Nick Clark Windo is the author of The Feed, a novel in which information is directly linked to every character’s brain. But when the titular Feed collapses, so does modern society. The Feed was released today by William Morrow, and you can check it out here.
Technology’s rapid development is fantastic. Vaccines have improved our quality of life, planes have revolutionized travel, and the Internet has made knowledge instantly accessible. But at the same time, we don’t seem to debate technological advancement these days because whoosh they’ve already happened.
In Ancient Greece, citizens were obliged to attend plays and debate the issues dramatized therein; this then fed into the decision-making of the Powers That Were. Now our population is so big that—even with wonderful social platforms allowing anyone and everyone to speak—it’s difficult to facilitate mass debates that have meaning.
Of course, technology had less of an impact back in the day, even though Socrates worried that writing would produce forgetfulness. Our technological reach is greater now; our lives are meshed together in a tangle of global influence. And technological advancement isn’t truly a public issue: it’s a commercial one. That question of “Should we?” is usually answered by a projection of share value rather than cultural impact. The UK government, for example, recently decided to have no regulation of AI development, leaving it in the hands of corporate ethics and interests instead.
The reality is that the technology we use is profoundly affecting us, often without our knowledge. This is the backdrop for The Feed.
So, the Feed! Like the iPhone, it’s pretty damn successful and rapidly near ubiquitous. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s brilliant: unlimited knowledge and instant, unfettered communication at the speed of thought, direct to your brain. Think you’d be in trouble if you lost your phone, though? Try losing the technology that’s given you access to everything you know, that has allowed you to upload your memories and communicate your emotions to people without having to bother with words.
When the Feed collapses, some of the characters begin to believe that one of humanity’s most useful tools has actually started to control it.
Of course, a concept isn’t a story. Drama happens as we see the human impact of something—the rest is set dressing. And the tech is set dressing for what happens to protagonists Tom and Kate during the search for their abducted daughter.
While I was subconsciously hoarding the nuggets that eventually evolved into this novel, I saw the philosopher A.C. Grayling speak about technology. He quipped that the brain will soon be seen as the original “wetware.” He spoke about how we train brains at school to memorize information, but, he said, it’s a waste of time because who needs to remember things when Google exists? In the future, we should be training kids’ brains to filter real information from fake information.
Without the Feed, Tom and Kate discover they can’t remember anything. They can’t read body language anymore, so it’s difficult to know who to trust. Their brains have become rewired because of the Feed, and it’s through this disconnected miasma of withdrawal symptoms and a chronic lack of functionality that they have to find their child.
There’s great nonfiction writing about how technology affects us—Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, for example, looks at how tech changes the physical make-up of our brains—and fiction’s job is to look at how we live and question it. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead—these sagas look at what happens to humanity when it’s under pressure. And happy endings aren’t a foregone conclusion now. Maybe that has to do with the low-level concern most people have; there are many options for what could usher us into a post-apocalyptic world these days.
And technology is one of them.
The effects of technology aren’t merely conceptual or political; they steadily alter our patterns of perception without much resistance. Maybe Socrates was right. I can’t concentrate for as long as I used to, my long-term memory is poor, I’m irritable after a day looking at my laptop screen. These things impact my life.
Many of the younger people I coach actively avoid face-to-face conversations with their colleagues, preferring to text or email because they’re scared of a live, “uncontrollable” conversation. Political interactions now hinge on 280-character bursts, and I started writing The Feed because an over-active Twitter habit changed the speed of my dreams.
Tech isn’t just a tool, lying passive when we’re not using it. It’s rapidly become our medium for thought, and that’s not necessarily bad. Not necessarily. But it’d be constructive to debate it more.