I really like dystopian fiction. Whether old classics like Brave New World or more recent YA blockbusters like the Hunger Games trilogy, I think it tends to provide piercing commentary on modern-day issues, no matter how far in the future the story is set. Their power comes not so much from accurate predictions about how our future will be, as from the scary ways that we can see these dystopian scenarios already playing out in the current world around us. For instance, if you apply Hunger Games to today’s world, you’d see that we in the developed world are the Capitol, the developing countries and poorer parts of our own countries from which we extract cheap goods and resources are the Districts, child labor is the Hunger Games, and of course, media manipulation is ever-present, keeping us complacent (and this is just one interpretation).
The thing is, though, I don’t find the literal scenario of a power-hungry dictator forcing children to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of elites to be very likely to ever happen, at least not in the United States. And the more likely I find a dystopian story to be, the scarier and more poignant I find its message.
There is one dystopian YA novel that is becoming a more and more accurate prediction of our future every day. And that’s because the “bad guy” is not a reductio ad absurdum oppressive government regime, but something I find even scarier: corporate control.
Before checking out the rest of the post below, I beg you to go read M.T. Anderson’s Feed, not just because I’m going to spoil it, but because it should seriously be required reading for, well, everyone. Finished? Shaken? Good. Let’s go.
You’ve read the book, so this summary I’m about to provide is just a refresher, right? Feed posits a world several centuries in the future in which people are always directly connected to the internet through a chip (called “the feed”) in their brain. No more need to type to communicate; you just need to think a message and “chat” it directly into your friend’s brain. Answers to questions are just an idle thought away, as the feed searches the net for you. Memories are recorded, so you don’t have to remember to take pictures or videos. There’s no longer even a need to read or write.
But this constant connection means that people with feeds are also constantly connected to corporations that bombard them with advertisements, read their thoughts to try to market to them better, and try to streamline them into consumers that are easier to market to and more likely to buy more. All around our characters, the world is falling apart, as the environment collapses (there are no more forests; whales need plastic lamination in order to survive in the toxic ocean; entire South American villages are wiped out by black gloop that no one can explain; and people who can afford it live within glass bubbles), the rest of the world threatens war against the US, and people’s skin is literally falling off, despite all their protections from the toxic outside world. But most of the characters are hardly aware of this—because the feed knows this will put them off their spending, so it draws their attention away from it all. When news about an anti-feed riot finds a way to break past these defenses and invade people’s dreams, the corporations distract people by making Riot Gear (torn-up clothes reminiscent of that worn by the participants in 20th-century riots) the next big fashion trend. Instead of trying to solve the problem of skin lesions, actors on the “feedcast” shows start wearing them and marketing them as “cool”.
The story follows high schooler Titus and his friends, as they go on vacation to the Moon for spring break, go to corporate-owned School™ where they learn how to find the best deals and decorate their rooms, and hang out at parties and malls. Titus never questions the feed until he meets Violet, a girl from a poor family who got her feed at seven, later than most people, after her brain had developed significantly. Her father was only able to afford a cheap feed model. When she, Titus, and his friends are attacked by a hacker, she is the only one of the group to have permanent damage to her feed. She is also the only one of them to be socially aware, and she intentionally tries to fight the feed by expressing false interest in all sorts of unlikely products and then not buying them. Titus, now her boyfriend, plays along for laughs. Over the course of the story, we see her health gradually decline, as her damaged feed begins to paralyze her. She cannot afford repairs on her father’s university professor salary. When she petitions the feed company for free repairs, her petition is rejected, because the company does not feel saving her life would be a good “investment”. Essentially, she is condemned to death because she is a “bad” consumer. And Titus rejects her as she moves closer to death, essentially “throwing her away” when she becomes more trouble than she’s “worth”. While Titus comes to regret his actions toward Violet, there is not much evidence that he has truly changed, and the story ends tragically, with Violet’s personal rebellion having little effect. In the meantime, most of the story is taken up with Titus and his friends’ ordinary lives partying, watching feedcasts, and buying stuff to fit into the latest trend, perfectly illustrating their corporate-controlled apathy and lack of critical thinking.
Essentially, I see this story as a cautionary tale of capitalism and conspicuous consumerism left unchecked. This deregulation is exactly what proponents of laissez-faire, invisible-hand-of-the-market economics want. With the way that businesses so aggressively lobby the government for less regulation, I think there’s a distinct possibility that things could get this bad. For instance, the more that companies like Exxon push denial of the harm they (and all of us, by buying into it) have caused to the environment, the closer we’ll move to only being able to survive within climate-regulated bubble domes that are elevated above the flood waters. Without something to control the corporations, what will stop them from controlling us?
The scariest thing, though, is how close we already are to a world like that of Feed. I’m amazed that the author foresaw so much of this back when he wrote it in 2002. Back then, computers were not yet very portable. Today, many of us carry the entire internet in the palm of our hands in our smartphones and tablets. We are inching ever closer to being able to embed such capabilities in our brains. Unlike the characters in the book, at least we still have the option of turning our devices off and disconnecting from the constant barrage of media messages, but how many of us ever do? Why would we, when every time we refresh our Tumblr dashes or Facebook feeds (see what I did there?), there’s new content to see? There is little doubt that corporations already collect as much information as they can about us so they can market to us better. Just right now, I saw a poll pop up on my Facebook saying, “We want the ads you see to be useful and relevant. Let us know if you’re interested in these topics.” And mainstream media more often works to distract us from the major issues of our time rather than to truly inform us.
Unlike the medically engineered and classically conditioned castes in Brave New World, the book-burning in Fahrenheit 451, and the scientific experiments gone horribly wrong in the Divergent trilogy, I could actually see anything in Feed someday coming to pass (even the scene in which the President of the U.S. gets caught calling another head of state a “shithead” seems to be a more likely possibility every day!). This makes the book’s message ever more urgent. We have to take this cautionary tale to heart. We have to maintain our humanity when we’re constantly pressured to be nothing but consumers instead. Will we continue to feed into the system? Or will we learn to fight the feed?