The Insidiousness of the Feed
The prevalence of and sophistication of technology in one’s society have a major influence on one’s experience of the world. Certainly, technology changes lives, but whether it makes them better or worse is an open question. Feed, a work of young adult fiction by M.T. Anderson, provides insight into answering this question. In this fictional world, consumerism has come to dominate virtually all aspects of life; classical educational systems have become defunct, replaced by instruction on how to operate one’s Feed, which has become the very center of one’s existence. Additionally, human interaction has lost some of its value, as it is always tainted by the incessant noise coming from the Feed, and what it means to be human has also lost its value: to be human is to provide a vessel for a Feed.
The most glaring danger of the Feed is that a malfunctioning Feed can be fatal. On a vacation on the moon, the protagonist, Titus, meets a girl named Violet. He, she, and several of Titus’s friends are assaulted by a hacker, who causes their Feeds to break down temporarily. Everyone recovers, except for Violet; the damage to her Feed eventually leads to her death, as the Feed is hardwired into her nervous system.
But the insidious Feed causes harm in more subtle ways. Education is centered on operating the Feed, rather than on growing one’s mind; in this world, all but a few people see no need to learn because all information is only a thought away from a Feed-owner. Indeed, Titus explains, “You can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit” (Anderson 47). Ironically, Titus explains how “supersmart” he and everyone is while committing egregious factual and grammatical errors. Merely looking up a tidbit of information is not conducive to internalizing it; learning is facilitated through extended engagement with the subject matter. But in Titus’s world, all that people are really learning is how to operate the Feed.
After the incident on the moon, Violet explains to Titus at a mall,
“Everything we’ve grown up with – the stories on the feed, the games, all of that – it’s all streamlining our personalities so we’re easier to sell to….They do these demographic studies that divide everyone up into a few personality types, and then you get ads based on what you’re supposedly like….they keep making everything more basic so it will appeal to everyone. And gradually, everyone gets used to everything being basic, so we get less and less varied as people, more simple. So the corps make everything even simpler. And it goes on and on.” (97)
In Titus’s society, humans have precious little diversity of thought or individuality. Whereas in our society, a person can expand the horizons of his mind through exposure to people who think differently, such expansion of the mind is rendered virtually impossible in Titus’s. Everyone thinks in essentially the same ways, and no one really can really make unique or valuable contributions to remolding the framework of another’s mind. The human mind loses its wonder; all people (except for Violet and her father) become sheep consumed by both advertisements for products and entertainment shows devoid of intellectual value.
Later in the story, Violet berates Titus and inveighs against society for this ‘sheepification’ of the human race. She bitterly asks,
Do you know why the Global Alliance is pointing all the weaponry at their disposal at us….Do you know why our skin is falling off….Do you know the earth is dead? Almost nothing lives here anymore, except where we plant it? No….We don’t know any of that….We take what’s coming to us. That’s our way. (273)
Concerns such as the state of the world, the health of the environment, and even the health of oneself have become utterly subordinate to concerns about products or entertainment that provides instant, rather than lasting, gratification. But worst of all, compassion itself has become a commodity that must be purchased. When Violet suffers a serious breakdown of her Feed, she calls FeedTech and implores them for a repair. She receives this response: “Unfortunately, FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don’t feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time. No one could get what we call a ‘handle’ on your shopping habits….Sorry – I’m afraid you’ll just have to work with your feed the way it is” (247). Because Violet refuses to bow to the tide of rabid consumerism, she is deemed unfit to live. Her ascetic habits become a death sentence. There is no way to articulate the injustice and inhumanity of that fact. In this world of Feeds, a human being’s right to life is contingent upon one’s purchasing history.
In Feed, the Feed kills Violet in two different ways. Its malfunctioning causes her nervous system to fail, and its record of her scant purchasing history rules out any hope of restoring her health. But the Feed also poisons one’s every living moment. As Violet nears her end, Titus goes to say goodbye to her unconscious body. He narrates, “I tried to talk just to her. I tried not to listen to the noise on the feed, the girls in wet shirts offering me shampoo” (296). Human interaction is diluted and tainted by the incessant buzzing of the Feed. Other people must always compete with the Feed for one’s attention, much like we must compete with smart phones for other peoples’ attention. Anderson’s message is clear: while technology obviously offers numerous benefits (health care, transportation, and on and on), we must be vigilant not to let technology cause us to lose sight of what is truly important: compassion, meaningful human interaction, diversity of thought, real education, and valuing of others.
[Sorry about the improper block-quote formatting; I can’t correct it, despite my best efforts]