Technology just made manifest with what was already happening — which is that to some extent, the modern person is not just engaging with advertising, we are partially created by it, too.
Fifteen Years ago, M.T. Anderson started working on a novel called Feed. The book, now widely considered a classic, was released in 2002 and imagines a world in which citizens have the internet inside their brains. ‘The Feed’ provides Anderson’s disaffected teen narrator, Titus, and his friends with a constant stream of information, but it also inundates them with targeted advertising collected by corporations.
Sound like what you’re seeing on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? Social media’s advertising model is exactly what Anderson predicted — algorithms used to forecast consumer behavior. The only difference is that in 2016, you access the feed via your phone. But Intel was promising brain-computer interface technology by 2020 back in 2009, and the Pentagon is currently funding $70,000,000 worth of brain implant research. Google’s Larry Page says, “Eventually you’ll have an implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer,” Samsung is currently demoing tablets that will be controlled by your brain, and Brown University has already created a brain-computer interface that’s implanted directly into the skull.
So yes, M.T. Anderson was right about a lot of things when he wrote Feed (it’s worth noting that the book is also beautiful on a sentence-by-sentence level), which makes the National Book Award winning author a very worthwhile person to listen to as we look forward to what the next 15 years might hold. His vision is bleak, but there is a silver lining waiting for anyone willing to search (and fight) for it.
Uproxx: What was the world like when you started to work on Feed?
M.T. Anderson: I started in the summer of 2001. The easy way for me to remember is that the first two sections of the book were composed before September 11. Then I took a week off, the first week of September, because I finished those sections and felt like I needed some rest. It was during that week that the September 11 attacks happened. The rest of the book was actually written after that.
Did you feel like it had an effect on the rest of the book? That there was kind of tonal shift at all? I mean you were already kind of pointed towards a certain place at that point.
Well, it may have, I didn’t know the ending of the book when I began it, so who knows. It could be that the bleakness of the end was partially at least inspired by the overwhelming feeling in the year after that, especially the world that we were living in really was going to change irrevocably. The main change on the page that it forced was I actually, oddly enough, ended up scaling back a couple of references.
By pure coincidence, during the rant of this crazed activist in the original that I wrote, at first there was a reference to towers falling, which I had just thought was about this idea of eternal empires falling. And yet after 9/11, I was like obviously that is going to sound incredibly contentious and will have just a totally different meaning. So I took out that kind of thing. Instead of calling the hackers terrorists, I started to call them hackers because, once again, I didn’t want to appear to be saying things I didn’t really intend in this new context.
When you started the book, Facebook wasn’t a thing and no one was using that phrase ‘feed.’ Do you count that as just kind of a happy accident or did you just intuit it like, “Okay, we’re getting all this constant stream of data, what would we call that?” How did that work?
I guess it was both of them, in a sense. It was a happy accident that it turned out to be the term that people really focused on. It wasn’t a term I created, it was a term that was already starting to be used about certain kinds of information. So and I just figured, “This is a great central term for a whole set of ideas I’m trying to get at.”
The other bit that feels so relevant right now is the idea of targeted advertising and this constant onslaught of advertising that the characters have to endure. Advertising becomes the whole plot driver for your book — whether or not each character is going to participate in it or try to disengage from it.