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Feeding the Future: On the Algorithmic Apocalypse


Science fiction often presents two nightmare visions of the future: one when the world has ended, and one when the world hasn’t, where “progress”—technological, typically—determinedly continues, for better but mostly worse. Whichever you find least frightening probably depends on your faith that humanity will make the right decisions when it has to, like deciding not to implant computers inside our brains or outsource our fate to algorithms. Sometimes, the world ending isn’t the worst thing in the, well, world.

The world ends twice in Nick Clark Windo’s new dystopian science fiction novel, The Feed. It ends first as society destroys itself, anonymous hackers wreaking havoc with the titular technology—the Feeds implanted inside (mostly) everyone’s brains. It ends again as society destroys the planet, exorbitant energy consumption—to power the Feeds—turning Earth into an inhospitable oven. Windo is most interested in these doomsdays and their aftermaths; how we get there, less so.

The Feed opens on the precipice of the first apocalypse. The Feed, for a moment, remains functional. Essentially a smartphone embedded inside the skull, the Feed provides an intracranial stream of information, content, and communication. Targeted advertisements appear behind your eyes based on fleeting emotions and the people around you. The Feed measures everything from your hormone levels to the revolutions of a looter’s heaved rock, and presents the world in an onslaught of personalized metrics. Memories are stored in the cloud and shared with others as virtual reality-esque sensory experiences. People let out “unintended real laughs” instead of LOLs. It’s the Internet, but if mainlined directly into a person’s consciousness.

Tom and Kate Hatfield, The Feed’s protagonists, sit in an upscale restaurant, going “slow.” They’ve turned off their Feeds for the evening, fighting addiction to the technology in their brains. A short while into dinner, the restaurant’s patrons panic as their Feeds are bombarded with videos of the U.S. president’s assassination—along with a helpful link showing where to purchase the sweater he’s wearing for yourself, hopefully without the bloodstains. Chaos ensues as people are “taken” in their sleep. With the Feed, getting hacked means being totally erased from your own body, like a wiped hard-drive. No one knows if the people inside their brothers, sisters, fathers are actually who they claim to be. More assassinations follow, perpetrated by the presumed taken. Society and the Feed quickly collapse.

Six years later, the remnants of humanity—those who didn’t kill themselves in the void left behind by the Feed’s absence—live in camps. Food is scarce, and electricity is nonexistent. Without the instantaneous access to information provided by the Feed, people have forgotten common words and rudimentary concepts of how the world works. They have to relearn how to use their brains, how to create memories, and Windo illustrates the struggle with computer terminology: brains “stall” and “judder,” feeling for the Feed like a ghost limb.

Eventually, the plot of The Feed stirs into motion. Tom and Kate’s daughter is kidnapped, and they must traverse their hollowed-out world to find her. What follows is fairly typical post-apocalyptic fare. There are cars overgrown with vegetation and foxes chewing on bones, run-ins with mysterious fellow survivors. Time travel is brought into the mix, and, subsequently, parallel dimensions. The Feed provides a rather literal deus ex machina.

Windo’s novel focuses most of its attention on this apocalypse the technology has wrought, rather than the technology itself. In The Feed, the nightmare is in the ending: the destruction of the Feed, those left grappling with the gaping hole it has left in their minds. The central question of The Feed is how to survive without it.

In a different novel with the same technological premise, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, published in 2002 with a Sean Parker-approved title, the question is how to survive with it. The technology is generally the same as Windo’s—ceaseless ads and lowest common denominator content beamed into the brain—presented in a satirical young adult novel narrated by a teenager named Titus, because Anderson understands that a generation’s technology is best experienced with teens as tour guides. The world of Feed is ruthlessly commercial: one character is described as the “little economy model” of another, suburban chain restaurants have made it all the way to the moon, and Schools™ have been taken over by corporations because it “sounds completely like, Nazi, to have the government running the schools.” In Feed, unlike in Windo’s novel, the Feed is very much working as intended.

Anderson’s satire is not always the most nuanced, but then again, neither is the world he is roasting—even less so 16 years later. In flashes of news stories intermixed with commercials, environmental disaster is ignored while the president defends big business and—as if Anderson had a premonition of the current POTUS—publicly debates the meaning of the term “shithead.” What makes Feed compelling, however, is when it reveals the future our data-addicted present portends.

We see that present in Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, a bestseller in 2016 that details how big data and its algorithmic tendrils already “encod[e] human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias” and “punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.” O’Neil works industry by industry to reveal how digital advertisers see consumers begging for targeted ads, how for-profit colleges use data to set up the most desperate students with predatory loans, and how companies use unregulated “e-scores” as a stand-in for job applicants’ employability. The data-driven programs and products O’Neil investigates “deliver unflinching verdicts, and the human beings employing them can only shrug.” Just take a look at the social credit scores already introduced in China that rank individuals’ eligibility for loans and dating apps. In 2018, your data is your fate.

Titus is the narrator of Feed, but the novel’s true protagonist is his girlfriend, Violet. She spends the book torn between resisting the Feed’s influence and succumbing to its pleasures, and ultimately suffers the fate that O’Neil shows us is not a far-fetched science fiction. Violet was implanted with the Feed as a young child—still late for her generation—because her reluctant father knew it was an economic necessity, that she would need to be a consumer to get a job. But her father could only afford the cheaper model, and so when Violet and the others are hacked (in a nightclub on the moon), it’s Violet’s feed that begins to malfunction, taking her brain with it. Feed follows as Violet deteriorates, losing control of her body.

Violet is left with one option: appeal to the megacorporations that dominate the world of Feed for surgical repairs that will save her life. But she has spent the novel “trying to create a customer profile that’s so screwed, no one can market to it.” She attempts, as John Herrman recently suggests in The New York Times Magazine, to “fool our algorithmic spies.” Herrman writes of the “intentionally deceptive,” antagonistic actions we take prompted by the knowledge of big data’s omniscience. This knowledge prompts Violet to browse for a disparate collection of products, never purchasing. She purposely eludes the Feed’s gaze, and this rebellion condemns her to death. Her request to the Feed’s conglomerates is denied, as explained by the Feed’s bot-like avatar, Nina:
Unfortunately 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 what we call a ‘handle’ on your shopping habits.
Instead, Nina suggests checking out “some of the great bargains available to you through the feednet,” telling Violet, “we might be able to create a consumer portrait of you that would interest our investment team.” The Feed’s answer for Violet is to become a better kind of consumer to survive.

It sounds a bit maudlin, but is it so different from the GoFundMe version of healthcare that has become so popular, where life-saving care depends on your virality? Only for Anderson, it’s faceless corporations we have to impress for medical care, rather than our fellow Internet users. This is the future Feed presents to us and O’Neil sees breathing down our necks: consumerism not as self-actualization, but as self-preservation.

Like the world of Anderson’s novel, The Feed is most interesting when providing glimpses of its pre-apocalyptic backstory. We see a world populated by QR codes that personalize each and every product to a person, while there are references to continental water wars and environmental decay. Post-collapse, Tom laments how people let technology “evolve faster than their morals could keep up,” their belief that “when self-preservation kicked in, when business and survival meshed…[that it] was just a question of when that solution would be found” to keep the Feed in check. In an early scene, Tom comes upon what once was a warehouse of memory servers, and another character reminds him, “these are people”—with a person’s essence stored on a microchip, Windo literalizes the idea of people as the sum of their data. The Feed ultimately hinges on an exploration of whether or not this is true, whether or not identity is the corporeal form we inhabit or the data—emotional, behavioral—we produce. In Weapons, O’Neil shows us how that question has largely already been resolved in the affirmative for big data.

In both Feed and The Feed, big data offers the possibility of salvation: a chance to rewrite the past, treatment for an otherwise terminal fate. In both novels, salvation is denied and devastation comes while waiting for the benevolence of the corporations behind the algorithms and content. The lesson, then, is clear: Don’t wait. (Although it’s perhaps too late for Windo to follow his own advice, as The Feed has already been sold to Amazon as a television series.) But Windo makes the drama of The Feed intensely personal. Tom’s father invented the Feed, and so our narrator is the son of Zuckerberg or Bezos; he’s resisting his family legacy. Tom plays a personal part in the time-shattering twist that comes mid-book. The characters of Feed, in contrast, are commonplace. They’re any of Facebook’s billion users, any of the millions of Amazon Prime subscribers—people just trying to be the right kind of consumers. In this way, Feed is more immediate. It’s easier to imagine ourselves binge-buying pants online as consolation than ransacking our way to the penthouse apartment of the Feed’s CEO in search of time-travel-assisted resolution.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death provides the two ways, as he puts it, “culture may be shriveled.” There’s the fate of George Orwell’s 1984, where “culture becomes a prison,” or the fate of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where “culture becomes a burlesque.” Postman published Amusing in 1985, before technology remade our cultural landscape yet again, into the world O’Neil’s Weapons shows us. Now, there seems to be a third option: culture as math problem, stores of data and finely tuned algorithms dictating what we see, what we do, and what we are. “The only thing worse than the thought it may all come tumbling down is the thought that we may go on like this forever,” Violet says in Feed. It’s both teenage melodrama and science fiction dichotomy: The Feed finds horror in the former, Feed the latter. As for the rest of us—well, I’m sure there’s an algorithm to sort that out.

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