Imagine your smartphone was shrunk and embedded inside your head, becoming part of your body. What would life be like if we had access to the Internet and social media not just at our fingertips, but even closer, directly inside our minds?
Would we be better or worse for it? M.T. Anderson's remarkable novel Feed explores the consequences of being mentally connected 24/7 online. In Feed, Titus and his peers have grown up with feeds, microchip devices that were surgically implanted into their brains during infancy.
The feed gives Titus unlimited online access: he can chat with friends, play games, watch TV shows any time and receive a constant stream of advertisements. While the feed is not compulsory, nearly everyone has one because it is impossible to live, work or socialise without the feed.
Since feeds are owned and operated by giant conglomerations, consumer culture saturates and structures every aspect of Titus's society. Even education was overtaken by corporations. Titus relates how in the past, schools in the United States were full of drugs and guns. To "save" the children, Big Business made "an investment in tomorrow" by buying all the schools.
Titus is happy that everyone now gets free pizza lunches and students learn real-world skills — namely, how to optimally use their feeds to shop and spend.
I'm reminded of this apt quote from Lawrence Grossberg describing the corporatisation of American schools: "We are unwilling to pay for their education… but we are willing to commercialise education."
Titus argues that with the feed, "you can be supersmart without ever working" simply because "you can look things up automatically". Being able to Google anything is a big advantage. But, having information instantly is not the same as gaining knowledge, because how much information can/do we actually use?
Titus has never learned anything of value because he relies on the feed to tell him what to think. The decline of mental
faculties and social skills is brilliantly conveyed by Anderson through the decay of language in Feed.
Even in face-to-face interactions, people prefer chatting online through the feed rather than verbally speaking to one another. Titus's father even has trouble thinking if anyone talks aloud. Each generation's language skills have become progressively stunted because nobody needs to learn new words since they can use the feed's English-to-English wordbook.
It is amusing and alarming that the adults in Feed speak the way many adults think teenagers sound like. Titus's father, a professional businessman, routinely says "whoa", "dude" and "like". Similarly, Titus overhears his doctor saying "Okay. Could we like get a thingie, a reading on his limbic activity?" Meanwhile, Titus's generation has evolved (or devolved?) their own language, which is heavily suffused with consumerism.
For example, Titus's friend Marty gets an expensive Nike tattoo that makes him say "Nike!" in every sentence. While everyone thinks the tattoo is funny, the fact that Marty willingly pays money to turn himself into a walking and talking product sponsor exemplifies how youths allow consumer culture to direct their lives.
Titus enjoys using the feed, but his perspective changes when he meets Violet, who received the feed later in life and celebrates her individuality despite the feed's influence.
Then, Titus and Violet are attacked by a hacker. Their feeds are temporarily disabled and Titus is forced to experience the world in the quiet of his own mind for the first time. After their feedlink is restored, Violet decides to resist the feed and corporations.
Knowing that marketers use the feed to observe their consumer preferences and build personalised customer profiles, she tries making herself impossible to sell to. She takes Titus to the mall to playfully look at cosmetics, antiques, negligee and colonoscopy kits without buying any.
When Violet's feedware begins malfunctioning after the hacker's attack, it threatens her health. Violet's family petitions the Feedtech companies to sponsor her feed's repairs but they are rejected.
The conglomerations decided that Violet's customer profile was too random and helping her would be a bad investment. Violet's fate exemplifies social theorist Zygmunt Bauman's warning that in consumer societies, "flawed" consumers "cannot be conceived of as people deserving care and assistance".
Feed is a powerful reminder that in consumer societies, people become feed as conglomerations consume data, dreams and desires. Sadly, those who stop being economically useful, like Violet, risk being left behind by society.
The writer hopes to share insights into books and films to inspire appreciation for the power of stories