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Choking on Our Feeds

Choking on Our Feeds

Twenty years ago, M.T. Anderson's Feed presaged today's combustable combination of adolescence, desire, and social media.

Nicole Penn
by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 299 pp., $9.69)

In yet another example of people talking past each other online, there was a minor kerfuffle on Twitter in March about the apparently deleterious modern popularity of young adult novels. I followed this discourse with interest as a millennial whose early life was shaped by the genre, when young adult books carried less of the opprobrium and controversy they engender today.

But, as another Twitter user has pointed out, I’m not just a millennial: I’m technically part of a “micro-generation” that “grew up with and without the internet,” finishing high school “just as the social media wave crested.” I recall the sound of dial-up internet. I didn’t get my first smartphone until college. And I read young adult author M. T. Anderson’s groundbreaking Feed years before I created my first Facebook profile.

Feed, which turns twenty this year, is set in a universe in which people are directly connected to the internet through implants in their brains. As we emerge from two years of pandemic-induced virtual reality, it makes for timely rereading. A recent survey from Common Sense Media finds that children and teenagers now spend five to eight hours a day on the internet and social media, a 17 percent increase from 2019 to 2021. These figures should sound a flurry of alarm bells, especially in light of the Wall Street Journal’s reporting last fall on Facebook and Instagram. There is now overwhelming evidence that these platforms have contributed to a precipitous decline in mental health among young people and accelerated the poisonous polarization of our social and political life. The most damning revelation is that executives at these companies have long known about these problems and yet have taken only faltering steps to address them—all while pouring resources into extending their reach to younger and younger audiences.

Although Feed was published two years before the advent of Facebook, the world it depicts presaged much of today’s technological landscape. We are now engaged in fierce debates over social media regulation, where there are no easy answers. Feed doesn’t offer any clear-cut policy solutions, but the Carrollian looking glass it held up years ago can help us think more clearly about the future of the internet and what it might take for us to finally disconnect.

Feed’s basic premise is thus: in the not-so-distant future, roughly 70 percent of the American population have chips, or “feeds,” embedded in their brains at birth that enable them to access the internet bio-electronically. Titus, a suburban teenager, meets the witty and enigmatic Violet while spending spring break on the Moon. A hacktivist group known as the “Coalition of Pity” infiltrates a party they attend and launches a massive cyberattack that shuts down all the attendees’ feeds. Because the feeds are fused to core parts of the brain—such as the limbic system, the motor cortex, and hippocampus—the hack hospitalizes Titus and Violet. As they recuperate, they start dating.

Titus recovers completely, but Violet’s feed begins to have life-threatening malfunctions.

Anderson’s dystopic vision lies somewhere between Brave New World and Idiocracy. His characters bear absurd names like Link, Quendy, and Loga—monikers of a decadent and cyber-obsessed society—and they pepper their dialogue à la A Clockwork Orange with slang entirely of Anderson’s creation. But even if Feed is set at a remove from our era, the distance between its timeline and ours shrinks uncomfortably the more Titus details the feed’s functionality. Much like the home tabs we scroll through on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, Titus’s implants provide a steady mental stream of news, music, and video clips, seamlessly interspersed with a torrent of curated advertising. The characters don’t seem to have public-facing social media profiles, but they do use the feed to “chat” and share files and links with each other telepathically, including copies of their memories. More important, the feed is designed to build a unique and algorithmically driven marketing profile for each user. “The braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big,” Titus explains, “is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you can even know what those things are.”

Anderson uncannily anticipated the social media revolution, but with an added layer of the organic that propels Feed from science fiction to horror. Titus’ feed isn’t just a sequence of ones and zeroes; it’s more like a living entity that “nudges” him toward the latest trending product, collapsing the distinction between his mental fancies and his physical needs. Even more disturbing is an epidemic of possibly feed-induced skin lesions that wrap around users’ bodies, exposing veins and muscles. Of course, these are considered quite trendy, so much so that one of Titus’ friends has plastic surgery to artificially increase the number of lesions on her body. This would seem like an outlandish subplot if not for the reality of “Snapchat dysmorphia,” which drives some teens to go under the knife to recreate the sparkling skin, shrunken noses, and cartoonish eyes of app filters.

Feed would be a more repulsive book if its social satire wasn’t so funny. At one point, Titus’ father tries to get his family to temporarily disconnect from their feeds at the table by reminding them that “dinner together … means family networking and defragging time.” Titus reminisces about a year “when the big fashion from L.A. and shit was that everyone wanted to dress like they were in an elderly convalescent home.”

Far less interesting is Anderson’s political messaging. Feed is set against a backdrop of total ecological collapse, caused by American pollution and corporate greed. There is also the threat of nuclear war against a “Global Alliance” angry at the U.S. annexation of the Moon. While Anderson may have predicted Instagram, his myopic fixation on American sins did not anticipate China’s burgeoning role in accelerating climate change or Russia’s role in perpetuating one of the most brutal and murderous invasions of the 21st century.

Anderson’s political plotline may be the most childish aspect of his novel, but the intense believability of the “psycho-economy” of the feeds draws on his own experience of adolescence and desire. “Ever since I was a teenager,” he explained in a 2016 interview, “I’d had all of these voices [of advertising] which were finding their ways into my dreams and my future hopes. I had this idea that I should be having a particular kind of night out at bars. I should be having a particular kind of romance and buying a particular kind of pants to wear during those romances.” It’s bleakly comforting to realize that every generation has faced advertisers playing on the universal “fear of missing out”—until you consider the ways the internet has transformed what was once a blunt instrument into a weapon of deadly precision.

They say that if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product. Violet figures this out and decides to rebel against the feeds’ commodification and streamlining of human experience by creating a customer profile that’s “so screwed, no one can market to it.” She enlists Titus in schemes to run around the mall, exploring products at random while refusing to buy them. Unfortunately, once her body begins shutting down because of her broken feed (which never fully recovered from the effects of the hack, possibly because she received her feed only as an older child), FeedTech refuses to treat her: They consider her a “bad investment.”

Much of today’s handwringing about social media companies is fueled by not just how deeply they are enmeshed in our public and private lives but the extent to which their power seems to give them license to write their own rules. Writing for The New Atlantis last fall, sociologist Nicholas Carr drew on the history of American telecommunications regulation to suggest that the key to reining in social media companies lies in distinguishing private communication from broadcasting. Applying secrecy-of-correspondence doctrine to the former would enable us to place stricter limits on the ways social media companies collect and monetize our data, while a new public interest standard could regulate the latter and temper the virality of public speech that rewards outrage and extremism.

Carr offers a clever solution to the dilemma posed by social media. The problem, as Catholic University professor Antón Barba-Kay sharply pointed out in a symposium responding to Carr’s article, lies precisely in how neatly Carr bifurcates what is actually social media’s confusedly shared use case. We post artfully composed photos of ourselves on Instagram, and dream up cutting quips on Twitter, not just for our immediate friends and family but in the (often subconscious) hope of going viral, of metamorphosizing from a mere diarist to a microcelebrity for however long we can hold the internet’s attention. The idea of anything remaining “secret” online is laughable. Like the lesions that disfigure Titus and his friends, it seems that the very point of social media is to peel back our flesh and invite others to take a wanton peek into our guts.

The other problem with trying to regulate the ways in which social media companies feed off our data is that, in many cases, we like what they do with it. We enjoy how companies like YouTube and Amazon use our information to construct microworlds that, with every click, are calibrated ever more carefully to suit our idiosyncratic tastes and anticipate our particular needs. As she nears death, Violet takes to listening to funereal songs from around the globe, and even she is forced to admit that her feed’s virtual assistant has become increasingly adept at offering suggestions for requiem masses. “Here’s the hideous thing,” she admits to Titus: “I liked them.” The assistant “figured it out. I’ve been sketched demographically.… They’re really close to winning.”

What Violet doesn’t realize, however, is that she has already found a way to beat the feed. Earlier in the novel, she tells Titus about her theory that “everything was better if you delayed it,” a revolutionary insight in a world of instantaneous communication and one-click shopping. In the rare instances in which she buys anything, Violet intentionally uses the longest shipping times and spends days restraining herself from opening her packages, finally unboxing them with excruciatingly slow deliberation. By emphasizing appreciation and self-control, her meditative practice is a small but important act of rebellion against the thoughtless consumption that surrounds her.

Violet’s practice of introducing friction into an otherwise frictionless environment also offers an important lesson to social media reformers. Disentangling “communication” from “broadcasting” will likely prove trickier than anticipated. On the other hand, rewriting Section 230 to make social media companies responsible for all the content they publish could be a step too far, eliminating the democratization of public communication that, for all its vices, has given the vulnerable and marginalized a greater voice. But finding ways to push social media companies to remove “psycho-economic” gimmicks such as “likes,” to reduce the number of posts a user can produce each day, or (as Jon Askonas and Ari Schulman have suggested in National Affairs) to exchange lifeless algorithms for living community moderators and comment-ranking systems, might introduce just enough speed bumps to counter their products’ worst excesses.

The recent furor over Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter buried news offering a small sign of hope for the desultory landscape of social media policy. One of the most popular social media platforms on college campuses today is “BeReal,” an app that lets users upload just two unfiltered photos at one randomly prescribed time each day. Perhaps the digital natives of Generation Z are finally turning their backs on TikTok and its face-tuned data-mining ilk. After all, human history is contingent: Future generations may renegotiate their relationships with digital spaces in the same way previous ones excised morphine from children’s cough syrup.

Still, this may be just a fad, nothing more serious than young adults trying on the costume of a world long gone. It’s a lonely thing to realize that you may be part of the last generation to remember a time when a computer was a hulking, stagnant thing that lurked in the corner of your parents’ bedroom, coughing up just enough electrons to steal slivers of time between grassy parks and reading nooks. When it felt so much less like an extension of your very self.

Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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