A boy goes to a party while on spring break and notices a quirky girl who he thinks is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. They meet, talk, she ends up hanging out with him and his friends. Then something bizarre happens at the night club they’ve all gone to, but the two stay in touch and end up being a kind of girlfriend/boyfriend. She’s different from the other girls, not caught up in all the glitz and social pandering that he’s used to. She makes him think.
But then weird things start to happen to her. A kind of sickness. He’s not sure he’s signed up for what’s going on, but she seems to need him.
This is pretty typical fodder for YA literature, and is deftly handled by author M. T. Anderson. It’s easy to see why this book was a National Book Award finalist. But the real draw of this book is not just what happens to the main characters, but also the atmosphere in which it plays out.
The story takes place in the future, a near future perhaps, when virtually everyone has a feed – an implanted electronic transmitter – that is constantly streaming directly into their brains. Through your feed, you can access information, play games, chat with others either in a group or privately. It gets you to places, wakes you up in the morning, helps you with your homework, keeps you company. It also bombards you with advertisements, social trends, targeted merchandising, messages from sponsors, “suggestions” for products that will make you popular, make you trendy, make you happy. Not only can you not turn the feed off, you don’t want to, because it’s the norm. It’s part of your world, part of who you are.
The story’s narrator, Titus, is a typical teen-ager, tight with a group of close friends, good enough with his parents, school, life. He and his buds go to the moon for spring break where he meets Violet, a girl who’s different, but in a way he’s drawn to – smart, kind of naive, different. But when the friends are out dancing at a club, a hacker causes their feeds to malfunction and they end up being stuck in a hospital for a few days while the technicians sort them out, making sure the hack isn’t part of a larger problem. It’s weird not having access to the feed, but it also draws Titus and Violet together. Turns out, she comes from a family that has resisted the feed; she didn’t get it installed until she was seven, which gives her an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, perspective. It sets her apart, but Titus kind of likes that.
As the book progresses, we see a larger story in the tension that arises between a society which not only accepts the feed but depends on it, and remote elements that are hampered by the virtual glossing over of their existence. For the vast majority, marketing manipulation is seen as normal, and consumerism not only is a means of acquiring things, but also a way to relax, to unwind, to feel good. Still, there are hints that the world is going to pot environmentally, politically, ethically, but no one wants to hear that – they just want to be able to buy the coolest clothes, hit the trendiest night spots, watch the most popular shows, play the hippest games. Do that, and life is good.
Because he is a creature of this plugged in culture, when problems arise for Titus, he is more bewildered by them than alarmed – which for us, as readers, is perhaps the most frightening thing of all.
Written in a thickly futuristic yet oddly familiar teen-aged slang, within the mindset of a still easily recognizable adolescent kid, Feed is not so much a cautionary tale as it is a mocking satire of not only what might be, but of what seems absolutely plausible given our current media saturated, merchandizing frenzied “modern” society, should we allow it to slip blithely forward. The “moral” is not that technology is bad, or that it’s wrong to be dazzled by all that is right there at our fingertips, but that we need to remain aware of who we are and where we are headed, rather than simply being led by the nose down a primrose path of commercialism and media manipulation. As M. T. Anderson writes in his afterward: “This is indeed a brave, new world, but it comes at a cost.”
Feed is a fantastic book, clever and frightening and funny and poignant in equal parts. It’s also amazing to realize that it was written in 2001 – 15 years ago – but remains as fresh and acute now despite the passage of time. A worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys a good and provoking story, regardless of age or technological savvy.