Thursday, June 20, 2013

A word is a recipe

"You went to school," Lee said. "I mean, at some point. And it didn't suit you very well. They wanted too teach you things you didn't care about. Dates and math and trivia about dead presidents. They didn't teach persuasion. Your ability to persuade is the single most important determinant of your quality of life, and they didn't cover that at all. Well, we do. And we're looking for students with natural aptitude."

Lexicon, by Max Barry, was a helluva read, and bears several noteworthy distinctions:
  • Starts with a needle stuck in an eyeball.
  • Made me twice almost miss my metro stop (as in, reading, reading, and as the warning chime sounds realizing, holy shit, this is my stop, and dashing through the closing doors in the nick of time).
  • Includes as characters T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Kathleen Raine, Isaac Rosenberg, Goethe, etc. (Well, they're code names, but still.)
  • Secret society.
  • Neurolinguistics! (Which rocks my world, but maybe that's just me.)
  • Babel myths and brain hacking.
  • Made me cry.
  • Comes with personality quiz.
It's a thriller with a driving pace. The joy of reading it comes also with the dismay that you will eventually run out of book to read.

The story cuts between two main narrative threads, essentially running in opposite directions. (It's a little bit Time Traveller's Wife meets Snow Crash.) We follow Wil back across the chain of events that led to his eyeball being threatened in an airport bathroom. And there's Emily, whose story is told chronologically forward — she's a hustler who runs a three-card Monte scam who is recruited by a secret society to train as a "poet."

"What's a word?"

"Huh?

"You're feeling clever — tell me what a word is."

"It's a unit of meaning."

"What's meaning?"

"Uh... meaning is an abstraction of characteristics common to the class of objects to which it applies. The meaning of ball is the set of characteristics common to balls, i.e. round and bouncy and often see around guys in shorts."

Jeremy returned to the free throw line, saying nothing. She figured she must have that wrong, or at least not right enough.

"You mean from a neurological perspective? Okay. A word is a recipe. A recipe for a particular neurochemical reaction. When I say ball, your brain converts the word into meaning, and that's a physical action. You can see it happening on an EEG. What we're doing, or, I should say, what you're doing, since no one has taught me any good words, is dropping recipes into people's brains to cause a neurochemical reaction to knock out the filters. Tie them up just long enough to slip an instruction past. And you do that by speaking a string of words crafted for the person's psychographic segment. Probably words that were crafted decades ago and have been strengthened ever since. And it's a string of words because the brain has layers of defenses, and for the instruction to get through, they all have to be disabled at once."

So that's the neurolinguistic principle behind the brain hacking, essentially exerting a kind of mind control via a hypnotic-like suggestion. Once you've identified the segment to which a person belongs, the right string of words is easy. The ultimate purpose, of course, being something like world domination by this society, although this was never entirely clear to me, or to serve the aims of one individual corrupted by absolute power, something like that.

Lexicon is an idea book — in my view, a highly original one. I love the linguistic angle, but there's plenty of action and conspiracy to satisfy readers who aren't gaga for language processing theory.

There are some interesting discussions also about digital media and social media, how user data is gathered, and how that data can be used to generate content, so that every user has a customized user experience. A website can achieve the same end (from the point of view of a site owner) but through different, highly individualized means. (See this video about capturing data: "The global Internet becomes the personal Internet.")

At heart though, Lexicon is a love story and about the search for meaning, digging around in the thin space — the disconnect — between words, or whatever other symbols we choose to use, and the meaning they're meant to convey.
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