Saturday, June 7, 2008

Resist the Feed

Cover of FeedJust finished M.T. Anderson's 2002 young adult novel Feed. It's a quick read, but not an easy one, taking place in some relatively near future U.S. where most people have been wired from birth to the web (called the "feed"). This means they have incessant advertising patter in their heads, all geared directly to their actual needs and whims. As well as instant access to every bit of information that's online (so no one really has to learn anything, including writing and reading), and the ability to chat, watch videos, and listen to music.

Because the story is told in first person from the point of view of a teenage boy, we (the reader) are not aware right away of many facts about the world he lives in. For instance, he talks about visiting the moon for spring break, buying anything that strikes his fancy, and I'm thinking, where does the money come for all this? He seems to have no awareness of the need for money. Is this a post-scarcity economy because of some brilliant invention?

No. We find out soon that his family is actually very rich, and that some 30 percent of the population in the U.S. doesn't even have the feed because it is cost prohibitive. The world still has its haves and many more have-nots, including the digital divide.

Anderson's imagined world is like our own, cranked up about 500 percent. The oceans are dead, meat is completely genetically engineered to the point where it comes from farms that grow it as if it were plants, and the people who live in the cash-insulated suburbs have no awareness or interest in anything outside of shopping and entertainment. Meanwhile they are covered with lesions (which even manage to become fashionable) to the point where their skin starts to fall off.

Why do I read things like this, you may wonder, and I wonder myself sometimes. There are a lot of wonderful satirical moments that illuminate our present day consumer culture. And I particularly enjoyed (while cringing at the same time) the dialect spoken by the characters, clear evidence of Anderson's facility with language.

It's a classic cautionary tale, right down to the final clarifying speech given by one of the characters' fathers near the end:

"You've done your duty. Why don't you go along and play your games?" said her father. "We're the land of youth. The land of opportunity. Go out and and take what's yours."
"I'm not a jerk," I said.
"We Americans," he said, "are interested only in the consumption of our products. We have no interest in how they were produced, or what happens to them"--he pointed at his daughter--"what happens to them once we discard them, once we throw them away."
Possibly a bit didactic, I suppose. But it makes sense in the emotional context, where the narrator is just beginning to recognize the mess in which he and the world are mired. It is clearly too late for them, but because we know we are not as far gone, it may not be too late for us to resist the feed and everything that goes along with it.

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