Mild spoilers ahead for The Feed.
Following last week’s Cambridge Analytica revelations, Facebook is now imploding before our eyes, leading to increased fears of data-sharing and data mining by third-party apps, numerous lawsuits, and calls for investigation from Congress. Most importantly, users are considering whether they can or should cut off social media giants for good. With that in mind, Nick Clark Windo’s debut novel, The Feed, which came out on March 9th, feels particularly relevant, when we as a society are re-evaluating our relationship with some of the most pervasive technology products of our time.
The Feed takes place in the near future, somewhere in England we’re led to assume, when most people have social media embedded in their brains, allowing them to communicate with each other via telepathy, or what Windo terms “spraying.” It’s still possible to turn off the Feed, as the product is referred to. But with nearly everyone online, and hardly anyone actually verbalizing words to each other in real life, this form of social media has become the primary means of communication. Like most modern forecasts of digital life, it feels like a Black Mirror episode, somewhere between season one’s meditation on screen-obsessed gamification featuring Daniel Kaluuya and the following episode, “The Entire History of You,” in which brain implants let people replay memories or mirror the visual signal to any screen in the vicinity.
In The Feed, we are introduced to a loving couple, Kate and Tom who, while on their dinner date at a restaurant, sit in absolute silence as everyone around them speaks to each other via spraying. Tom is a bit of a Luddite, even though (or maybe because) his father invented the Feed and changed their world irrevocably by doing so. He convinces Kate to log off for their dinner date, but she can’t resist the lure of opening up public polls and messaging her mom and sister.
This is all we get of the future world in The Feed while the core product remains active, with it positioned as a life-altering and addictive layer over reality that’s impossible to extract yourself from. The situation changes dramatically when bad actors assassinate the president and crash the the Feed’s systems. Tom and Kate’s world is ripped in two, as they’re thrust into a dark age of sorts where fresh food is hard to come by, a basic scrape can kill if it’s not disinfected, and where nefarious internet users “hack” people’s minds while they’re asleep via the Feed’s implants. The latter threat, in Windo’s world, leads to complete and total personality override as people’s digital consciousnesses can be forcibly placed in other people’s bodies in an Altered Carbon-style twist.
Windo makes the point in The Feed that humanity can’t really live with or without technological advancements like social media — and his argument is compelling. Without the Feed and its access to all communication and information, the world collapses. People forgot basic science like the composition of soil for growing food or even why the sky is blue. Memories of other people fade without the Feed’s automated reminders. It’s impossible to find others without GPS locators and law enforcement is rendered useless, as Kate finds out when her child is kidnapped.
The Feed also stresses how social media can be a deadly distraction, as it can create false illusions of wellness and progress in the world while the environment degenerates and climate change runs rampant. Windo argues that once power and user data are in the hands of a small slice of wealthy individuals, those people can and will make decisions at the expense of humanity with too few consequences for their actions. It’s hard not to see the character President Taylor, who makes business deals while the world rots, as a conglomeration of the worst of Washington DC and Silicon Valley.
Windo isn’t entirely pessimistic. He doesn’t seem to be saying society as it is today is irrevocably enthralled by social media, as if it’s a necessity for living. Instead, The Feed offers a multifaceted look at the downsides of social media and how it’s become intertwined with daily life, taken of course to an extreme. We’re not yet at the point where we’re eating in public in total silence with live streamed video feeds blasting directly into our brains. But we’re seeing now with the Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal shows that technology can often manifest with little to no regard for how it will be used or misused in the future. As is the case with many dystopian novels, The Feed is a cautionary tale — and it is perhaps worth mentioning here that Facebook is working on brain-computer interfaces? The future may be a lot closer than we think.