September will mark the tenth anniversary of Cambridge author M.T. Anderson’s dystopian novel Feed; yesterday marks the one day anniversary of having my mind shattered by it. To celebrate the occasion (the former, not the latter), Somerville’s Candlewick Press is unleashing a paperback edition of the book. Feed is the rare novel that warrants a re-release. The story it sends, chainsaw shimmying down your spine, is even more relevant today than it was ten years prior.
The novel is chilling in the way only a well crafted and darkly writ satire can be.
At first you laugh because what is says is true, and then when it carves in even deeper you laugh only to try and convince yourself that it isn’t. The novel seesaws effortlessly from sardonically funny to unexpectedly heartbreaking, preciously because its humor leaves you unprotected for the turn. What really gets you warbled after reading Feed is not just the concepts and characters found therein. It’s that the book is ten years old but feels fresher and more of the moment than much else out on the shelves. Ten years ago author M.T. Anderson managed to forecast the forthcoming decade’s zeitgeist and his long view is unnervingly accurate. Feed, like much of the best science fiction, is an eerily prophetic work. It also possesses voice, something that, as a fan of science fiction, I begrudgingly admit is sometimes lacking in many of the genre’s works. But the novel isn’t all funhouse mirror horror parade; in fact, most of it is rich with wry humor.
Feed is told from the perspective of a young man named Titus sometime in a distant but rapidly approaching future where the Internet has been succeeded by something called the Feednet.
Feednet is a computer network that Americans are directly connected to via a chip called a “feed” implanted in their brains.
About 73 percent of Americans have a feed, and most, like our narrator Titus, have it implanted at birth. This subjects them to unending mental interruptions from corporations who now have access to your every thought. Like say for instance your significant other dumps you, next thing you know your mind is bombarded with a half dozen advertisements for dating networks or ice cream pints that are on sale or articles explaining the best ways to win that person back. Whatever your behavior mapping has indicated you’re inclined to engage in as a coping method—that’s what the feed will push on you. Scary right?
But of course, how far away is it, really, from Facebook picking up on your interests and tailoring specific advertisements for you?
The world of Feed is a world devoid of privacy. Not only are Titus and his peers constantly monitored and solicited by corporations, but there’s also a feature called “M-chat” that allows feed users to send thoughts to one another through closed channels. Think instant messaging or texting only all you have to do is think and send. Better yet, just think telepathy. But the best part of the world building done in this book is that it’s all done through Titus’ point of view.
He and his teenage friends use a futuristic, slang riddled vernacular that reads like daft mall kid chatter, mixed with banal internet speak. Anderson uses this device well and unlike, say, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, in which the teenage droogs speak to one another in a colorful, but hard to initially penetrate slang jargon called “Nadsat”, the cryptolect employed by Titus and his like is easily understood at the first read of Feed. The language used doesn’t just serve to dress up the prose; it also showcases the lengths to which human communication has deteriorated thanks to the feed. One of my favorite lines is Titus trying to explain the benefits of having the feed.
“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.”
Speaking of Presidents, even the President of the United States speaks like an uneducated fifteen year old in this world. He holds press conferences and addresses the world with statements drenched in swear words and sentences starting with the word “like”. The man is no orator. Seeing as who was in office when the book was released in 2002, I can see who may have been Anderson’s inspiration.
But ultimately the thrust of this novel is not how thoroughly communication technology and its marriage with consumer culture rots our intelligence, it’s how deeply it rots our compassion.
At the center of Feed is a girl named Violet who Titus meets while on vacation on the moon. Soon after they meet they have their feeds hacked by a terrorist and are faced with the grim prospect of being freed from the feed for days. Titus and his friends sulk at the blackout, but Violet seems to find the new found silence from constant stimulation rather wonderful. Much of the rest of novel is about when the two get back online and their differences in opinion on returning to the feed. Violet offers Titus something much realer than anything the feed can, but does he even want something that it isn’t being sold to him by it?
One of the few features of the feed that comes off as a positive is the ability to allow someone else to experience your memories as you did. You can upload something that happened to you and the person who receives it can feel your joy or pain exactly as you have. It’ s like an iEmpathy app for unfeeling consumerdroid self-centered teenagers. In one of the book’s best scenes, Violet, unable to get through to Titus any other way, finally shows him exactly what the feed is doing to her by using this technology. Of course, what Titus chooses to do with this information shows us not only exactly what the feed is doing to him in turn, but what our own feeds do to us.