When M.T. Anderson published the young adult novel Feed in 2002, there were no social media feeds to scroll in real life. Debuting two years before Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his dorm room and four years before he unveiled the Facebook News Feed, Feed takes place in a world where children get brain implants to create a permanent layer of augmented reality called “the feed.” In doing so, they become so engrossed by endless opportunities to buy stuff that they ignore their polluted environment, political tumult, and anything beyond their own material gratification. In the 20 years since its publication, Feed has grown into a contemporary classic, a classroom staple frequently subjected to book-banning campaigns but often beloved by its readers, who marvel at how unnervingly predictive Anderson’s dystopia turned out to be.
Teenage narrator Titus and his friends are so accustomed to the feed mediating every aspect of their lives that they are hospitalized when an anti-technology protestor’s stunt temporarily disconnects them. Since the feed is now intertwined with their bodies, it’s an actual potential medical emergency. (“It felt like I was in a little room,” Titus thinks, in the eerie silence after his feed stops working. As he waits for it to get fixed, he’s agitated by physical art hanging on the wall—not stimulating enough.) Titus is elated when the feed flickers back to life and resumes its relentless stream of news, personal messaging, and targeted advertisements.
The best thing about the feed, Titus explains, is that “it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. It can tell you how to get them, and help you make buying decisions that are hard. Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and OnFeed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you, and then they give it to their branch companies, or other companies buy them, and they can get to know what it is we need.” This passage, written several years before the birth of the mobile advertising industry, reads like chipper marketing copy for a present-day data brokerage. Anderson predicted an only lightly exaggerated version of Web 2.0 before it existed and didn’t like what he forecast. Two decades ago, Anderson’s vision of algorithmic ad forecasting read as science fiction; now, it feels like a flourish he added to keep the novel grounded in reality.
Some details still feel like sci-fi: Titus goes to the moon for a quick weekend getaway, and back at home he zips around his vertically stacked suburbs in a flying “upcar.” And even though commercial brain implants are coming for us soon, they are not quite here yet—we’re stuck with screens for now. But the feed itself is immediately recognizable as a version of the internet we live with today, complete with constant pop-up ads and opportunities to spend money. Anderson splices snippets from the advertisements throughout the book. “Nature….vs. nurture. A Primus prime-time feedcast 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 smashes, the plot is a doomed romance. Titus falls for Violet, an unusually verbose girl from the wrong side of suburbia who lives with her book-loving, money-strapped single dad. She’s different from Titus’ vapid pack of bratty pals, including the tall, lavishly wealthy Link (who Titus offhandedly mentions is a genetic clone of Abraham Lincoln). Convalescing in the hospital after their feeds are disconnected, Violet and Titus fall into a quick, giddy infatuation, each recognizing the other as a sensitive soul in a corrupted world. But Titus worries he’s not smart enough for Violet—and Violet worries because her feed’s malfunction is literally killing her, and she can’t afford to have it fixed.
Violet has a punk spirit; before her body begins to waste away, she encourages Titus to resist targeted advertisements by pretending to be interested in purchasing a random assortment of objects. “I’m not going to let them catalog me,” she 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 savors language. She admires Titus, in part, because of his ability to use metaphor. This sets her apart from just about everyone else; in the world of Feed, language has been degraded so much that even the president speaks in a jumble of curses and slang. Reading the news items and clips of speeches interspersed throughout the novel in the present day, this particular invention of Anderson’s feels especially prophetic. At one point, the president reluctantly apologizes for calling a political ally a “big shithead.” And included in the teen lingo? “Low-key.” On the whole, revisiting Feed now, 20 years after publication, its satire remains remarkably prescient.
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Ugh. “Prescient.” It feels like cheating to use the word to describe a good dystopian story. That’s the whole point of dystopias, isn’t it, to be prescient? Like calling water “wet.” No shit! We’re surrounded by prescience, especially as the speculative novel becomes an increasingly celebrated and dominant mode of storytelling. The Handmaid’s Tale? Prescient. Parable of the Sower? Prescient. Red Clocks, The City We Became, New York 2140 … you guessed it, prescient, prescient, prescient. Honestly, do a name-search online for whatever speculative novel you recently enjoyed and the word “prescient” and something will turn up. This is not a knock on those titles—many of which are excellent—but on the very idea that their predictive accuracy correlates with their literary quality or automatically imbues them with special social meaning.
What else to call Feed, though? Yes, it is prescient, and startlingly so, since the gap between its publication and the invention of the type of social platforms it predicted turned out to be just a handful of years. But Anderson’s regrettably precise prediction about how the internet would break our brains is not his novel’s most notable quality. The most remarkable aspect of this book is how seething it is, how viscerally acidic. Feed is daring in its bleakness. The oceans in its future Earth are dead; hordes of cockroaches scuttle along the peripheries of its communities, ignored by residents who are distracted by the ads playing in their heads. The teenagers are covered in weeping lesions—a result of exposure to pollutants—and convince themselves these are a fashion choice. Everything is trendy and nothing is beautiful.
While young adult novels can feature explicit violence and grim scenarios (see: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its sequels), Feed remains compelling for its fist-swinging rage as much as its weirdly accurate depiction of our upcoming platform-addled lives. This is an abrasive book, full of ugly, deliberately irritating dialog and characters who consistently make the worst choice presented to them. Anderson’s vision of our extremely stupid future is not subtle. Sometimes reading Feed feels like getting thwacked in the eyes by an anvil with the phrase “TECHNOLOGY SUCKS” engraved on it. It’s Adbusters: The Novel. Literary screamo music, pissed-off and thrashing—with enduring appeal for young readers looking for books with bite.
Take Titus and Violet’s courtship, for example. It makes the love story between Winston and Julia in 1984 look positively sunny, and it stomps any sweetness out of the YA trope of the knuckleheaded guy redeemed by the love of a good girl. Titus is an everyman character, an average dude who tries to be a good person. His actions show how low the baseline has fallen. When Violet is denied help from the corporations in charge of feed repairs, Titus is sad, but he doesn’t do anything to help. He doesn’t ask his wealthy parents or friends for financial assistance. He doesn’t look into any alternative options or last-ditch efforts. He doesn’t even listen to Violet’s dying messages all the way through, even though she gives him enough access to her memories for him to fully understand the horror she’s enduring. Despite his decidedly lacking qualities as a boyfriend, Violet still wants to spend her final moments with him. Instead of taking a romantic last trip together (à la The Fault in Our Stars), Violet begs Titus to have sex with her so she can experience it, and he declines and takes her home. Poor Violet loses consciousness as a rejected virgin, and Titus can only whisper too-late apologies to her comatose body. The book ends with a refrain from one of the advertisements Titus is constantly subjected to: Everything must go.
Full-throated anti-consumerism is not popular right now. “Let people enjoy things” is a common refrain, no matter how vacuous or sinister the things in question might be. The idea that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism has been twisted into an excuse for Shein hauls and unboxing videos. Hawking sponsored content is now considered a dream gig, and people who question the wisdom of letting everyone enjoy everything no matter what get dismissed as shrill scolds. Feed ended up being right about a lot, but its legacy has been cemented by its fury as much as its forecasting. It’s the kind of book alienated young people will always look for on library shelves, as long as they’re still capable of looking.