Society is evolving to resemble the literary dystopias of decades gone by. How has COVID-19 facilitated that spiral? And is it too late to reverse?
April 22, 2020
Since the dawn of fiction, rhetorical thought experiments that explore the ultimate fate of human society have been a favorite of readers across the globe. From apocalyptic cliches to the methodical satires, we love to delve into the undetermined darkness of days unlived.
The allure of dystopia has given us classic works of art which explore countless topics – from political ideology, to the undead – but technology may be the most popular. It’s as though we exist with it in a continuum of polarity; compelled to create it, yet fearful of its capacity to someday overtake us.
Tech represents both the epitome of human advancement, and the ultimate cleavage from the natural cycles from which we once emerged. It’s a paradox that’s kept decades of authors coming back for more.
At Gloucester High, there’s one work of futuristic fiction that has made its way into the 11th grade curriculum. It’s a bit of an anomaly; published in 2001, it’s one of the few pieces of contemporary lit that English classes explore. And for good reason – MT Anderson’s Feed captures the interests of the teenage audience, while providing a biting satire that bears striking parallels to the world we face today.
The implications of coronavirus are only making the resemblance more uncanny.
Designed to explore a variety of high stakes political and ethical issues, Feed is set in America about 100 years in the future. Feed Tech, along with a few other large corporations have formed a monopoly on American consumer society via the widespread use of their product; the feed. It’s basically an advanced version of the internet, implanted in people’s brains when they are children. The feed is used to communicate, shop, navigate, attend school; pretty much everything we use our smartphones for.
This sounds pretty incredible, but in Anderson’s novel, access to such advanced technology has come at a price. Americans have become ignorant and isolated; confined to their distracting internal worlds of targeted advertising. And to make matters worse, economic barriers make the feed unequally accessible, barring the lowest 27 percent from participation in mainstream life.
Enter Titus – an average teenager belonging to a wealthy family. He’s always accepted life as it is – until a trip to the moon with his friends changes his life. There he meets Violet, a girl who has not always had the feed, and who introduces him to a way of thinking he’s never experienced before. Together, they set out to resist the feed.
This probably sounds like an extreme comparison – and in many ways it is. This essay isn’t intended to be some anti-technology rampage against corporate power and digital progress. Instead, consider the similarities here to be thematic. Just like in Feed, we face ethical dilemmas regarding corporate morality, data collection and information technology, targeted advertising, and environmental degradation.
We deal with the implications of the tech that we create and adopt.
This staffer has been thinking on these implications – particularly as they relate to education. What are the socio-economic ramifications of a shift to online education?
What is the relationship between education and creating a generation of dynamic, independent thinkers? How does the consumer mindset affect learning? This list continues.
The Gillnetter interviewed several GHS students who have read Feed and pondered its relevance to their educational experiences. Read on for a synthesized analysis of their thoughts. And be sure to check out the links to the full interviews!
Online education is particularly relevant now that COVID-19 has forced schools to go remote. Students across the country are grappling with challenges of learning and quickly seeing the pros and cons of such a transition.
The loss of structure, and of live teachers, has definitely proved to be a negative. And while in Feed teachers are holograms, rather than real people operating through a digital divide, it gives a taste of what life without them could be like.
“I miss my teachers so much. I picked my classes because of them and doing those classes online is really hard because I rely on good teachers to keep me engaged in the subject. No AI could ever emulate someone who is really passionate about a subject,” explained high school junior Catherine Canavan-Dysthe, “I think electronics have a purpose in education, but not an essential one. School is a place to teach us how to operate in the real world, with people, and relying on AI to teach students how to live in a human world just seems ludicrous to me.”
But while Canavan-Dysthe felt as though AI would never replace human teachers, others were less confident.
“There is no bond like human bond,” said high school senior Lila Olson, “[but] I fear that someday they will.”
Some experts share this sentiment. In 2017, the UK’s The Independent relayed Sir Anthony Seldon, well-known British educator and historian’s, thoughts on AI teachers. According to him, “the essential job of instilling knowledge into young minds will wholly be done by artificially intelligent (AI) computers” in just ten years. And these machines will be completely intuitive, working in a dynamic way with students of varying levels.
Conversely, a study conducted by the University of Plymouth suggested that while robots will never fully replace teachers, their increased presence is pretty much guaranteed in the future.
But lack of human role models was not the only issue with the education system in Feed. Referred to as SchoolTM, learning institutions in the book had been bought out by the major tech corporations, such as the American Feed Corporation.
Previous to the pandemic, our education system had begun converting to online platforms, many of which are owned by companies like Google.
Of course, it makes sense to adopt digital platforms in education as world trends in that direction. The consequences of commercializing scholarship, however, are nonetheless grim.
“The benefit of online education is that we are able to still further our education when we cannot physically be in a classroom,” said junior Kelsey Lowther, “The downside is that each of these large companies now have us hooked around their fingers.”
What does “hooked around their fingers” mean exactly? Examine the following example. You must write an essay on Romeo and Juliet for your English class to be turned in on Google Classroom. When you use a Google Doc to draft your work, “you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services,” (Google Docs is one of the Services). This comes directly from the Google Terms of Service. Users do retain their copyright over their content.
Note however that Google has claimed to have “no intention of exploiting user-generated content.”
Turning education into a marketable product has consequences beyond issues of publication and reproduction. To sell is to quantify; this trend is a self-sustaining feedback loop, driving and being driven by the rush to standardize the world of learning.
Companies and organizations that have learned to capitalize on these numbers and statistics have done so with extreme success.
The CollegeBoard, the nonprofit organization which administers the national SAT and AP tests each year, finished the 2018 fiscal year with a revenue of around 1.1 billion dollars, and a net profit of 94 million, according to totalregistration.net. The company that actually creates the SAT, Educational Testing Services, had a revenue of 1.4 billion, according to Vox.
Additionally, in 2015, Politico published a story that explored Pearson, the British publishing giant that has come to dominate American schools. Pearson is known for quality; this staffer has used their text and online platforms successfully throughout her school years. However, their vast influence can be unnerving. The company sells educational products of all types. In 2012, an executive “ boasted that Pearson is the largest custodian of student data anywhere.”
As freshman at Wesleyan College Rebecca Dowd put it, “I think in many ways these platforms make it easier for students and teachers. They collect all the information in one place, making it easy to find everything,” explained, “[but] these systems are all corporations. They’re selling education for profit, which means these platforms are not universally accessible, lengthening the divide between the haves and the have-nots.”
The divide between the haves and the have-nots has been another big topic of discussion during this global crisis. In Feed, there’s an important moment when Violet reminds Titus that only 73 percent of people in America have the feed. Socioeconomic barriers have been a major factor for schools today, because not all students have access to a device at home (or to the internet).
Nationally, only 83 percent of school age children in the US have access to a computer at home, according to an article published by Vox. And only 82 percent have broadband internet.
If we are reliant on remote learning for too long, many students will be at a severe disadvantage, even as districts and companies go above and beyond to loan devices and services to people in need.
Said Dowd: “I think part of this problem is that access cannot be made fair. Though all my professors are trying to accommodate people who cannot join online discussions, every student receives something different. Some people participate in a virtual discussion, while others simply type a response. So no matter the effort to try and create a more fair playing field with academics, students cannot get the same experience. Students who already face adversity will have even more work to do to catch up to those with privilege, and the already wide gap between classes will widen.”
And beyond the basic ability to participate in online school, pupils grapple with a wide variety of living situations. Having younger siblings to care for, having to work to make ends meet during this period of widespread unemployment, and many other factors have the potential to interfere within all economic brackets.
“For many kids school is a place to get away from home,” said Olson, “For whatever reason, most students need this learning time to be separated from their home lives.”
This whole situation begs the question of what the future holds. After all, despite the parallels between our world and its dystopian counterpart, it is the differences that define us.
In Feed, there’s major irony in the fact that although young people have access to information constantly, they seem stupid. They aren’t able to think critically or be curious. Our schools continue to equip us with the abstract skills we need to become dynamic, independent citizens. They are successfully shaping a strong generation of leaders and thinkers. Just look at the eloquent words of the interviewees above.
The system may not be perfect, but it is far from failing.
And though this pandemic seems to be highlighting these imperfections, there’s no reason to despair. This is our crossroads, our healing crisis, and our moment of truth. To make change, sometimes we must first be reminded of the problem.
Will we ever reach the point that America does in Feed? I don’t know. But the very fact that it frightens us is reason enough to have faith.
Dystopias are written not to predict our future, but to protect it.
And how will Feed protect us? The by reminding us that, ultimately, we decide what the coming decades and centuries hold. And we decide what they don’t.