In 2004 M.T. Anderson published Feed, a novel set in a futuristic society in which everyone has a chip planted in their heads at birth that is basically the Internet on steroids. The feed is a more powerful search engine than Google, a more comprehensive online shopping mall than Amazon and allows you to telecommunicate more instantaneously than your cellphone does today. It can even get you high.
But the most important function of the feed is that it constantly accumulates, aggregates and sells your personal information to corporations, which build up databases of buyer histories that help them tailor advertisements on an individual level. In one scene the main character, Titus, is picking out a hovercar and immediately receives competing advertisements for the two models he’s considering: The ad for the smaller, sportier one shows him and his girlfriend on a romantic getaway; the ad for the larger one shows him taking all of his friends to a party. Both companies have access to Titus’ mind to the point where they can literally construct dreams in his head about how the world could, and should, be for him.
Throughout the book, Titus and his cadre of shallow friends are gleeful participants in an empty, entertainment-driven culture featuring the hit sitcom “Oh? Wow! Thing!” and the constant message of “buy, buy, buy” in the background, personalized to fit their immediate desires. Not to spoil the ending, but when Titus’ girlfriend’s feed malfunctions, damaging her brain, the corporations in charge are unwilling to help her because she isn’t a prolific shopper; helping her isn’t worth it.
I read this book before things like Amazon.com’s “customers who bought this also bought…” feature became really big, so the concept of personalized ads seemed plausible but nevertheless somewhat alien. Only a few years later my email, Facebook and Youtube accounts are all bombarding me with a combination of advertisements geared to suit me and me alone (in case I need a reminder that I’m young and single, I have my own lineup of Jewish dating, ab workout and college-themed clothing sites only one click away). This form of advertising, made possible by a massive network of data-mining and information-selling, is now so ubiquitous that companies don’t even feel the need to hide the fact that they’re doing it.
So when I saw the video promoting Project Glass, Feed was naturally the first thing that came to mind. How else could I interpret a systematic attempt to eliminate the ever-shrinking (and beneficial) gap between person and computer? While unlimited and instantaneous information has its uses, there is still a reason we go outside: to look at something other than a screen. The product is, without a doubt, incredibly cool. However, I worry that we have become complacent, and even excited, about a world that looks increasingly like this.