For the past six weeks, I have had the pleasure of teaching an English course to a group of highly motivated high school students enrolled in the summer session of an Upward Bound program. This summer’s book selection — Feed by M. T. Anderson — has spurred a campus conversation that I keep catching snippets of while I wait in line in the cafeteria or when I walk down the halls in the dorm. (I’m serious — a large group of teenagers, in school in the summer, are really talking about a book in their free time!)
Feed never fails to generate intense feelings and is also one of those books that could be suited to almost any theme or purpose that a course might cover. It lends itself to discussions of identity, social class, gender roles and expectations, conformity, language, as well as the topics around which I organized my summer course: media and technology.
The overarching question my students and I have been grappling with over the course of the summer is “Does the media create or reflect reality?” Feed is the perfect title to use as a case study for exploring this question, as it presents a dystopian world where the majority of people have a device — the “feed” — implanted directly into their brains. The feed constantly bombards its users with advertisements that are responsive to their locations and emotional states and also offers seemingly unlimited access to information. Of course, it also leads the users to have tremendous blind spots in terms of their understanding of the world around them and is controlled by powerful corporations who may or may not have the best interests of their users at heart.
Feed is the perfect choice for a course focused on media literacy. The book itself articulates and reinforces the need for precisely the skills learned in media literacy exercises: how to think critically about the content present in media messages, how to actively engage with information rather than passively accepting it, and how to uncover who creates the media and what their agendas might be.
Over the course of the summer, I have watched my students develop an increasing awareness of the challenges and implications of growing up in a media-saturated world. In addition to reading Feed, we have analyzed videos, advertisements, and contemporary songs to see what is under the surface of the media messages that we too often accept without question — and with which we even find ourselves singing along! I can see my students’ blinders beginning to come off as they think more critically about the world around them and how media impacts their own lives.
While Feed projects a vision of a dystopian future and was published back in 2002, I am struck each time I reread the book by how close the world Anderson describes seems to our own. The media and technology are increasingly influential and already play a key role in shaping our reality. The time to think about the implications of a media feeding us constant messages that may or may not reflect the world we want to inhabit is now and Feed is a wonderful title to use to engage young people in these critical conservations.