When Smartphones Attack

A new sci-fi novel explores the ramifications of outsourcing our language to our devices.

Illustration by Rem Broo

The effects of smartphone use on everyday life—parenting, friendship, walking, driving, wayfinding—are both scientifically measurable and anecdotally visible. Many people will ruefully acknowledge that they’ve forgotten how to read a map, or how to wait in line without checking Twitter. The smartphone’s sudden omnipresence makes it a great device for science fiction. What, writers have begun to ask, will our phones offer to do for us next? And how will we react?

Alena Graedon’s dazzling but unsatisfying debut novel The Word Exchange sketches a smartphone hater’s worst nightmare. It offers a snappy, noir-inflected vision of a future New York suffering from an epidemic of aphasia brought on by super-smartphones. Against the spreading sickness, an employee of one of the last surviving print dictionaries struggles to find her missing father and to uncover the shadowy evildoers whose profit-grabbing has resulted in this dangerous “word flu.”

The Meme—the smartphone that seems to have annexed all of the market share in this version of New York—can dispense medicine, hail you a cab, pay your taxes, scan you through the turnstile in the subway, manage traffic, and call 911 when you’re in trouble. In social situations, the device advises you what to say next and when to shut up, stays quiet if it senses somebody in a group is hostile to its presence, or saucily beams your contact information into an attractive stranger’s Meme. If you’re willing to implant a microchip in your head, the Meme can offer a new level of service. The next-generation Nautilus, a biotech device that partners with the user’s DNA, promises even more.

The characteristic of the Meme that’s the most relevant to the book’s plot is its app called Word Exchange, which lets you look up definitions of unknown words—for a small fee. Eventually, users come to over-rely on the Word Exchange to provide meanings. This natural dependency, preyed upon by nefarious tech companies out to make a buck, provides the conditions for the spread of the word flu.

Anana Johnson, the book’s primary narrator, is a twentysomething Meme user with personal tastes that lean toward the quirky and historical (comics, Buster Keaton movies, vintage sweaters, cooking). As the book begins, Anana has just broken up with a boyfriend. She mourns, works her low-level editorial job at the North American Dictionary of the English Language, suffers through a bad case of artist’s block, and somehow manages to miss the strong signals that the lovelorn Bart, a fellow dictionary employee and friend of her ex, sends her way. (Excerpts from Bart’s witty, literate journal entries offer his point of view on these matters.)

Anana’s father, Doug, the dictionary’s editor-in-chief, whose disappearance kick-starts the novel, is the book’s moral center. Doug, presented as a distinctive assemblage of affinities and fatherly affection, loves sherry vinegar, licorice, Bay Rum aftershave, bromeliads, pineapples. A hardline anti-Memer, he uses email and a system of pneumatic tubes to convey interoffice messages. He’s prone to soliloquies on the pernicious nature of Memes:

Our natural tendency is to be distracted—to scan the horizon constantly for predators and prospects. Books made us turn that attention inward, to build higher and higher castles within the quiet kingdoms of our minds. … The skills we once used for survival—scattered attention, diffused concentration—have been adapted to finding glowing dots on screens, skimming pop-ups, beams, emails, video streams. Our thinking has been flattened; our progress ceded to machines.

As readers, we’re meant to agree with Doug. The narrative demands it: Who would be on the side of the tech companies that wreak such havoc, when it’s Doug and his ragtag bunch of collaborators who are preventing people from getting sick and language from disappearing? There’s an inherent weakness in using the structure of a thriller to explore complex questions about technology and culture. There have to be good guys and bad guys, and so we end up rooting for the Luddites, even though we know the issues are much more complicated than that.

Social class is almost absent in Graedon’s vision of Meme-dominated New York. In other science-fiction narratives that play with the effects of smartphone-like devices, like Will McIntosh’s Love Minus Eighty, the reality-enhancing technology of the “system” is unevenly distributed. People judge new acquaintances based on how snazzy their systems are. Systemless, you could find yourself excluded not only from the enhanced informational landscape made possible by virtual reality but also from all kinds of social interaction. Likewise, in M.T. Anderson’s epically sad Feed, the chips implanted in young people’s heads are expensive—a barrier to entry that eventually leads to tragic consequences for one of the book’s protagonists. But in the world of The Word Exchange, use of the Meme and Nautilus is personal choice, not a matter of class or privilege. (In this way it’s reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Her, with its lovingly crafted retro-chic devices everyone owns.)

Much of Graedon’s book is written in the voices of characters that have begun to suffer from aphasia. The disease replaces random words with nonsense, and Graedon’s language is sparklingly inventive:

It’s harder now to write this. My lavo arm hurts. I think I sprained my wrist. It’s not just my rookbee, actually. One of my teeth feels loose. And … it’s kind of tricky to see the page with this black eye. My nose might also be broken—it makes a weird clicking shung when I touch it.

Alena Graedon by Beowulf Sheehan
Author Alena Graedon.

Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan

The aphasia-speak should evoke a sentiment of displacement or alienation. But Graedon is too good a writer, it seems, to let an opportunity for linguistic play slip. Indeed, there’s an in-text reference to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” a nonsense poem that’s nothing but delightful to read and hear. Graedon’s aphasics sound like they’re improvising new nonsense verse—and that may be scary for them, but it’s merely fun for us.

Despite all of its considerable linguistic sophistication, the novel offers a blunt message: Words are good. Reading is good. Books are good. The forces of good (reading/words/history) can defeat the forces of evil (technology/capital). Because the Meme isn’t part of a dramatically different social fabric, we can imagine the removal of the device restoring this world to the way it was meant to be. And because the language in Graedon’s book is so enjoyable, we can congratulate ourselves on being the kinds of people who recognize the importance of books and words.

I’m on board with one of the basic tenets of the Diachronic Society, Graedon’s group of scholarly rebels who combat the word flu: “Take the long view.” In my long view, technology is us—not an alien imposition to be tracked down, fought, and ultimately excised.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. Doubleday.

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