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.
When I wrote the book, I was not so concerned with the realities of technology and how advertising would interact with that. Weirdly enough, at the time what I was thinking of more was symbolically just how I felt. I already had the voice of advertising in my head. I felt like ever since I was a teenager, I’d had all of these voices which were finding their ways into my dreams and my future hopes and my visions of my life in the future. So I felt like that already that was there and even without a technological platform to install it.
In my 20s, 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. In a way, the 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. Very much in the same way that our bodies are actually infused with chemicals that the human body did not actually store in the 1950s. We have…I think it’s about a hundred chemicals as part of our bodily makeup that were not part of the human body a half a century ago. Mothers, for example, in their milk now, American mothers pass on a fire retardant to their children as one of the first things that a child drinks. We store them in our fats, that kind of thing. I think that in the same way, all of the effluvium of advertising ends up forming part of how we see ourselves and our destinies.
The characters in Feed struggle with that — asking, “How do I engage deeper?” And yet, you’re not techno-phobic and you’ve spoken to me before about why you use Facebook and why you think it’s vital in some ways for writers working out of a home office. So, how do you disengage from these forces? How do you create something deeper when shallow kind of pop-up messages in each other’s lives are kind of de rigueur?
I think that it’s different for each person because it’s based on finding the things that you truly love, and burrowing towards them and not letting yourself get knocked off of that track by all of the minute lures and irritations of online life. I mean, frankly, Facebook is no more or less superficial than say a cocktail party where you are facing people, you are talking with people face to face but at the same time basically a lot of the conversations are “I’m so glad to see you again!” “What is it you’re up to?”
You know what I mean? I think that we can revile that too much. It has a social function to play. To me, it’s more about stuff like the data collections that’s going on behind the scenes, that to me is more problematic. I don’t know why it is that Americans get so upset about the government tracking their every move whereas no one seems to question the fact that we all know it’s true that corporations track our every move with far less reason and far less benevolent goals.
The important thing though, for any individual, is to say “What is it that I truly love and am I being blocked in my pursuit of that by the fact that we have become a culture of short-term attention and short-term gratification?”
“The crystalline realization of this wildly dystopic future carries in it obvious and enormous implications for today’s readers—satire at its finest.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred) on M.T. Anderson’s Feed
The vision of the world where information was instantaneous didn’t necessarily feel like reality back in 2002. Whereas now, I think anyone would read your book and go, “Well, this is a pretty logical progression.”
Well, it is weird that technology has actually advanced so much more quickly than I had anticipated. I mean for me, a lot of the gadgetry in it was supposed to be almost like a kind of science fiction joke or symbolic. You know what I mean? Yet huge inroads have been made into human computer interfaces and that kind of thing. Always the question that needs to be asked about those things is not just how will they be used but who will own them, who will be licensing them, and what price will we really be paying to use them?
For example, they have managed to essentially instill the memory of pain in rats who have not actually experienced that pain. It’s amazing the idea we can actually somehow lay in memories artificially. But at the same time, it also means, for example, that it would be possible to torture someone without ever leaving a mark on their bodies, simply by introducing the memory of torture. That’s a terrifying application of technology.
I also want to mention that there are real neurological results happening from this in terms of the way that we structure our experience, the way that we are becoming more distractible. We are essentially training ourselves to be distractible. I feel like part of the problem is not simply what is happening to us but what is happening to the chain of production and how it is, how it can be hidden through all of this. So that the fact that we don’t have to think about what our lifestyle means for the rest of the world or for our world in 10 years. We can just focus on the information that’s coming to us at the moment, that is being shoved at us that we are hungry for without looking beyond that to say, as an obvious example, what is going to mean that we are doing so little to stop global climate change before it ruins the planet for our children.
You know, I mean that’s one we kind of all know is real but we just don’t want to really confront it so we allow ourselves instead to fill our days with the antics of comic seals or whatever.
Just kind of get pacified by these things that are easier to watch or easier to engage in. I think a lot of corporations, I don’t get jaded very often, but this is probably where I do get jaded: Corporations have gotten a lot of mileage out of our attention spans because you can do the littlest thing to help the environment, you can concede the tiniest fucking bit and get a lot of credit and have people go, “Wow! That’s really awesome of you, Mr. Corporation!”
Liberals are every bit as susceptible to that as conservatives. Think about the fact that the ultimate sign of liberal elitism, and of course I love it dearly for that reason, is Masterpiece Theater, which is actually technically Exxon-Mobil’s Masterpiece Theater and has been, I believe, for decades. At the same time, many of the same people who are the core audience for that show, are people who are outraged by a lot of these liberal causes that in fact Exxon-Mobil is seeking to expunge from the record.
We’ll conveniently forget about whatever they want if they’ll pay for our PBS show.
Right, exactly right. So that we can envision a happier, green England where everyone lived in country houses. And I really should underline the fact that I do really love that show so I am saying that I am also culpable in that regard.
Changing gears a little, you’ve made a great point to me before about social media, which is that things can be engaged with deeply, if we want. Even on Facebook, I’ve had a couple good interactions lately where I felt, “Wow something of value was said there, some sort of conversation just occurred and it came out of Facebook.” I’m interested by the idea that Facebook could actually be important to how we communicate as a culture. But I think there’s also this incessant short-term thinking model that gets pitched at us and certainly targeted advertisements are a part of that, and the idea that corporations are behind it all was something you really nailed with Feed.
One of the strange things about the teen dystopian genre is I think for reasons of symbolic convenience, there is often a depiction of an evil government that oppresses us and tries to take away our identity. There’s never a question — and keep in mind I just wrote a book about Soviet Russia, so I am absolutely aware that it’s a hideous, real possibility — but it’s interesting that in many cases these authors are left-leaning people who are, in many cases, in favor of certain government interventions in say the financial world or whatever else.
But that in a peculiar way a lot of dystopian fiction ends up being about, being I think much more alive to a conservative notion of a big government being dangerous, rather than a liberal notion of a government which facilitates certain things and stays out of your life at other times.
Where I feel like, from my point of view, the problem with governments at this point in our country, is not the government itself but the infiltration of the government by incredibly powerful money interests which are both corporate and private.
Right now, the best I know, they estimate they’ll be putting brain uplinks to the internet in people’s heads by 2020. And, as you envisioned, someone has to fund that. It’s going to be expensive to get the ad-free version. So all of a sudden, and this was your book, there’s a voice saying, “She’s drinking Pepsi, do you feel like a Pepsi?” and, “He’s wearing Levis, don’t you want some new jeans?” The ads just kind of keep scaling up, like in the way that Hulu still had advertisements for its premium members for a long time. You can just see how advertising is going to become inextricable from our lives. I often think, when I travel, how long can I go without seeing any marketing messaging?
In India, for example, you’ll be in small town and there will be one of those kind of combinations — it’s someone’s home but then they open up one set of windows and sell all the staples (food, rice, water). You know what I mean?
And in India or Nepal or other developing nations, they’ll actually paint a perfectly executed Coca-Cola logo, hand painted on the exterior of the house. I’m assuming that the home owner is getting paid for that but also it’s interesting because it really feels like advertising circa 1900. The idea that you would have such a localized business in a tiny town, based in someone’s home, that is nonetheless painting a logo on the wall by hand — it seems to be at once a kind of an overwhelming image of global capitalism and yet strangely local and resistant in another way.
It’s just so interesting to me because there’s a part of advertising that is omnipresent in our lives, but those logos on buildings don’t feel quite as bad as clicking on an article and having a giant ad come up. Then again, working for a website, people will email us about an ad in their article and you just kind of go, “Well, how would you like us to pay for this free content?”
What’s happening is people are souring on traditional advertising and the way that it works. But because we’re not willing to pay for anything, it essentially means that we then agree to other more complicated schemes that come close to just being scams. You know? And I think for anyone who is the arts and I would say this going so far as even things like web design, other forms of design, but also especially music, that kind of thing, there’s a huge crisis right now because we are used to a culture of not paying for anything and yet if you want people to take time to do something beautifully, you have to pay them for it.
I always am surprised when people talk about illegally downloading an album by the favorite band or whatever else. I’m like so because you particularly like them, you decided to fuck them over? That’s the thought? “I love you so much I’m going to take you for everything you’re worth.”
This points towards a general question about where the labor economy is going to go in the next couple of decades. For some different reasons of mechanization, you know, what is it going to mean when predictive AI technologies, which are somewhat crude right now, are actually good enough that even more white collar jobs disappear. What is it going to mean?
We are already a post-industrial society to some extent and we have outsourced industry and its environmental woes to other places and also its labor woes other places. What’s it going to mean for us when we can’t figure out within a capitalistic economy how to actually get people to make money? What happens when we are all outsourced or replaced? You know what I mean?
If you look at the future, is that the sort of thing you worry about?
If I had to guess, I do actually feel things like the Feed will become a reality. I don’t know if it’s in the next decade, but I feel like in the next 20 years it’s pretty easy to imagine it happening. I think that the question then will be, “What happens when you have part of the population that is able to have an almost-like God-like range of powers?” By which I mean things like extended memory or simply the ability to look around a landscape and be notating things in a kind of a Wikipedia-download like way. You sort of see something and you can identify it and find out it’s history or whatever else.
As you know, one of the peculiar things about traveling outside of this country, is you often are in a situation where you have access to a level of healthcare that people around you don’t. There are all sorts of sorrows that accrue to their lives which you don’t have to worry about because even when we can’t drink the water we can walk through a lot of third world countries knowing that, for example, we will not get malaria because we’d been given malaria treatments ahead of time.
I feel like there’s all these ways that the human is being modified — probably positively — towards a kind of greater resilience and a greater capacity for thought, an essentially computerized capacity for thought. The question is going to be, what is it going to be like for the people who don’t have that? I can almost imagine it being like the situation we had at the beginning of human history, where the homo sapiens as a species were living side-by-side with Neanderthal. Inter-breeding was possible but you had very different levels of functionality. What will it mean when that is actually determined by class instead of by species? When you have one set of people who’s able to buy their way out of certain human predicaments and others who are still mired in them.
If you look at salaries, with inflation, they have increased over the past 20 years. But if you were to take out the 1 percent in 1990 and take out the 1 percent now, then payment for everyone else has gone down. It hasn’t even managed to keep up with inflation. So our class divisions have gone past the tipping point and the rich are just getting richer and richer.
Absolutely, it’s true. That happens very directly when you think about the political messages that are being spun. The discussion about social questions is, in a sense, obscuring a lot of economic policy and questions of how are we going to revitalize this country economically. How are we going to make it economically strong again?
We have again, unfortunately, an American ruling class. I think it’s very telling, for example, that the median American income is around $50,000 whereas the average American income is around seventy some thousand dollars. People confuse those two figures. The fact that they’re different by that amount suggests that the average is actually being thrown off by a very few people who are incredibly wealthy and in a very different bracket than the rest of us and who are, obviously by and large, their interests are served by concealing that difference from us.
Yeah, or just being like this slight of hand artist who goes like, “Look over here, there are puppies!”
Right, exactly, and then, “There’s Kardashian!”
“A triumphant story of bravery and defiance that will shock and inspire.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred), on M.T. Anderson’s latest book, Symphony for the City of the Dead
As you think of the future and you think of those situations, if you were to write a futuristic novel right now, would it contain mass revolution? Would it contain some sort of global plague? What is your bleakest vision of the future here in 2015?
My vision of the future when I was writing Feed was bifurcated. I thought: Either we’re going to descend into some kind of resource contestation-based warfare that’s going to put humanity back a little bit, it’s going to slow down the pace of progress, which is awful; or we’re going to progress to a point where we’re going to have to start wondering about the influence of artificial intelligence, computer intelligences, whatever you want to call them.
I used to think those two things were the two separate paths that 21st Century history might take. The thing is that now if I were to predict a worst-case scenario, it would actually involve both of those. I now actually believe that is could happen simultaneously. That, for example, the fact that many resources are going to become incredibly problematic in the next couple decades or so, and we are not really doing much to mitigate that. We could be, I mean we could make things much easier for ourselves, but we are not. We are choosing not to as a global society. The Chinese government, for example, lying about their coal emissions even as they know that a lot of their lowland areas are in danger of the inundation and flooding that kind of thing.
So the point is, I think that my worst-case scenario would be a combination of warfare that comes from all of the aggravated conditions of resource scarcity in certain areas. We know that people tend to become, they tend of find excuses to go to war when they are anxious about other elements of their life. For example, securing water, securing food, that kind of thing. That, on the one hand, and on the other hand, a continued technological progress among a ruling elite that can stabilize its own miniature economy and its own miniature set of lifestyles. That would be a very grim idea, the combination of those two things.
I feel like we are seeing a ramping up in international tensions right now and an irritability, in a sense like a diplomatic irritability that many countries are reaching. Which I think is dangerous because that can produce situations where no one really wants to go to war or thinks that war makes sense. And yet all of us feel pushed into by our own circumstances and our own pride and that kind of thing.
Sometimes the math of modern living just doesn’t seem to compute. Food is so interesting to me because food, the type of food that we all want, the type of food that we fetishize and talk about so much, is really, really expensive. Every single chef I talk to is talking about how hard it is to run a successful restaurant. Every farm I talk to is talking about how hard it is run a successful organic farm. It’s almost like we’re in danger of losing all this ground of the good food movement because it’s so expensive. It’s not going to stop being expensive because it is expensive. It’s expensive to make.
Well I mean, just think about something like how much a couple breasts of chicken have gone up in the last 10 years. You know what I mean? I don’t know the figures except as anecdotally as someone who buys chicken. Even if you were buying just straight forward supermarket chicken it has pretty much gone up by say, let’s almost doubled, it’s not quite doubled, but it’s added another 75 percent or so to the price.
Frankly if you do get organic chicken which we usually do, it is absolutely about two and a half times what a couple breasts of chicken would have cost in 2005 or something. So yeah we are, even as we look around at some of the developing economies where say they tend of have low protein diets just because of the expense of proteins, you know we start to confront the fact, well wait a second, we’re used to all this. How are we going to afford it in a personal level?
Yet it makes sense to me to have these movements where, for example, you have a higher minimum wage and that kind of thing. Because I honestly do feel that pumping money into the economy that way and evening out the disjuncture between management and your average worker, does actually end up easing a lot of things in an economy.
I think the other thing that’s happening, which often happens, is that people chose an irrational enemy when they lash out which, in a sense, protects those who are the ruling class right now.
I don’t think that people at the highest income brackets are worried about the kind of fake outrage that we show on Twitter or Facebook for certain causes, which then kind of dies out a couple days later. I think Cecil the Lion was a very worthy thing to be upset about, but I also think that people in this country who are committing atrocities on a much larger scale were thinking, “Keep talking about this fucking lion!”
Right, which doesn’t mean that the cause of those species is not important but it does mean that it’s weird that we don’t spend more time saying, “Let’s look at what is actually happening here economically and let’s think about viable ways to change things.”
We can if we want to, and that’s the amazing thing. All of these shortages are predicted by very, very reputable organizations at this point. Just to chose one good and sobering example, the British government has been saying for years that by their very reasonable conservative estimates, the seas will be fished out by 2048.
So one of mankind’s oldest sources of sustenance of kind of a mythological or even biblical proportion, will actually be barren. There will not be enough fish to support the fishing industry anymore by 2048 they’re saying. So there are things we can do about that. Through management, through agreement, through the redistribution of our resources so that we are preserving the way that they live rather than eating away so furiously that we discover that we have nothing left for tomorrow.
One of the things that society is doing right now, it’s that quote about driving home in the fog and your headlights only illuminate 10 feet, but you can make it all the way home that way… so some of us just keep driving forward in the fog, but maybe at some point we won’t be able to live a whole life that way.
We’re driving on Route 1 on the California coast and part of it has actually fallen into the ocean based on the specific ocean storms. Sooner or later, we’re going to be soaring along, even if we’re going only 40 miles per hour, and we’re going to go shooting off a cliff.
People say, “Technology will somehow fix all of this.” Because for example, the green revolution did honestly change the game in terms of what we thought would be happening right now with starvation. But on the other hand, someone had to come up with that and they had to be funded and there had to be interest in it, and we had to take it seriously. The people who are doing that kind of research and that kind of experimentation right now are also the ones who are saying holy shit, the suggestions that we are making are not being taken seriously. So if we want to be, if we want technology to swoop in with its cape and save us, we need to actually send out the bat signal… that metaphor went really off the rails. Do you see what I mean, though?