M.T. Anderson’s ‘Feed’ Remains Frustratingly Prescient

When MT Anderson published the juvenile novel Food in 2002, there was no social media channel to navigate in real life. It debuted two years before Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his bedroom and four years before he unveiled the Facebook News Feed, Food takes place in a world where children are given brain implants to create a permanent layer of augmented reality called “the feed”. In doing so, they become so engrossed in the endless opportunities to buy things that they ignore their polluted environment, political tumult, and anything beyond their own material gratification. In the 20 years since its publication, Food has become a contemporary classic, a classroom staple frequently subjected to book-ban campaigns, but often beloved by its readers, who marvel at how Anderson’s dystopia of a prediction turned out to be disturbing

Courtesy of Candlewick Press

The teenage narrator Titus and his friends are so used to the channel mediating every aspect of their lives that they are hospitalized when the stunt of an anti-tech protester temporarily disconnects them. Because food is intertwined with their bodies, it is a potential real medical emergency. (“It felt like I was in a small room,” Titus thinks, in the eerie silence after his feed stops working. As he waits for it to fix, he fidgets with the physical art hanging on the wall , not stimulating enough.) Titus is delighted when the feed comes back to life and resumes its relentless flow of news, personal messages and targeted ads.

The great thing about feed, Titus explains, is that it “knows everything you want and expect, sometimes before you even know what those things are. It can tell you how to get them and help you make tough buying decisions. Everything that we think and feel is hosted by corporations, mainly data companies like Feedlink and OnFeed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that fits only you, and then they give it to their branches or other companies they buy and they can know what we need.” This passage, written several years before the birth of the mobile advertising industry, reads like chipper marketing copy for a current data brokerage. Anderson predicted a slightly exaggerated version of Web 2.0 before it even existed, and he didn’t like what he predicted. Two decades ago, Anderson’s vision of algorithmic ad prediction read like science fiction; now, it seems like a flourish he added to keep the novel grounded in reality.

Some details still feel like science fiction: Titus goes to the moon for a quick weekend getaway, and returns home to tour his vertically stacked suburbs in a flying “automobile.” And while commercial brain implants will be upon us soon, they’re not quite here yet; we’re stuck with screens for now. But the channel itself is immediately recognizable as a version of the Internet we live with today, with constant pop-up ads and opportunities to spend money. Anderson splices excerpts from the ads throughout the book. “Nature….vs. nurture A Primus primetime broadcast event,” says one such ad. (Yes, three years before YouTube was created and five years before Netflix launched a streaming option, Anderson also predicted the rise of streaming video. Titus’ friends’ favorite feedcast is called Oh? Wow! Thing!)

Like some other YA flicks, the plot is a doomed romance. Titus falls in love with Violet, an unusually verbose girl from the wrong side of the suburbs who lives with her penniless, bookish single father. He’s different from Titus’ insipid gang of bratty friends, including the tall and rich Link (who Titus mentions in no uncertain terms is a genetic clone of Abraham Lincoln). Convalescing in the hospital after the power is cut off, Violet and Titus fall in love quickly and head-on, each recognizing themselves as sentient souls in a corrupt world. But Titus worries that he’s not smart enough for Violet, and Violet worries that her feed malfunction is literally killing her, and she can’t afford to fix it.

Violet has a punk spirit; before his body begins to wear out, he encourages Titus to resist targeted ads by pretending to be interested in buying an assortment of random items. “I will not allow myself to be cataloged,” he tells Titus, after warning him that the feed is designed to flatten humanity into a single consumer profile. Unlike Titus’ friends, who can barely string a sentence together, Violet relishes language. She admires Titus, in part, for his ability to use metaphors. This sets her apart from almost everyone else; in the world of Food, the language has degraded so much that even the president speaks in a jumble of curses and slang. Reading the news and speech fragments interspersed throughout the novel in the present day, this particular invention of Anderson’s seems particularly prophetic. At one point, the president begrudgingly apologizes for calling a political ally a “big piece of shit.” And included in teenage language? “Low key”. Overall, reviewing Food now, 20 years after its publication, its satire remains remarkably prescient.

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