Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Memory, Technology, and Biology in M.T. Anderson's Feed

"Look at us! You don't have the feed! You are the feed! You're feed! You're being eaten! You're raised for food! Look at what you've made yourselves! -- Feed, pg 202

M.T. Anderson wrote his novel Feed in 2001 and published in 2002, but it was recently republished in a 2012 edition. I initially thought it was just recently written and even after reading the text I thought "How relevant!" This might not be the first science fiction novel to explore the idea that the internet is in our brains, but it does so with an awareness of how that might affect our biological being in a very visceral, fleshy way that I don't remember even Delaney's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand exploring (despite the fact that the book explores the problem of desire).

Anderson writes in his postscript to the 2012 edition that he didn't set out to "predict future tech" but to think "about the cultural conditions as they already were then." He was less concerned about the technologies themselves than how they were used by commercial forces, who of course will be the ones to control these technologies. Perhaps more importantly, he notes that we are less and less sure of how the technologies got to where they are (and thus who controls them): " As time goes on, it becomes harder and harder for any of us to keep track of how things were made and how they got to us. Yet at the same time, whenever we buy something, we're also putting a 'yea' vote for the system that put it together. We're responsible for a world we don't understand."

Personal Advertising

Indeed, our advertisements, even though they are not implanted within our skull, structure, predict, and form our desires in a FEEDback loop of information. Instead of watching TV on a separate device, TV can be viewed post-air time on sites like HULU that will give you a "choice" of which Ad you would like to view (usually for the same product) as well as containing a button in the upper right hand corner that asks "Is this ad relevant to you?" Based on our purchases (and moreover even our VIEWS!) on and other sites, the site will then recommend other things for you to buy, personalizing the range of your purchases.
The same thing happens in Feed to a more extreme degree because the person guiding  purchases is in your head and can track what you look at in a physical mall or what you order through your feed in your head. The narrator describes the power of the Feed in the following passage:
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, so all you have to do is want something and there is a chance it will be yours. (48)
I can't help but recall the Prilosec OTC commercial with America's favorite dumbass. Larry the Cable Guy:  "Cuz this is America. We don't make just things you want. We make things you didn't even KNOW you wanted!"

The Feed is literally an organ, an integral part of your body: "Before that, computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe" (47). Electric media, in this sense, are less an extension of the body as McCluhan argues, but rather an incorporation, an organ that infiltrates and fuses with the brain. The Feed cannot actually be turned off, only disconnected, because, as Violet, one of the main characters point out, "it's tied in everywhere. They said the limbic system, the motor cortex. . .the hippocampus. They listed all this stuff. If the feed fails too severely, it could interfere with basic processes." (171).

This is the other side, the unthought possibility, of the utopic extropianism of thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil in his article "This is your Brain on Neural Implants." Kurzweil imagines a scenario very close to that of the Feed, shorn of its commercial aspects:
You undergo a procedure to replace a very small part of your brain with a nonbiological unit [. . .] As promised-- the procedure works perfectly--certain of your capabilities have improved. (You have a better memory perhaps). 
Perhaps the procedure does go well, but what about continued tech support? Kurzweil is most concerned to allay people's doubts about whether they are still "them," whether they still have a unified and unique identity; what he doesn't consider, is who controls and monitors this wetware? Kurzweil's use of language gives us a clue as to his ignorance of these potential problems: 
We have already largely outsourced our historical, intellectual, social, and personal memories to our devices and the cloud. The devices we interact with to access these memories will become smaller and smaller, making their way into our bodies. It will be a useful place to put them--we won't lose them that way. And in the coming years, we will continue on the path of gradual replacement and augmentation scenario until ultimately most of our thinking be in the cloud. 
 "Outsourcing" is a term we have heard a lot recently, or at least until our own economic crisis has taken front stage, particularly outsourcing jobs. I think it is worthwhile to give an exact definition of what outsourcing is to show how commercial interests always play a role in our outsourcing of memory: 
Outsourcing is the contracting out of a business process, which an organization may have previously performed internally or has a new need for, to an independent organization from which the process is purchased back as a service. (Wikipedia)
So let's think about this for a minute: Our memories, according to Kurzweil, are now outsourced, in the sense that we allow our memories to be systematically organized and controlled by the cloud interface and purchase them back as a service!  Even free programs like Dropbox only gives you so much memory space until you either pay them or sign up for something else. Even if we don't "pay" them actual money, it has now been made abundantly clear that the companies that produce services that "store" your memories are also using them for their ends. Just recently, Instagram has admitted that their service agreement allows them to use your photographs for advertisements. Although they just as quickly denied it and repealed their change to privacy policy. Still, we all know that Facebook is becoming more and more commercialized with their "promote" function and Facebook uses our information to advertise to us. Indeed, the "newsFEED" is not only loaded with friendly updates, but also notifications (that I have to believe are false) that so an so "likes Budweiser" or whatever company they decide to notify. In other words, Kurzweil's right that we have already outsourced our memories to the internet Cloud, but we still have private memories that are not uploaded, memories attached to sensation and perception that we can sometimes recall or set off with a smell, taste, or touch. These memories are still "ours" and a deep part of our being. 

The Tragedy of Violet

But what if those memories were outsourced, or tied into something that is controlled by a corporation whose sole purpose is profitable investments? This is where the narrative of Feed needs to be introduced. One could say that Feed has one sole narrator, Titus, who is a typical college teen in this near future society, but this would inaccurate. Why? Because the feed punctures the narration with its indirect discourse: snippets of advertisements, presidential speeches, and hacking messages pepper the text. The indirect discourse may be the most powerful and most challenging aspect of Feed for younger readers, but it also illustrates that Titus and his friends are conduits for the feed, full of multiple voices, but ultimately the voice commands them to do only one thing: consume. 

The story begins on the Moon, where bored teens travel to get fucked up either by drinking or by a kind of electrical scrambling of the brains they call "in mal" ("mal" is French for "bad" or "evil," but the novel also connects it to the Mall). Titus meets Violet, who is a bit strange to all of them because she uses strange words, like "suppuration," which the rest of the group have to look up on the Feed. I must note that I myself had to look up "suppuration" on my own "external" feed (google), finding that it meant "the formation or discharge of pus."  While dancing at a club, a "hacker" touches Titus, his friends, and Violet and all of them begin to broadcast the hacker's message: 
We enter a time of calamity. Blood on the tarmac. Fingers in the juicer. Towers of air frozen in the lunar wastes. Models dead on the runways, with their legs facing backward. Children with smiles that can't be undone. Chicken shall rot in the aisles. See the the pillars fall. (39)
They are taken away to the hospital and are told they must have their feed's turned off. We find out later that they were only "disconnected" since they could not be turned off. Everyone misses their feed because they can no longer silent chat to each other nor do they undergo the constant barrage of advertisements. 

Luckily, in this world, testimony is absolutely reliable in legal matters because they can simply subpoena your memories without having to worry about deterioration or distortion (56). Memories can also be "played" for people, not only as a visual, but a haptic experience. You can experience another person's memories as if you were in their position when the memory happened: like a record of an intimate VR experience. 

Most of the novel centers around the relationship between Titus and Violet, as well as Violet's attempt to resist the logic of the Feed. She decides that she will look at many random objects so that the feed cannot pin her down as a particular type of consumer. Violet clearly explains the mission of the Feed: 
Everything we've grown up with--the stories on the feed, the games, all of that--its all streamlining our personalities so we're easier to sell to. I mean they do these demographic studies that divide everyone into a few personality types, and then you get ads based on what you 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 so used to everything being basic, so we get less and less varied as people, more simple. So the corps make everything simpler. (95)
Instead, Violet decides to make a screwed customer profile so they cannot pin her down: "I'm not going to let them catalog me. I'm going to become invisible" (97). She starts looking at all sorts of things and realizes that once you look at this other stuff, the stuff that is not dictated by the feed, "you realize this obscure stuff isn't obscure at all. Each thing is like a whole world" (102). By introducing variety into her interests and desires (and not actually buying anything) she becomes invisible because she is an unpredictable customer. As we shall see, her life depends on her worthiness as an investment. 

But there is a price to be paid for being invisible. . .

As the novel progresses, we learn that Violet's feed is actually malfunctioning (probably another reason why Anderson chose the word "mal" for his drug-like state) and causing her to lose feeling and control over her bodily functions. Later, she tells Titus that she has lost one year of her memory. Violet begins to depend on Titus and to have fantasies of them doing all of these things that she wants to do; "normal" things that actually correspond to a typical bourgeois lifestyle, like "I want to rent a hotel room with you [Titus]. As Mister and Missus Smith" (230). Or, alternately, "And I want to go into 'the office' everyday, sometimes even on weekends, and be someone's administrative assistant, and complain to you through the feed while I'm at my desk about my bitch of a manager or my pervert boss" 

When she enrolls Titus to do this, he breaks up with her, unable to handle the idea that she will die soon. He even says, harshly, that he cannot sleep with her because it would be like sleeping with a zombie or a corpse!  Violet also sends Titus her memories because she knows that they cannot be preserved within her, but he simply deletes them, and lies to her, telling her that he never received the memories. 

But one memory he does "try on" and the reader finally understands that ones very life depends on feeding the feed. Violet had petitioned for customer support for her Feed from both Feedtech and other corporations, because her family cannot afford to pay for it. The Feed, according to the novel's world, is not covered by health insurance because despite the fact that it essentially merges with your most basic functions it is not medical! (219). Indeed, the feed is commercial through and through. She receives this devastating message from Feedtech: 
FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don't feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time. No one could get a 'handle' on your shopping habits. (246-47)
FeedTech has condemned her to death because she is no longer a worthwhile investment for the company. Instead of people investing in stocks, people become the stocks, they are the commodities, and their memories are merely mined for commercial purposes not only on a cultural, but personal, intimate, level. 

The Erasure of Cultural Memory through the Attenuation of Language and Commodification of History

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of Feed is the lack of historical memory and context in the novel. History has been appropriated as fashion or been discarded as useless. The language used by the teens contains little concreteness or any allusive or metaphorical significance. Indeed, one thing that attracts Violet to Titus, as she tells him, "You're the only one who uses metaphor" (62). Language has become purely functional; It's no longer "Yeah, man" or "Yeah, girl" but  "yeah, unit" --specificity is erased. The kids favorite TV show is called What! Oh! A Thing! and the parents speak just as inadequately. No one writes anything down anymore, except Violet, and there don't seem to be any books. 

Furthermore, as the case of Violet's father tells us, programming languages that allow the user to control their hardware and software are obsolete. Fortran and BASIC are now the "dead languages" that no one needs anymore. He makes little money and tries to preserve not only programming languages, but the variety of English as well. As Violet tells Titus, "He says the language is dying. He thinks words are being debased. So he tries to speak entirely in weird words and irony so no one can simplify anything he says" (137). 

There are many allusions that the reader will catch, most importantly, Violet's father's statement that Titus should "hang with the Eloi" (290). When Titus doesn't get it, Violet's father says "Its a reference [. . .] To H.G. Wells' The Time Machine." He just keeps telling Titus to look it up, to read it. He doesn't want the reference to be easily consumed by Titus, as he says, echoing Anderson's statements in the afterword: 
We Americans [. . .] are only interested in the consumption of our products. We have no interest in how they were produced, or what happens to them [. . .] what happens to them once we discard them, once we throw them away. (290)

The members of this society consume everything. Not just products but history and culture. In one of the most disturbing scenes in the book to me, Titus's friends get out of their "upcar," wearing "torn up clothes" and looking like "they'd been burned up and hit with stuff" (158). When asked about it, they respond that this is the new fashion: Riot Gear: "Its retro. It's beat up to look like one of the twentieth century riots" (158). When Violet asks which one is the "Watts" riot, no one can answer her and they think its weird that she would try and understand the historical precedent. The scene surrounding the encounter  consists of Titus and his friends trying to say  good things about Coke to your friends 1000 times so as to get a free six pack. They repeat so many phrases about Coke, it becomes a magic word that sets off their craving. They think that they are cheating the companies, but they describe it so much that they decide they will go buy a six pack. Historical questions of riots are overridden by the mantra of Coca-Cola consumption. Corporate mentality erases collective memory of history. I may explore this further with references to Steigler's Technics and Time 3 in a later post. 

The erasure of history and the dominance of corporate fashion arrives at a point where people froze in their tracks from Nostalgia Feedback:

People were just stopping in their tracks frozen. At first, people thought it was another virus, and they were looking for groups like the Coalition of Pity, but it turned out that it was something called Nostalgia Feedback. People had been getting nostalgia for fashions that were closer and closer to their own time, until finally people became nostalgic for the moment they were actually living in, and the feedback completely froze them.
People were just stopping in their tracks frozen. At first, people through it was another virus, and they were looking for groups like the Coalition Party, but it turned out it was due to something called Nostalgia Feedback. People had been getting nostalgia for fashions that were closer to their own time, until finally people became nostalgic for the moment they were actually living in, and the feedback completely froze them. (277). 

In a way, what is happening on a larger scale is a less extreme version of Violet's predicament. Violet writes to Titus, "What are we if we don't have a past?" and the irony of this statement is that if you don't have a purchasing history, you are nothing, you aren't a worthwhile investment.

The Nostalgia Feedback is only one negative effect of the Feed on everyone (and not just poor violet, who ends up dying as a result of her malfunctioning feed). The reader suspects that the Feed is also producing lesions on people's bodies as well as causing their hair to fall out. The body is also becoming transparent: "You can see like muscles and tendons and ligaments and stuff through the lesions," one character says of another (199).  The lesions eventually become a fashion statement so that one of Titus' friends actually gets artificial lesions that ooze just like real ones. The Feed has turned disease and detrioration into a fashion statement in order to keep people from realizing what's really happening to their bodies. Violet is the only one who sees the problem: "Shes a monster! A monster covered with cuts! She's a creature!" (202).

In this world, people have become the conduits, no, the servants of the corporations; their memories are only guaranteed by their purchasing histories and while Violet's story is tragic, the novel suggests that the rest of the society is about to collapse as well: "Everything was not always going well, because for most people, our hair fell out and we were bald, and we had less and less skin" (277). Titus even notes that "My mom had lost so much skin you could see her teeth even when her mouth was closed" (283). Truly if the reader pays attention to these little details, the reader might agree with Violet that these people are monsters, monsters created by the corporations that they created. Monsters we are feeding our own flesh to, so they can sell other shit back to us, satisfying our desires that the Feed as already created:

"Soylent Green is People! It's People!" 

1 comment:

  1. Please continue this great work and I look forward to more of your awesome blog posts.
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