spill):

‘It’s like we’ve been flung back in time,’ he said. ‘Here we are in the Stone Age, knowing all these great things after centuries of progress but what can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make. Could you make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp and came face to face with the ancient Greeks. The Greeks invented trigonometry. They did autopsies and dissections. What could you tell an ancient Greek that he couldn’t say, “Big Deal.” Could you tell him about the atom? Atom is a Greek word. The Greeks knew that the major events in the universe can’t be seen by the eye of man. It’s waves, it’s rays, it’s particles.’

‘We’re doing all right.’

‘We’re sitting in this huge moldy room. It’s like we’re flung back.’

‘We have heat, we have light.’

‘These are Stone Age things. They had heat and light. They had fire. They rubbed flints together and made sparks. Could you rub flints together? Would you know a flint if you saw one? If a Stone Ager asked you what a nucleotide is, could you tell him? How do we make carbon paper? What is glass? If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases? Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you’ve read hundreds of books and magazines and seen a hundred TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell those people one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives?’

‘“Boil your water,” I’d tell them.’

‘Sure. What about “Wash behind your ears.” That’s about as good.’

‘I still think we’re doing fairly well. There was no warning. We have food, we have radios.’

‘What is a radio? What is the principle of a radio? Go ahead, explain. You’re sitting in the middle of this circle of people. They use pebble tools. They eat grubs. Explain a radio.’

It’s an unsettling speech. Sure, some of us know how a radio works, or how to light a fire without a match, but not many; certainly it’s a shrinking minority. Learning how things work is one small step we can take, especially now that all the information we need is literally at our fingertips.

We’ve been talking a lot recently about Albert Borgmann’s device paradigm, about ‘thingness’ and being connected to a larger ecosystem. Borgmann illustrates his concept with the image of the traditional hearth, ‘a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house a centre’. Our latest projects explore in part the ways we might make devices back into things.

On a less pedantic note, we had a clear night this week and we got a fire going. We wanted to meet for a couple of hours, the two of us and our PhD student Enrique, to develop some fresh ideas for future projects. Why go to a meeting room when you can sit by the fire with a sketchbook and pencil and a bottle (or two) of good red wine? So that’s what we did. The fireside is now our preferred meeting place, especially for the big ideas that can be filled in with details later. It’s a good way to escape the noise and rediscover the signal.

How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a little while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise?
—  Don DeLillo
Perché avevamo vent’anni e cominciavamo a capire che l’invincibilità non esiste. Volevamo radunare quel po’ che ci restava di coraggio e speranza, e confinarlo in un sogno. La bellezza era troppo difficile e la verità in Occidente era morta insieme al Grande Capo Cavallo Pazzo; ci attendeva una vita di piccole sconfitte. […] Qualsiasi film vedessimo era invariabilmente un grande capolavoro. Merry ne parlava per due giorni, poi lo dimenticava per il resto della vita. Non avevamo tempo per ricordare niente, perché c’era sempre qualcosa di nuovo e straordinario in arrivo: un altro film, un altro bar o ristorante, un negozio di abbigliamento per uomo, una boutique, una stazione sciistica, una casa in riva al mare, un gruppo rock.
—  Don DeLillo, Americana