How M.T. Anderson’s Feed Visualized an App-Filled World

feed

JG: Last Thursday at Convocation, when Howard Gardner told his anecdote about the student who asked him why students still have to go to school when smartphones exist, I immediately thought of Feed, by M. T. Anderson.

JB: And since Mr. Gette read it several years ago and I read it this past summer, we thought we could provide a review/discussion!

 

Summary of Feed (JB)

Titus and his friends want to party on the moon for spring break, but when they meet Violet Durn, they end up getting hacked by an anti-feed “terrorist” instead. For the first time, Titus can’t access the Feed. He doesn’t know what his credit is. He can’t buy things. He has to talk to his fellow Feed-less friends because he can no longer chat through the Feed. Stranded in a hospital room until it is safe for the Feed to be turned back on, Titus gets to know Violet in the unreality of a Feed-less world. Titus knows he likes Violet, but is he prepared for a girl who can confidently live beyond the Feed? When they return to earth, Titus returns to corporate-run SchoolTM while Violet reunites with her father, a professor of dead languages (like BASIC). At first Titus has fun going to the mall and never buying things, creating false consumer profiles with Violet and mocking his Feed-washed friends. He’s falling in love, after all. But will Titus stick by Violet when she pays the price for her rebellious rejection of the Feed?

 

On Consumerism (JG)

Gardner talked about the omnipresence of corporate logos, such as the Amazon shopping cart or the Twitter bird. These symbols are instantly recognizable to many people. He also mentioned David Egger’s The Circle – a 2013 novel about a giant corporation and lack of personal privacy.

In Titus’s Feed world, everyone has a profile. Anything you look at, talk about, watch, etc. affects and informs your profile, which corporations then use to sell you things. Admire someone’s shirt? It can be yours for just $15.99! Corporations are powerful and ever-present. Violet encounters trouble because her profile is erratic, and doesn’t conform to the usual standards. It even impacts her ability to get medical care.

 

On Image (JB and JG)

Keeping up with the Jones’s – did this disappear with the 1950’s or has it been reincarnated in Facebook likes and Instagram comments? Gardner didn’t comment, but he did discuss the pressure to appear polished and invincible on social media.

There are three types of people in Feed – those who were given the Feed at birth, those who purchased the Feed later in life, and those who can never afford the Feed. Through access to the Feed, Anderson scaffolds the socio-economic divide. Titus and his friends represent the first group – upper middle class individuals who have been building credit and a consumer profile since birth. They care only about who has the most lesions and the best cars. What are lesions? Only the best example of Keeping up with the Jones’s. Throughout the book, characters develop lesions (probably as a result of the environmental destruction and pollution perpetuated by the corporations). After the stars of a popular show start showing lesions, having them becomes trendy. Those with the Feed wear clothes designed to show the lesions off. One character even gets artificial lesions in a bid to fit in and keep up with her peers.

Violet and her father represent variations of the second group – Violet can usually “pass” as “Feed since Birth”, but her father’s lower-class status is made obvious through his Feed Pack (a backpack computer with glasses that allow him to view the Feed). Anderson depicts the last group, the Feed-less, only through the main characters’ interpretations. We learn that there are entire legions of people without Feeds – they riot, fight and challenge the Feednet. Not to worry! Corporations co-opt the Feed-less for their own gain, popularizing riot gear (Kent State is all the rage) and other “third-world trends” that Titus and his friends quickly purchase.

 

On Relationships (JB)

Gardner lamented the changing nature of relationships – can intimate relationships exist online? Can the virtual world enhance a relationship, or will it automatically render it shallow and meaningless?

Anderson takes care to depict relationships that began outside of the Feed – Violet and Titus, Violet and her father, Violet’s mother and father. The reader would identify these three relationships as the only human, intimate relationships. Do any of these relationships survive? When Violet entrusts her memories with Titus via the Feed, he is already questioning his commitment to her, or his ability to deny the Feed. Titus is familiar and often satisfied with relationships based in the Feed – consumerist, status obsessed parents and amoral friends whose greatest concerns are winning free stuff from the corporations and donning the latest trends like lesions and riot gear. Can human relationships exist within the Feed, or is the only lasting relationship with the Feednet itself?

 

On School (JG)

I led this post with Gardner’s story about being approached by a student who asked why, when smartphones exist and can be used to look up the answer to any question, Even with the Feed in his head, which lets him instantly look up anything he wants to know, and will even suggest that word that’s on the tip of his tongue, Titus still has to go to school. Or rather, SchoolTM. He thinks it “sounds completely, like, Nazi”  that schools used to be government-run (p. 107). Titus explains that they used to learn useless stuff, like when Columbus landed and how to do chemical experiments. Now, SchoolTM  teaches students how to use their feeds and bargain hunt. It is, Titus assures the reader, still hard.

 

Of course, just because Titus can look things up at a moment’s notice doesn’t mean he does, He hates feeling stupid, but ask Violet and her father to tell him what something is or means without looking it up himself. Violet’s father, whose speech comes across as formal but normal to the reader might as well be speaking Shakespearean English to Titus and his friends. Titus’s language is peppered with slang and abbreviations, as one might expect in a chat-based culture. Corporations also shape language through gimmicks like offering prizes for mentioning a brand – through the feed, of course – a certain amount of times.

 

Technology Timeline

Anderson semi-frighteningly predicted a lot of technologies that either 1. did not exist in 2000 or, 2. were barely emerging in 2000. Not convinced? Here’s a list:

  • Google Glass – 2011 prototype, 2012-2013 testing, 2014 use in the military
    • Feedpacks
  • GPS navigation systems – widely popularized with the TomTom in 2002
    • Titus’ car driving to the correct place on command
  • Bluetooth – invented in 1994, but not widely popularized until the 2000’s
    • Talking to someone through the Feed
  • Online classes/education –  University of Phoenix (for-profit school) launched online classes in 1989, which popularized in the 2000’s
    • SchoolTM
  • Charter Schools (receives public funding, operates independently) – first charter school laws written in Minnesota in 1991, since then 41 states have enacted charter school laws
    • SchoolTM
  • Google (highly responsive search engine with targeted advertising) – began in 1996, received patent for page ranking mechanism in 2001, Google Adsense launched in 2003
    • The Feed’s ability to tell you what material things you like and want to buy
  • Silicon Valley – Google moved to Silicon Valley in 1999
    • Corporate technology living spaces, such as where Titus lives (similar concept also featured in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake)
  • Mobile, wi-fi enabled technology (smartphones, etc.) – the iPod released in 2001,
    • The Feed
  • Streaming video – Netflix introduces streaming in 2007
    • TV shows and news are streamed through the Feed (a feedcast).

Hey, so it could be worse, right? I mean, at least you’re not being constantly advertised to when you’re on your smart device. Apps don’t have pop up ads for goods or services or other apps, right?

Oh, they do?

Oh.

– TTFN, Jenny Barrows and James Gette

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