Feed by M. T. Anderson was one of the books I offered advanced students for reading circles my first year as a high school English teacher. It’s a gritty, YA cyberpunk novel I pitched as sort of a modern equivalent to The Catcher in the Rye because it doesn’t just have an f-bomb on a wall, it’s chock-full of them. The constant internet-connected brain gets dumbed down and as a result, the f-bomb is the only adjective anyone can use. A simile? A metaphor? Far out. How’d you do that?
Feed was ahead of its time by at least a decade, maybe more. As biological interfaces, augmented reality, and wearable tech evolve, we’re only going to become more and more immersed in technology until we’ve completely assimilated.
While Tobin’s novel focuses mostly on how technology can change our brains, The Feed, a show ironically developed by Amazon Network, takes a darker, but perhaps more pragmatic, look at the problems internet connectivity integrated into human consciousness could offer.
Following the family of a tycoon who invented the technology, the central family quickly splinters as their friends, random strangers, and even their loved ones fall prey to a darkness that lives inside their feed. The software (wetware?) of the family’s precious empire has been hacked, probably by an insurgency of protesting anti-techies that line the city streets.
The show is hard to watch, at some points, for reasons you wouldn’t expect. People space out and ignore each other, staring aimlessly into the distance, and it hits you, if they were just staring at the screen in their hands, it’d be completely normal.
One character, the patient of the inventor’s son, who is handily a psychologist, does death-defying acts to attract viewers for money. Worse, when he disconnects from the feed he can barely talk and has seizures.
In one of the most telling moments, a woman tries to cut an onion and says something along the lines of, “How do people even do this?” when they aren’t connected. When they aren’t watching a cooking show that is giving them precise directions. How on earth did people ever cook before the internet? Does anyone even own a cookbook anymore?
The darkest moment, was when a pregnant woman is tricked into an in utero connection. The baby is hooked up before it even has the chance to breathe.
Sort of like giving iPads to preschoolers though, isn’t it?
I’m not going to lie, I may not be able to finish the show. In episode three, one of the men infected with the malware tries to kill the baby–an absolutely harrowing viewing experience the likes of which I haven’t seen since the birth in A Quiet Place–and my wife may cut our viewing time short.
But even if we weren’t parents, the event would be traumatic. The darkness in the man’s feed that gives him headaches and drives him to homicide is really just another metaphor for radicalization, isn’t it? A point of view can be just as contagious, just as insidious. Unbalanced people tip in the direction of violence when pushed.
The net, after all, is the most sci-fi thing any of us have ever seen in real life.
And looking back at the last year, where more than ever we have immersed ourselves in the primordial soup of the internet, going face-to-face on private platforms like Google Meets and Zoom where all of our interactions, expressions, voices, and intonations are monitored and, perhaps, surreptitiously recorded, The Feed hits every technophobic nerve.
All of us could use a digital detox. We long for time to read a book off-screen. To watch a play with real humans acting in front of us. To stand around awkwardly with drinks in our hands instead of turning off our video camera or sneaking away to another browser tab and being distracted by the latest headline or fancy graphic. The threat of a lower mean intelligence because of instant information, like in Tobin’s novel, that’s already ancient history, isn’t it?
The most disturbing thing about The Feed is that it isn’t science fiction. It’s realistic fiction. You’re already connected and the virus is inside you.