Wednesday, September 9, 2015

“Just Between You and Meme—”

An assumption of The R’lyeh Tribune is that horror, dark fantasy and science fiction serve a critical purpose:  they document the collective nightmares of our society at a given point in time.  Speculative fiction is entertaining insofar as it is therapeutic, literally bringing to the light of examination anxieties about change and perceived threats to the social order, or—when these perennial horrors are temporarily less intense—good old death.

In the late 1960s and 1970s concerns about environmental degradation were reflected in a slew of horror entertainments about Nature taking vengeance on mankind. Armies of exaggerated flora and fauna would besiege a terrified handful of survivors—worms, ants, bees, frogs, snakes, birds, rats—at one point, even rabbits*—reenacting at least one of the ten Biblical plagues.  A decade or two earlier, the fear of nuclear annihilation and communist subversion animated stories and movies about extraterrestrial invasion and atomic mutation.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the timeframe of H.P. Lovecraft and his colleagues, people were frightened of economic disaster and subsequent loss of social standing, an impending war in Europe, and perhaps most of all, of the rapid assimilation of immigrants from foreign countries and the internal migration of African Americans from the south into the northern cities.  Lovecraft is notorious for his preoccupation with racial and ethnic difference in such stories as The Horror at Red Hook (1927) and the Call of Cthulhu (1928), which exemplify fear and distrust of nonwhite peoples.  For Lovecraft and others in his generation, miscegenation was the ultimate horror.  Lovecraft’s younger contemporary, Robert E. Howard, perseverated on unresolved racial injustice in stories like Black Canaan (1936) and The Shadow of the Beast (published after the author’s death)barely a generation after the Civil War.

It may be premature for a comprehensive diagnosis of our current fears, repressed or otherwise.  The popularity of zombies in horror entertainment—and to a lesser extent, vampirism and lycanthropy—suggests an obsession with disease and contagion, but there are other emerging anxieties.  Surely one of them is concern over the impact of spectacular new communication technologies, which have already influenced how we interact daily with one another. More ominously, hand held devices of various kinds are changing how we respond to more traditional forms of communication, to language, to literature, to books.

Technophobiaprovoked by the rapid dissemination of ever evolving personal communication devices—is the underlying theme of a first novel by Alena Graedon, The Word Exchange (2014).  Like all good science fiction, this book is a novel of ideas, of big questions.  Graedon extrapolates current worries about on-line privacy, computer hacking, malware, viruses, and the apparent degradation of language competence into the not-so-distant future, perhaps only a decade or two from now.  As a prophetess she foresees disaster, in fact the possibility of more than one, in her disturbing and disquieting book. 

To apply Kirk Schneider’s horror classification scheme, (see Horror Theory: Schneider’s Hyperconstriction and ...), Graedon has created a “hyperconstrictive” story.  What is in view here is the confinement, reduction and obliteration of the individual human being, of what it means to be human.

What if people lost the ability to remember or concentrate because of their addictive over-reliance on communication devices?  What if evil and ambitious capitalists contrived to own not only all the means of production, but also all the means of communication—that is, the very words we use to express ourselves?  Is it possible to control people’s thoughts and behavior by controlling the language they speak? What if a devastating computer virus could cross over the ever thinning membrane that separates the human nervous system from the technology it employs?

In The Word Exchange, the evil Synchronic Corporation has perfected its immensely popular handheld device, called the Meme.  The device was named after a term coined by Richard Dawkins back in the 1970s: a meme describes an idea or behavior passed on from one person to another in society, typically through imitation, a kind of glorified ‘Monkey see, monkey do’.  In the novel, the Meme is a super smart phone that anticipates all its user’s needs, including his or her need for hard-to-remember words.  But it also appears to have negative side effects on cognitive functioning with prolonged use. 

As part of its marketing strategy for rolling out the newest version of its product, Synchronic, Inc. surreptitiously acquires the publishers of various dictionaries, in a plot to monopolize both the standardization and creation of word definitions.  Only a band of heroic lexicographers, members of the secretive Diachronic Society, stand in the way.  Complicating matters is the emergence of a terrible computer virus, able to disrupt communications media as well as individual minds, a “word flu” with world-wide impact.  (As a speech-language pathologist, I found the notion of a contagious aphasia—a disruption of the ability to comprehend and use language as a result of neurological trauma—both intriguing and troubling.)

The Word Exchange is told in epistolary form, comprised of the journal entries, letters, an op-ed piece, and the press releases of the principle characters a year or so after the disastrous events take place.  The op-ed piece and the press release—essentially a list of precautionary measures—can be read as a prescription for steps our society can take now to avoid calamity. 

Throughout the book are clever allusions to classic literature that speak to the importance of language, such as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, (1871), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and others.  Even Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel gets some attention.  The author displays a conspicuous enthusiasm for the written word, and the “great conversations” across time, place and generations that written language makes possible.

Graedon’s book was the topic of discussion last night at among members of our local fantasy and science fiction reading group.  With the exception of 2 members of our party, we were all boomers, with an average age somewhere in the mid-fifties—of an age now to distrust anyone under the age of 30. (Of course, decades ago this perspective was exactly the opposite.)  It was relatively easy for us to see, in the younger generation’s enmeshment in social media and smart technology, evidence supporting the author’s dire predictions.  Are young people becoming more addled, distractible, forgetful, and less competent with language as a result their use of communications technology?  Or is this simply inter-generational carping about new-fangled ways of doing things? 

One of our younger members, a 35 year old man, ably defended social media as a method for creating and building social connectedness, for strengthening communities of people no longer bound to a specific locality.  But an older woman asked, “What about the person sitting right across the table from you?  Isn’t that person part of your community?  How does your device affect that connection?”  For my part, I would enjoy not having to edit out the at-signs, ampersands and emoticons my younger colleagues insist on putting in their formal reports and business correspondence.


*Night of the Lepus (1972)


  1. Social media, especially on smart devices, isn't reducing peoples' social connectivity, it's redistributing it. Technology has a flattening effect, and what it does is allow one to maintain comparatively rich and in-depth social contact with a large number of people farther away. The person sitting across from you in the bus is physically closer, but those folks in your contact list in Minnesota are socially closer, and in an equal crisis you'll probably care about them first.

    See also the concept of the "monkeysphere" (link:, which dovetails into a discussion of the correlation between brain size and social group size. The theorized limit for humans is estimated to be around 150.

    Given that aspect, the technology that allows one to maintain meaningful contact with people farther away has a side-effect: That 150-seat social limit may get filled up faster by people who aren't present. Unless a sufficiently compelling reason crops up, that stranger you just met probably isn't going to become friend #151.

  2. Thanks Territan for your helpful remarks. This is an interesting perspective on the issue, and the notion of the "monkeysphere" is intriguing.

    I agree with your point that social media is redistributing social connectivity, which clearly can have a positive impact. (Better elections? Quicker emergency response? World peace?)

    But I wonder, while people attend to their Minnesota contacts, are they losing touch with their more local connections--friends, family, co-workers?

    Thanks for visiting!


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