5 December, 2021

Litstack Rec: Without & Feed

Feed, by M. T. Anderson

A boy goes to a party and notices a quirky girl who he thinks is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. They talk, she ends up hanging out with him and his friends. She’s different from the other girls, not caught up in all the glitz 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.

Pretty typical fodder for YA literature, and deftly handled by author M. T. Anderson – it’s easy to see why this book was a National Book Award finalist. Yet the real draw of this book is not just what happens to the main characters, but the atmosphere in which it plays out.

The story takes place in the near future where 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 wakes you up in the morning, gets you places, helps you with your homework, keeps you company. It also bombards you with 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.

Titus is a typical teen-ager, tight with a group of friends, good enough with his parents, school, life. He goes to the moon for spring break where he meets Violet, a girl who’s different in a way he’s drawn to – smart, kind of naive, different. But while at a club a hacker causes their feeds to malfunction and they end up being stuck in a hospital for a few days while 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 glossing over of their existence. For the vast majority, marketing manipulation is the norm and consumerism not only is a means of acquisition, but also a way to relax, to unwind, to feel good. Yes, there are hints that the world is devolving 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. And because he is a creature of this plugged in culture, when problems arise for Titus he is more bewildered than alarmed – which is perhaps the most frightening thing of all.

Written in a futuristic yet oddly familiar teen-aged slang, within the mindset of a recognizable adolescent kid, Feed is not so much a cautionary tale as it is a satire of where we very well might be heading. 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 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 – 18 years ago – but remains as fresh and acute now despite the passage of time. A worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys a well written, thought provoking story.

— Sharon Browning

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