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The novel feed follows the lives of first-person narrator Titus, his fellow protagonist and girlfriend, Violet, and his upper-class teenage friends. Like most others in their society, the teenagers are completely connected to, and dependent upon, brain implants that connect them to the feed. The novel’s antagonist, the feed provides users with a constant stream of information, entertainment, and, above all else, promotions for products to consume. The feed even anticipates and creates users’ wants from individual profiles based on purchasing decisions, thoughts, and feelings. The result: Titus and his friends, like so many of those around them, live shallow, superficial existences where they are driven primarily to consume. What is more, the feed has decreased people’s intelligence, stunted their emotional development, and made them blind to the reality that corporate greed has led to widespread human suffering and environmental destruction, even as its proof is written on their bodies in the form of raw, red lesions caused by industrial pollution.
The novel’s inciting incident that sets the plot in motion occurs at the end of Part I, “moon,” in the chapter “the moon is in the house of boring.” Bored on Earth, Titus and his friends decide to spring break on the moon, which is now visitable and completely commercialized (that is, corrupted). While there, they meet Violet and later, a member of the Coalition of Pity hacks into their feeds. As the friends’ feeds then broadcast the hacker’s ominous warning, “We enter a time of calamity!” police power them down and they collapse. In the second part of feed, “eden,” when the friends wake in a lunar hospital, entirely disconnected from the feed, their brains feel empty and they are unsure what to do without its constant stimulus. As Violet and Titus get closer, and begin to connect in a human, rather than technological way, though, she hints that something is now wrong with her. Still, when the friends’ feeds are eventually restored, they rejoice and run their hands over their bodies with joy, and readers gain insight into just how integral feeds are to their lives.
In the novel’s third part, “utopia,” the group returns to Earth and Titus begins to see the feed’s flaws. Readers also get a stronger sense that Titus’s world isn’t the paradise he’s been programmed to see and tension begins to build. True, life continues as it always has for Titus and his friends in their “utopia,” where they shop, party, travel in flying upcars, and live in homes inside self-contained pods that have their own sun and stars. But as smart, informed, home-schooled Violet slowly helps Titus understand, and his nighttime hacks from the Coalition of Pity reveal, his “utopia” is illusory: The Earth is dying, people around the planet are suffering, and unchecked consumerism and corporations are to blame. Violet, who didn’t have her feed installed until she was seven, also helps Titus see that those who’ve lived with feeds installed since birth, and attended corporate-controlled School™, largely live uninformed and self-centered lives, and thus are complicit in the world’s demise.
In the chapter “lose the chemise,” Violet also tells Titus, who later learns he has been produced in a conceptionarium and modeled after an actor, that corporations only care about making people want to consume. And in the process, she says, they have destroyed individualism and reduced people into simplified personality types. Her revelation sets up the major conflict in feed: Violet determines to resist the feed and preserve her individuality by creating a completely confusing customer profile that can’t be marketed to, and she asks Titus to join her. As Titus begins to see his world more clearly, so should the reader: A feedcast, for example, recalls earlier days before all of America’s forests fell and temperatures routinely didn’t rise above 100 degrees. And in a speech, U.S. President Trumbull willingly spreads corporate propaganda, lying that reports from “corporate ‘watch’ organizations” saying toxic industries cause lesions are false.
In the chapter “fight and flight,” Violet also reveals what she has been hiding from Titus since their stay in the lunar hospital: Her hack on the moon resulted in major damage to her feed. What’s more, given that individual feeds are completely connected to a person’s biological functions, her damage can be fatal. The climax of feed comes in Part 3’s final chapter, “our duty to the party.” At a party, after Quendy arrives covered in artificial lesions that are now in fashion, and Titus’s friends play spin-the-bottle, Violet’s body begins to falter, and she becomes outraged. Pointing at Quendy’s artificial lesions as proof, Violet screams that those around her don’t simply have the feed, but are feed, and that they are being consumed by corporations who only care about profit. The novel’s climax can also be seen as Violet’s “duty to the party”: Violet knows that the group has been living in a fantasy world but, for their sake and the world’s, she challenges them to finally open their eyes.
The falling action appears in the fourth and final part of feed, “slumberland.” Violet’s health rapidly declines after the corporation FeedTech denies her request to pay for her repairs, saying she was deemed an unworthy investment due to the random customer profile she generated while resisting. At the same time, the fate of the world grows more dire: Environmental catastrophes continue, human suffering increases, and the Global Alliance, determined to stop American corporations from destroying the world, threaten all-out war on the U.S. But as Violet’s health declines, and the world’s fate grows more uncertain, Titus’s indifference and detachment, induced by a lifelong connection to the feed, only grows. He deletes the memories she sends him to preserve her identity and past, and later breaks up with her, saying he was only looking for a short-term relationship. When Violet eventually passes, or at least falls into a coma, her father forces Titus to see that he simply discarded Violet, just like Americans so easily discard all other products.
The resolution of feed, however ambiguous, comes in its final chapter, “4.6%,” a number that represents Violet’s feed efficiency rating, one that is far from the ideal of 98 percent. As a machine shows her heart to be barely beating, it is uncertain if Violet is essentially dead or perhaps in a coma. It is also uncertain if her act of resistance, concern for her world, and determination to connect with Titus on a human level had their desired effect. But as Titus begins to cry for the first time and tells Violet a story, detailing the lessons they learned about love, and how they resisted the feed during America’s last days, it appears that he finally opens his eyes to the truth and learns to become more human. Will Titus continue to resist the feed? Is there even enough time for resistors to save their world, or is it now too late? Although both questions are open to interpretation, the parallels between Violet and Titus’s world and our own are clear. The novel’s warning to readers, then, along with M.T. Anderson’s decision to dedicate his novel to potential resistors, are unambiguous. As Violet tells Titus in “51.5%” amid clear signs that their world dangled on a dangerous precipice, “there’s always time to change. Until there’s not.”