5 Questions: Feed by M. T. Anderson

1. Tolkien wrote that successful fantasy writers must construct “secondary worlds,” settings enough like our own to be recognizable but sufficiently different to generate amazement. The same can be said for the setting of science fiction novels. Discuss the setting created by Anderson. Is it successful?

Anderson’s Feed is primarily set on Earth, with early chapters that have characters travel to the moon.  While futuristic Earth has many recognizable features (houses and gated communities, schools, shopping malls, farms, weather, cars, destination vacations, wild parties), there are some significant differences.  Homes are under bio-domes to protect the inhabitants from various bio-hazards and one travel from one house to another through tubes (reminds me of hamsters)..  Schools — or SchoolTM — are now privatized and run by corporations, teaching kids how to be better consumers.  There are malls and salespeople, but your every move is tracked so advertisements are immediately adjusted to your shopping patterns and perceived wants/needs (p. 96).  Farms aren’t growing animals — they are growing and harvesting filet mignon from tissue (p. 142).  Of course, there are flying cars and trips to the moon, and parties don’t end up with drunk teenagers, but teenagers high on “going mal”.  For the most part, Anderson was highly successful in creating a world that is at once futuristic and at once familiar;  I could easily see our society heading in the state that he paints.  My only complaint about this book is that he set the initial chapters on the moon, with mentions of anti-gravity/artificial gravity, etc.  It just seem like the whole moon bit has been done to death (“It’s the future!  We can vacation on the moon!”), and Anderson does such a good job painting a futuristic Earth that he doesn’t need the moon.

2. This novel has much say about the future (and present) use of information technology. Think deeply about how technology is used in this novel and debate whether or not Anderson’s view of the future is plausible. Try to connect your answer in a personal manner to your selected career and perhaps to some of the concepts you have covered in other classes in this department.

While I was reading Feed, I kept thinking about recommender systems we learned about in IS 567 (Information Network Applications), a technology that allows companies to take user purchase/browsing patterns to make better, more personalized recommendations about future purchases.  The algorithms used might be different from company to company, but the main purpose is to convince customers they need the product/service.  Over time (and I would say it doesn’t take long), customers come to trust — even depend — on these recommender systems, and the system can even “sneak in” or “push” certain products/services outside of the consumer’s purchase pattern.  As Violet points out, in the name of personalizing purchases, recommender systems can actually drive everyone to conform.

Feednet also reminds me of our 567 discussion about social networking and how this information technology has affected the way we interact with others, as well as ramifications on our privacy.  Though everyone is constantly connected in Feed, Titan and his family rarely interact directly or physically…this is true in our Facebook/Twitter reality too.  Because information is always accessible and at the ready — whether that’s status updates or other people’s blogs or debates on Fox/CNN– we have become mere consumers of information, rather than creators and critical thinkers…instead of actively participating in life, we become passive (but opinionated!) spectators.  In a strange way, social media has created egocentric voyeurs out of all of us, or in Violet’s words, “a nation of idiot.  Ignorant, self-centered idiots” (p. 113).

3. Anderson’s use of language is his most brilliant vision of a dismal future. I have noticed that for some middle schoolers, the ability to distinguish between formal language (the type you need to write a paper or email a professor) and informal language (the type you text-message or write on Facebook) has all but disappeared for many of them. Think about the language—not only the abundant use of profanity but also the slang and the short phrases with simple words—and consider the implications of a future whereby language is largely reduced to monosyllabic phrases. Do you think Anderson is right about how technology is influencing language?

When I was a graduate student in Linguistics 12 years ago, I remember a sociolinguistic professor asking us this exact same question — how do we see technology influencing language?  At the time, the Internet was still in its toddler-hood — web pages are just coming out of their monochromatic and hyperlink-only phase and email and ICQ were the newest way to communicate.  Even then, our professor had noticed that his incoming undergraduates were turning in papers without punctuation and littered with abbreviated words.  Many sentences were run-on sentences or incomplete, reflecting the “new” way teens and young adults were “speaking” online.  This trend has continued to this day…except seemingly at a higher rate.  As Nicholas Carr’s Google article and NPR interview on The Shallows point out, the Internet has trained us to read and process short pieces of information, skim and scan, and to expect many distractions in the meantime.  It’s taught us that in order to retain the attention span of our audience, we need to keep things short and concise.  I think maybe this is how a lot of us, especially younger people who were born into the digital age — come to write like that.

Some linguists will call this language decay/deterioration, but others will say this is a natural part of language change (Old English scholars probably consider even the most proper of modern English an abomination).  In his Ted Talk, “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”, John McWhorter calls this development of a whole new language a linguistics miracle.  His main points are that 1) writing and language (speech) are two very different things, and 2) whereas before we could “speak like we write” (for example, when we read from a prepared speech), modern technology today has allowed us to “write like we speak”, with the “writing” that emerges resembling the loose, unstructured patterns that linguists observe in natural, casual speech.  He adds that texting has come to develop its own set of rules too, so it, in fact, follows conventions and has complexities like any other language. On whether this is evidence that technology is causing the decline of the language, McWhorter shows several examples from scholars from as early as 63A.D. lamenting the fact that the language was in dire straits, since the youngsters at the time could neither spell nor punctuate.  These problems existed long before the emergence of technology!

(Personally, I find this subject fascinating coming from a linguist background.  Check it out for yourself at http://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk.html)

4. Discuss your preconceived notions about science fiction, especially that written for young adults. Did this novel change your opinion of science fiction? In essence, did you enjoy the book? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a reader of science fiction — that is, I don’t go out seeking sci-fi titles when I’m browsing in the bookstore.  That said, some of the books I remember loving in high school/college have been sci-fi titles: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, 1984 by George Orwell, and essays on dystopian societies (I remember reading a couple in second-year sociology classes but can’t remember the titles).  In recent years, I’ve enjoyed Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, Lois Lowry’s The Giver series, and Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me.  So in that sense, the book did not change my opinion of sci-fi — it’s reminded me that I do like them and need to check out more titles.

As for Feed specifically, I enjoyed it quite a bit after some initial reservations (I really did not enjoy the moon setting, and had to get used to the language.)  My friends and I have frequent discussions about technology and its effects on our world and our kids, and the dystopian world Anderson paints is exactly one we fear could happen, where technology and rampant social media has overtaken the most basic and personal of interactions and forced everyone into isolation and disconnection.  In a way, it’s happened already (minus the flying cards and the trips to the moon), and Anderson’s message/warning about technology/consumerism comes through loud and clear in this satire.  I especially loved the last few chapters…hard to read, yet very touching.

5. On Anderson’s satirical conclusion about teens and consumerism…

Anderson’s views about teens and consumerism reflect my concerns in my magazine/movie project, that whether we realize it or not, advertisers are targeting our teens purposefully and  relentlessly.  From articles/videos we have viewed earlier (e.g. Frontline’s Merchant of Cool), companies are banking on the fact that teens are big spenders, and can influence their parents to buy.  Magazine ads and other forms of advertisement teens see today seem subtle compared to the ones in Anderson’s world, but with the rise of recommender systems such as the kind Amazon.com employs and the “promise” of Google Glass, the type of marketing — incessant, instantaneous, and personalized (according to individual shopping/browsing patterns) — is not at all far-fetched.

Violet’s observations on page 97 are especially wise/grim:

Everything we do gets thrown into a big calculation.  Like they’re watching us right now.  They can tell where you’re looking.  They want to know what you want….  They’re also waiting to make you want things.  Everything we’ve grown up with — the stories on the feed, the games, all of that — it’s all streamlining our personalities so we’re easier to sell to.  I mean, they do these demographic studies that divide everyone up into a few personality types, and then you get ads based on what you’re supposedly like.  They try to figure out who you are, and to make you conform to one of their types for easy marketing.  It’s like a spiral: They keep making everything more basic so it will appeal to everyone.  And gradually, everyone gets used to everything being basic, so we get less ad less varied as people, more simple.  So the corps make everything even simpler.  And it goes on and on.

As depressing as this picture is, are we not headed that way already?  (Some might even say that we are just one Google Glass away from that reality.)  What is scarier to me — and Violet points this out — is what this will do to our ability to think for ourselves and to discern what we really need/want vs. what “the Corporation” tells us we need/want.

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