Reposting: On a “feed”ing frenzy

In August of 2005, I started blogging on the domain that Steve and I bought to host our now defunct podcast. In October, I posted my thoughts on M.T. Anderson’s book, feed. Soon after, I loaned it to Davin, (who I mention in the post below) and just yesterday he stopped by for a surprise visit to return the book. So, with that in mind, I thought that it was timely to repost this summary of the book from my original blog from way back in the day. You know, like less than two years ago, right? Enjoy!

feed coverWell, this has been an up and down weekend. Another chance to talk with pre-service English teachers on Friday about wikis and the like was followed by work and email until one in the morning that night (sad, but true). Then, Saturday, brought a cool, but comfortable day for Spartan football and, inevitably, a blown chance to go 5-2 on the season. Today was spent largely outside doing yard chores, waiting another weekend for our late-turning leaves to fill dozens of lawn bags. Which brings me to now, and the fact that I feel like I need to write about something engaging and, hopefully, useful, so I can cap off the weekend in a positive manner.

So, I will write a little bit about feed, by M. T. Anderson. And, despite the fact that it isn’t the most positive book in the world, there is plenty that it has to say about our consumer culture, internet technology, and what we really value in life. Perfect fiction for me. Here goes…

My introduction to this text was from a colleague, Ninna Roth, who was using it as a part of the Greenrock High School Writers Retreat a few years ago. She told me that it was, by far, the most incredible book that she had ever read (although, like every English teacher, I think her favorites are constantly changing). At any rate, I let the book linger on my shelf for quite some time and, over the summer, mentioned to my son (now a sixth grader) that a friend told me it was a good book. He was interested, so I passed the book on to him with the intention of reading along with him. Well, he read fast. And, he told me, many times, that this was a book that I might not approve of him reading (more on that soon), although it all worked out in the end, because I read it recently and we had many interesting points of discussion to talk about. A few of them included the peer pressure on teens and the constant desire for them to want. To want things. Objects. People. I could put a whole post up on that aspect of it. But this blog is supposed to focus more on technology, so that is where I will go.

The “feed” referred to in the title of Anderson’s text is an extension of today’s always-on internet that is hard-wired, literally, into a person’s limbic system. The feed is available to use for chatting others, pulling up information, getting directions, playing games, “going mal,” and any number of other types of internet that we would use. Although, in Anderson’s world, the feed is tied into the brain, so there are no glasses to wear, headsets to don; people are hooked up from the word go and can be online, all the time. This, of course, allows for the other pervasive online activity to happen, too—advertising. The feed, through some sophisticated demographic profiling and GPS tracking can, without fail, give information to a person looking at a product on a shelf (or merely driving by a store or having a particular emotion that the product could help offset) better than any salesperson could ever hope to. The co-opting force of the dollar has taken over the feed, the internet, and is what—we find out later—makes the whole system run.

Anderson’s main character, Titus, is a typical teen in this connected world. To make a long story short, he meets up with an anti-establishment type, Violet, and they go through a series of events together that bring them together and push them apart at the same time. She attempts to resist the feed, in all its forms. I won’t spoil the end, but thought that you should know a little more about it before I get back to the technology. Wow, this is an unfocused book review. Sorry.

So, back to the tech aspects of it. First, I was trying to figure out if Anderson was truly prescient in his titling of the book, or if he just got lucky. In 2002, when it came out, I hadn’t heard of feeds, or RSS, and I wonder if many others had either. Although Wikipedia points to 1999 as the year feeds really kicked in, I thought that Anderson was just lucky. Then, I was talking with a friend and colleague at MSU, Davin Granroth, and he politely reminded me that news organizations like AP and UPI have been sending news over the wire, “feeding” it to newspapers and other journalists for years. Thanks, Davin, for pointing that out (and please excuse my ignorance of journalism. Duh.).

At any rate, the fact that Titus, Violet, and their friends can get news, or a definition, or anything else that they want, anytime, is both exciting and disheartening. For instance, I think of the fact that I carry my life around with me on a laptop and a cell phone. It is sad, but true, that if I lost this laptop, I would be doomed (at least somewhat—I did back it up on an external hard drive last week). Or, the fact that I don’t know phone numbers of my closest relatives and friends, I just pull up their name in my cell phone (which is, after all, my only phone). Or, that I have Max OS X’s Dashboard widgets constantly running so I can look things up on Wikipedia like the history of RSS. In fact, I think that these widgets are about the closest thing to begin connected to the feed that I have experienced so far, although certainly blogs and podcasts are right up there, too.

Also exciting, but scary, is the fact that because no one really has to know anything, School (with a big TM behind it) is really just a holding pen for these kids, even more so than today. They don’t really need to know anything, they can look it up on the feed. They don’t really have to have an opinion on anything, the feed provides it for them. They don’t really have to want anything in life, the feed tells they what they should do for fun, for love, for an image. At one point, a character is discouraged by the poverty he saw on a trip to, I believe, Mexico and then he turns to his friends and says how he can’t think about that because it is so depressing. That is bad in and of itself and then Anderson has the feed, of course, kick into this kid’s brain with something fun so he could, indeed, forget about poverty. Wow. Talk about me media.

Now, I am all for digital literacy. No shocker there. But, Anderson’s text raises some interesting points about being online, all the time. I talked with my son about this a little bit and I don’t think that he fully understands the implications of it, yet. Is he online? Sure he is? Is he pervasively online? No, not like me (always looking for wi fi gets old, right?). So, his general response to the text was that this is an interesting take on things, but not a likely future. I am not sure so. Anderson places it, as best I can tell by a historical reference in the text, at about the year 2200. The fact of the matter is that I think many of the things that he talks about are already happening.

Spam clogs email inboxes. Spyware watches us (especially those using IE). Banner ads and Google links fill our screens. The democratization of all things that the web was supposed to lead us to hasn’t quite come to fruition. Yet. Perhaps if Web 2.0 technologies continue to emerge and if teachers understand how to harness and use them in classrooms, then we stand a chance. If not, then the types of pervasive connectivity that Anderson envisions could come to fruition. We don’t want Web 3.0 (or whatever version it is in 2200) to look like this.

One other quick note about the text before moving into a final anecdote. My son was worried that I would be upset about the language that Anderson has his characters use. The f-bomb is omnipresent and just about everything else from the seven words you can’t say on television appears at one point or another. But, he and I were able to engage in an interesting discussion about discourse and the ways in which certain words become acceptable over time and in different contexts. For Anderson, these cussing terms are becoming so ubiquitous now that in another two hundred years we won’t even think about them as have ever been a curse word. There are other words that a character uses that confuse Titus and he doesn’t want to look the words up (although he could, easily). I think that Anderson makes an interesting point about how technology can influence our language, and it is a warning that we, as English teachers, shouldn’t take lightly.

And, for the promised anecdote, this time with my daughter. Tonight, she was on one of her two favorite websites, Nick Jr. (fortunately, PBS Kids is the other). In the time that it took me to get her on the website and leave the room to go run her bathwater, she was able to play two different games and print two pictures that she made (without having either my wife or I in there to show her the print button on the screen or how to turn on the printer!). She’s three and a half, by the way. While producing content (as best a three-year-old can), she also consumed some major advertising for this Nick Jr. show, to be sure, but also the obligatory commercials that they now put right into their site. When you click into certain games, you are hit with 30 second TV spots from their sponsors. Fortunately, Nick Jr. still gives you the option to skip the ad, if you can click fast enough. What is important to me about this, in the end, is the fact that she knows and understands what it means to be online and that we can play her games here, at home, but not when we are up north (and on, at best, a 28K dial-up). Wow.

In the end, it is interesting to note, in light of what feed’s message shares with us, that this is the type of online interactions that she, my son, and all of us may have to face in the future. How do I get around the advertising and the message that the media is portraying about my body image and sense of self in order to do the things that I find important to do online? I hope that we are teaching our students the critical literacy skills to answer those questions and create their own blogs, podcasts, wikis, and digital videos.

And, I hope we know the answer to whether this is the internet of the future well before 2200.

Author: Troy Hicks

Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Educational Technology degree program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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