Tuesday, February 10, 2015

And what does our purportedly decluttered mind now allow us to do?

Do you use an online dictionary? Have you ever "liked" a word, or shared it on social media? Have you ever commented on a dictionary entry? I mean, by leaving a comment that satisfies the prompt (What made you want to look up ___? Please tell us where you read or heard it.). I've often wondered why anyone would be motivated to do that, apart from students of English as a second language, who seem quite genuine in their queries regarding usage. But what if you could vote a word up or down? What if its definition were crowdsourced? What if its shape, meaning, sound, morphed as data was received?

What if it all happened with the aid of the technology of our very near future, with a kind of Google Glass or a chip integrated directly into our neural network? Among its other functions for day-to-day living (hailing cabs, making payments, checking contact details, researching background info — with less than a blink of the eye), it would fulfill linguistic services, not only looking up unknown words and supplying their meanings but suggesting entire conversational tacks. What if you could devise a business model that earned you money for every look-up, while dumbing down the culture and creating a dependence on your service? You might need a monopoly on the dictionary industry first, of course.
It is comforting to believe that consigning small decisions to a device frees up our brains for more important things. But that begs the question, which things have been deemed more important? And what does our purportedly decluttered mind now allow us to do? Express ourselves? Concentrate? Think? Or have we simply carved out more time for entertainment? Anxiety? Dread?

We fear that Memes may have a paradoxical effect — that indeed, contrary to Synchronic's claims, they tend to narrow rather than expand consciousness, to the point where our most basic sense of self — our interior I — has started to be eclipsed. Our facility for reflection has dimmed, taking with it our skill for deep and unfettered thinking. And another change is taking place: our capacity for communication is fading.

In the most extreme cases, Meme users have been losing language. Not esoteric bits of linguistic debris but everyday words: ambivalence, paradox, naïve. The more they forget, the more dependent on the device they become, a frightening cycle that only amplifies and that has grown to engulf another of Synchronic's innovations, the Word Exchange.
The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon, is on its surface a mystery story — a search for a missing person. But soon enough it takes on thriller-like aspects, with corporate intrigue on an international stage. But it's also a linguistic nerd's dream. It covers synchronic versus diachronic approaches to language study, the basics of lexicography, Hegel's philosophy of language (Graedon acknowledges guidance from Jim Vernon), the theory of universal grammar, book burnings, Jabberwocky-type nonsense and countless references to Lewis Carroll's wonderland ("When I use a word, [...] it means just what I choose it to mean.").

Also, secret libraries and pneumatic tubes!

What if the Word Exchange were hacked, and everyone who used the device were infected with Word Flu, effectively losing language?
Maybe Hegel had it wrong: laber there's no mystical link between the speaker of a word and the recipient of its sound. Maybe language isn't unity but domination. Unilateral. Unkind.
Fantastic premise, wonderful vocabulary usage. Mostly interesting characters. Somewhat uneven pacing, but it's Graedon's first novel.

Interview
Bustle: Q&A: Alena Graedon on 'The Word Exchange': The Influence and Influenza of Words

Reviews
New York Times: World Wide Web
Slate: When Smartphones Attack
Tor.com: Science Fiction Saves the Dictionary: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
Toronto Star: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon: review

2 comments:

Stefanie said...

Wasn't it a fun book? You are right about the pacing but the story and ideas were interesting. And I loved the pneumatic tubes!

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