By John Dotterweich
This article was published in the Feb. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.
Feed, The Society of the Spectacle, and The Myth of Sisyphus help answer the question: how do you live authentically in an inauthentic world? Keeping up with latest trends, news, and social media not only is exhausting but disjointing from meaningful experience. Total rejection of technology and norms can lead to isolation from those who do keep up with them. It can be said that being a reasonable and happy member of society requires neither total rejection nor total acceptance of its norms but a middle ground that balances the two. Following people on social media and liking pictures may not have any inherent value but it keeps you involved enough that you can make meaningful connections with others. Posting pictures of yourself allows people to see what you are doing and stay involved in your life. By making small concessions, you lead a more fulfilling life that keeps you meaningfully connected in a disconnected world.
Today’s world is fast-paced and filled with cutting edge technology that connects us in ways we would have never thought possible. However, this advantage is not all that it seems. As we become increasingly connected, our ability to have authentic experiences has seemingly diminished. Novels like M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) warn us of the dangers of commercial influence on our lives and technology’s perpetuation of that danger. Anderson’s concerns parallel those of philosopher Guy Debord, who wrote The Society of the Spectacle in 1967. Both authors present bleak outlooks on consumerism, technology and authenticity. The concerns found in these works can be alleviated through an exploration of absurdism as presented in Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). To combat inauthenticity and the despair that accompanies it, we must embrace aspects of society that we find individually dissatisfying. Doing so will allow us to achieve happier and more fulfilling lives.
Feed is a dystopian novel that explores adolescent life in a world full of corporate power, advanced technology, and consumerism. The book takes place in the near future, in a world where technology and corporate greed have led to societal upheaval and environmental degradation. Most people have a “feed,” a device that allows people to access Internet sites and other services mentally. Titus, the protagonist, is on a trip with his friends when his feed is hacked and cannot access its services—services he had known his entire life. Violet, one of Titus’s friends, also had her feed damaged. She is unable to get her feed completely repaired, causing it to deteriorate and negatively affect her health. Violet then introduces Titus to the idea of rebelling against the feed by taking interest in unrelated products revealing no pattern from which a consumer profile could be made. As Violet’s condition worsens, her family is unable to pay for her medical expenses and petitions to Feedtech’s Corporation. Their petition gets denied because Violet is deemed a “poor investment” due to her prior rebelliousness. Violet’s condition worsens, and her eventual death leaves Titus shaken as he copes with the grief of her passing. Titus tries to continue Violet’s ideas of “rebellion”, but quickly reverts to his old ways and conforms to society and the feed.
In Feed, we see that the characters’ lives are dominated by technology. While there are many examples of technological advancements in the novel, the most notable is the feed, which is integrated into the brains of the characters. This allows for instant access to the Internet, texting, and benefits corporate interests. Anderson sees technological advances like the feed in a negative light. His novel critiques our obsession with modern technology and our addiction to consumerism. Through his characters, Anderson shows how instant-access Internet takes away from authentic human experience and that the commercialization of modern society has invaded all parts of our lives, leading to separation from authenticity. The principles described by Anderson in Feed reflect the ideas of Guy Debord.
In his well known work The Society of the Spectacle, Debord (1994) describes how images and the economy have replaced authentic experiences and that our consumer-driven society is overly saturated with advertisements, pop culture, and appearances. He calls this the Spectacle. Debord argues that inventions like television have changed the way we interact with others, creating a “social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (1994, 12). Our relationships and interactions with others have become mediated by the images we see on television or other consumable media which in turn creates shallow, inauthentic experiences. In addition, the neoliberal economy has become so dominant that it has pervaded all parts of life previously thought to be separate from the economic activity. His critique of the capitalistic economy resembles Karl Marx’s ideas about wealth and commodities (Marx 1959). When the market dictates how you conduct yourself, being becomes having. The clothes you wear, the car you drive, the house you live in suddenly define who you are; the things you own end up owning you. Even rebellion from the Spectacle is commodified. Debord says that “dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economics of affluence finds a way of applying its production methods to this particular raw material” (1994, 38). Buying a punk rock t-shirt doesn’t make you a rebel but shows that you “fight” against the system through the buying and owning of the merchandise which corrupts the very message the t-shirt attempts to give. While Debord lived in a time where the advent of extreme consumerism and marketing was beginning to take form, his work is even more relevant today. Debord’s essays can be applied to Feed and the world we live in by looking at the influence that technology and consumerism have on our daily lives.
People embrace the technology that makes their lives easier, and with our globalized world and fast-paced technological turnover, they strive to stay ahead of the curve so that they remain connected. In our commodified world and consumer culture, we are pressured to participate by buying commodities that keep us relevant to others. The Internet and cell phones have made possible the exploration of the far reaches of our known world without taking a step. Social media has allowed us to consume each other’s lives without actually being together. These developments create the grounds on which the Spectacle is formed. To Debord, “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation” (1994, 12). In other words, everything that what once directly experienced by humans has become an illusion of an authentic experience. If the Spectacle is the presentation of authentic experience, then technology and social media are catalysts of the Spectacle. Rather than experience things directly, it is far easier to browse through social media and see things that we would like to do. Relationships are mediated though images, which replace authentic communion and in turn disconnect us while maintaining the feeling of connectedness. This creates a culture where people must live inauthentically in order to participate at all while at the same time it is not necessary for people to vigorously participate. But even shallow participation requires resources. Someone who owns a flip phone cannot hope to “keep pace” with someone who has all the modern functions of an iPhone. A person who keeps up with sports, entertainment, and their friends through new, “smart” technology is going to be able to navigate the social world much easier than someone with a flip phone. In Feed, Violet learns that connected, technological participation is necessary to remain relevant in a society that ardently values indirect involvement. Rejection of technology not only alienates you from others but can also make you an outcast in the eyes of society. Violet learns the hard way that it is better to just accept participation as a necessity rather than a matter of choice. Anderson argues that at our current pace of advancement, we will see a future where technological participation is not only necessary but so interwoven in our society that it will be inescapable.
Themes in Feed align with Debord’s point that the Spectacle has allowed us to feel connected to everything while at the same time being disconnected from authentic experience. For a person to participate in a society caught in the Spectacle, they need to make concessions regarding any negative beliefs about technology. Following reality T.V., pop culture, or sports allows you to communicate with others that follow the same T.V., pop culture, or sports that you do. This allows you to not only relate to other humans but also to remain socially relevant to them. Human interactions are what allow us to have meaningful connections in our lives. To rob ourselves of those connections prevents us from living fulfilling existences. While it may be a positive thing to reject technology, it does not do much good if no one else thinks the same way.
The Spectacle creates an environment where disingenuous actions thrive and relating to others through this can be a seemingly pointless exercise. Why try to relate to anything if it’s not going to mean much anyhow? Realizing that there is a distinct lack of meaning in the things we do and the struggle to find meaning where none exists is called Absurdity. Drawing from Feed and our own experiences, it can be said that absurdity is an endemic part of our lives.
What connects Feed and The Society of the Spectacle to a the forming of a meaningful existence can be found in the ideas of Absurdism introduced by Albert Camus. His experiences in France during German occupation in WWII and the horrors that emerged from it were formative to his development of Absurdism. Camus defined absurdity as the struggle and eventual inability to find inherent value and meaning in life due to the actual lack of any absolute meanings or values. Not everyone agrees with Camus and many believe that life does have intrinsic meaning. But if Camus is right and our universe has no intrinsic meaning, then we are led to the absurd. Once you realize the absurdity of the world we live in, you cannot go back. This “undermining” of existence leads Camus to the belief that suicide is a viable option and in fact a reasonable response: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (Camus 1965, 1). From this perspective there is a profound absence of meaning in life, meaning that the needless suffering and agitation of daily life is simply not worth it. However, in The Myth of Sisyphus Camus argues that there is another alternative. It is imperative for those who have encountered the absurd to know that to cope with the meaninglessness of the universe they must take no stock in illusions or religion. They must embrace that they alone have control of their fate (Camus 1965, 128). Since the absurd takes away all intrinsic meaning in our universe, illusions like religion have no effect on dispelling the absurd and do not offer solace in the face of meaninglessness. Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus to highlight his philosophy and create an answer to coping with absurdity. Sisyphus, who was doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain for all eternity only to have it roll back down time and time again, must be imagined as happy as he toils at his necessary task. This is because in the face of a pointless existence there is no alternative other than to resist it. Camus believes that we need to imagine ourselves as Sisyphus, stoutly facing eternal meaninglessness. The rejection of distraction as a way out of the Spectacle is key and leads to an understanding that without facing the absurd you will not find happiness in a world surrounded by despair.
In the world of Feed, technology serves as the ultimate distraction while the world deteriorates seemingly unnoticed by characters. Preoccupied with the feed and their daily lives, people seem apathetic to the world that is outside what they buy and consume. People are satisfied with their lives despite the world dying around them. For someone who doesn’t have the feed, seeing the world falling apart around them and being surrounded by a disinterested population would be a terrifying experience. The despair that follows can be compared to the absurd and how one copes with it. In Feed, Titus explains that with technology and corporate greed comes complacency:
“Of course, everyone is like, da da da, evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything. I mean, it’s not great, because who knows what evil shit they’re up to. Everyone feels bad about that. But they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not” (Anderson 2002, 29).
This feeling of helplessness in the wake of forces greater than our own leads us to acceptance of the status quo. The Spectacle emerges when we cope with this complacency through the ownership and presentation of goods and experiences. You might take a skiing trip in Colorado, but does the experience really matter if you haven’t bought a resort shirt and taken the pictures so that others know what you did? The high-end shirt that was in season two years ago doesn’t carry the same status as a shirt that was in season this year. For some, the realization that living that lifestyle is unfulfilling is a crippling experience, comparable to the absurd. Eventually, these individuals conclude that the things you own and the pictures you take ultimately do not matter. The principles found in Camus’s writing show us a solution to overcoming the spectacle found in our daily lives.
Camus teaches us that consciously embracing the Spectacle and its inauthenticity can be a path to meaning and that if it is done for its own sake, it will become meaningful to the participant and made so by the connections that were formed. Seeing that the Spectacle exists and recognizing that it allows us to fruitfully participate in society and make connections with others, even if they are mediated, allows one to become happier. The principles found in Camus’ philosophy can answer the question of how we can live relatively happily in an inauthentic world. Like Sisyphus, we roll the heavy stone uphill, making concessions to the Spectacle, and when it rolls back downhill we cheerfully walk back down, knowing that the concessions made ultimately allow us to interact with others. Choosing to do this is up to the individual. ~
Anderson, M. T. 2002. Feed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. London: H. Hamilton.
Debord, Guy. 1994. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books.
Marx, Karl. 1959. Das Kapital, a Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: H. Regnery.