Anderson’s novel takes place in a futuristic version of America in which corporations have replaced the government as the most powerful societal institution. In the novel’s dystopian vision of the future, corporations exert control over American citizens by convincing them to spend all their money on products they don’t need, and all their time thinking about what to buy next. Almost all Americans have tiny devices implanted in their brains, called “feeds,” which corporations use to manipulate their customers through the use of advertisements. Each feed bombards its user with an endless stream of personalized ads, nudging them into a lifestyle of constant consumption. As powerful as these corporations are, Feed shows their position to be inherently unstable—and, as the book ends, on the verge of collapse.
Corporations seem to enjoy limitless power over the characters in Feed. The book’s narrator, Titus, explains that corporations are responsible for implanting feeds in babies’ brains when they’re born. Because children grow up with the feed, they become almost completely dependent on the feed for information and entertainment. But corporate control doesn’t end with the feed. Titus goes on to explain that corporations have also taken control over the school system—now called School™—and use it as an opportunity to train young people to be eager, loyal consumers for the rest for their lives (Titus explains, evidently blind to the irony, that corporations see education as an “investment in tomorrow”). Finally, corporations enjoy unlimited power because they use their influence to buy politicians who will protect corporations’ rights to “free trade.” The result of corporate control is that Titus and his peers spend all their money buying the products that corporations want them to buy. This, in turn, allows the corporations to continue exercising control, by producing more products to sell, creating more education propaganda, and buying more politicians. In short, the consumption of goods fuels an endless, cyclical process of corporate expansion.
Although the widespread culture of consumerism strengthens corporations, Feed shows that it also runs the risk of destroying them, meaning that corporations are, in a sense, victims of their own success. The book explores this contradiction in two main ways. First, constant corporate expansion has dire consequences for the natural world. There are hints throughout the novel that unchecked pollution and development are endangering not just other species, but the human race itself, as temperatures never fall below 100 degrees, people’s skin peels off, and natural disasters caused by corporate activity routinely kill thousands at a time. The implication is that the culture of consumerism is self-destructive, to the point where it kills the very consumers it’s supposed to be serving. But in addition to showing that consumerism is dangerous to human life, Feed shows that it is a threat to human happiness, simply because in order to keep people consuming, corporations need to keep their customers unhappy. For example, if Titus were to buy a car that made him truly, lastingly happy, then he’d stop shopping for cars altogether, and he’d also stop giving money to corporations. From the perspective of corporations, this possibility is unacceptable. Corporations depend on people like Titus being perpetually slightly dissatisfied. Consumers need to be just unhappy enough that they keep buying things—not so unhappy that they give up on consumerism altogether—but happy enough to believe that the next car or shirt or sweater vest they purchase could solve all their problems. The result is that some consumers, including Titus by the end of the novel, do come to question the practice of consumerism itself: after years of being unsatisfied by their purchases, they become disillusioned with the corporations who’ve promised, and failed, to make them happy.
The dystopian corporate society Anderson writes about is powerful, yet unstable. It depends upon wreaking environmental havoc on the world, and it only works when it keeps its supposed beneficiaries (the consumers) unsatisfied. This corporation-run world is always teetering on the verge of collapse and, paradoxically, the more powerful it gets, the more precarious its position becomes. Indeed, by the end of the novel, the entire world is gearing up for war with the United States in response to its renegade corporatism, as the concrete, environmental effects of this ideology have become too serious to ignore. Anderson further implies that consumers themselves—not just the victims of consumerism around the world—might start to opt out of the consumer culture. However, he suggests that a lifetime of brainwashing may have left Titus and others like him unable to imagine life without their feeds and the mindless cycle of consumption the feeds reinforce.
Corporations and Consumerism ThemeTracker
Corporations and Consumerism Quotes in Feed
"It is not the will of the American people, the people of this great nation, to believe the allegations that were made by these corporate “watch” organizations, which are not the majority of the American people, I repeat not, and aren't its will. It is our duty as Americans, and as a nation dedicated to freedom and free commerce, to stand behind our fellow Americans and not cast . . . things at them. Stones, for example. The first stone. By this I mean that we shouldn’t think that there are any truth to the rumors that the lesions are the result of any activity of American industry.
Also, it's good because that way we know that the big corps are made up of real human beings, and not just jerks out for money, because taking care of children, they care about America's future. It's an investment in tomorrow. When no one was going to pay for the public schools anymore and they were all like filled with guns and drugs and English teachers who were really pimps and stuff, some of the big media congloms got together and gave all this money and bought the schools so that all of them could have computers and pizza for lunch and stuff, which they gave for free, and now we do stuff in classes about how to work technology and how to find bargains and what's the best way to get a job and how to decorate our bedroom.
"You know what he was in?" said my dad. "Remember Virtual Blast? He played the fifth Navy Seal, with the croup. You know, coughing."
"He was in the feature with all the crazy utensils," said my mother. "A few years ago? That one? He was the doorman in the pillbox hat." I had already pulled up a list of his feed-features and I was going over them. None of them got more than two stars.
"He was beaten to death at the club. We saw it. The police, remember? They beat him over the head."
She reached out and took my arm.
My father walked toward us across the pavement, waving. The plastic flags were flapping in the artificial wind while Muzak came out of heaven.
I bought the Dodge.
She said she had a theory that everything was better if you delayed it. She had this whole thing about self-control, okay, and the importance of self-control. For example, she said, when she bought something, she wouldn't let herself order it for a long time. Then she would just go to the purchase site and show it to herself. Then she'd let herself get fed the sense-sim, you know, she'd let herself know how it would feel, or what it would smell like. Then she would go away and wouldn't look for a week.
You know, I think death is shallower now. It used to be a hole you fell into and kept falling. Now it's just a blank.
And we are the nation of dreams. We are seers. We are wizards. We speak in visions. Our letters are like flocks of doves, released from under our hats. We have only to stretch out our hand and desire, and what we wish for settles like a kerchief in our palm. We are a race of sorcerers, enchanters. We are Atlantis. We are the wizard-isle of Mu.
What we wish for, is ours.
Someone once said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich guy to get into heaven.
There is a city. A marketplace. Camels. Arabs. The upcar shoots overhead, and they duck.
Yeah, sure. Now we know that the "eye of the needle" is just another name for a gate in Jerusalem-and with the Swarp XE-11’s mega-lepton lift and electrokinetic gyro stasis, […] getting through the gate just won't be a problem anymore.
The Swarp XE-11: You can take it with you.
"This top is the Watts Riot top."
Violet said, "I can never keep any of the riots straight. Which one was the Watts riot?"
Calista and Loga stopped and looked at her. I could feel them flashing chat.
"Like, a riot," said Calista. "I don't know, Violet. Like, when people start breaking windows and beating each other up, and they have to call in the cops. A riot. You know. Riot?"
Violet was screaming, "Look at us! You don't hate the feed! You are feed! You're feed! You're being eaten! You're raised for food! Look at what you've made yourselves!" She pointed at Quendy, and went, "She’s a monster! A monster!"
It was like I kept buying these things to be cool, but cool was always flying just ahead of me, and I could never exactly catch up to it.
I felt like I'd been running toward it for a long time.
"It's almost time for foosball. It will be a gala. Go along, little child. Go back and hang with the eloi."
"What are the eloi?"
"It's a reference," he said, snotty. "It's from The Time Machine. H. G. Wells."
I stepped closer to him. "What does it mean?" I asked. "Because I'm sick of—"
"I'm sick of being told I'm stupid."
"So read it, and you'll know."
"It's about this meg normal guy, who doesn't think about anything until one wacky day, when he meets a dissident with a heart of gold." I said, "Set against the backdrop of America in its final days, it's the high-spirited story of their love together, it's laugh-out-loud funny, really heartwarming, and a visual feast." I picked up her hand and held it to my lips. I whispered to her fingers. "Together, the two crazy kids grow, have madcap escapades, and learn an important lesson about love. They learn to resist the feed. Rated PG-13. For language," I whispered, "and mild sexual situations."
I sat in her room, by her side, and she stared at the ceiling. I held her hand. On a screen, her heart was barely beating.
I could see my face, crying, in her blank eye.