Alena Graedon has a message: be careful with your ever so convenient smart phone, tablet or computer. They can badly influence your intelligence and you might never know who is trying to abuse them. Where Dave Eggers concentrated on peer pressure in The Circle, Alena Graedon concentrates on the consequences of smart phone, smart watch, tablet or even microchips on our capacity to speak and master languages. In her novel the ever so handy Meme and Nautilus relieve their owners of many a task: want to call a taxi, Meme has already dialled the number; thinking about a friend, Memo has her on the line for you; not being able to remember that one word, Meme has found it for you. It does seem practical and time saving. Things start getting scarier when it becomes clear that Nautilus has to be physically attached to your body and uses your brainwaves in order to do all those things. As a result Nautalus takes over the thinking process of its users. A scary thought as far as I’m concerned. It makes you think about the effects trusting on world control functions on computer, tablet or smart phone might have. Alena Graedon shows us what happens when the trust of people in their gadgets is abused by capitalist investors and when the mingling of gadget and DNA results in a deadly digital and physical virus: word flu. People who get sick do not only get a high fever, they start losing their ability to use language. In serious cases word flu can result in no longer being able to speak. As a consequence The Word Exchange contains a large quantity of words that could have been used for Jabberwocky, resulting in entire chapters that are quite difficult to grasp. They are like reading a language you do not understand sufficiently.
The Word exchange is also a novel: about Anana whose father Doug, the managing director of America’s last existing dictionary, has disappeared; about her ex Max who turns out to have been one of the entrepreneurs trying to make people dependent on the app he has had developed: The Word Exchange; and about the group of people trying to prevent Word Exchange from taking over completely, The Diachronic Society. It is also the story of Bart, best friend of both Doug and Max, secretly in love with Anana (who turns out to love him as well) who writes his diary while succumbing to word flu.
As a novel The Word Exchange is alright, quite nice. Graedon is too much of the linguist and too little of the author however to have written an excellent novel. Her use of style is too clumsy, her characters and their relationships border too much on the well-trodden paths. I suppose that The Word Exchange will definitely strike a chord with people interested in language. They can imagine vividly what it would be like to lose our use of language. As I said before: an extremely scary thought.