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Feeding on Sci-Fi

August 10, 2011

STEMfest SF Teen Read logoWhat if the Internet connected directly to your brain?

Your favorite songs would play inside your head. Your favorite restaurant would know exactly when you were hungry. You wouldn’t have to waste time in school because you could instantly look up anything you ever wanted to know.

That’s the premise of M.T. Anderson’s “Feed,” a young adult novel that tackles issues of identity and social status in a culture ruled by technology and consumerism. Teens are invited at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16, to Room 412 of the NIU Psychology Building to discuss “Feed” with NIU psychologists and marketing experts.

This event is part of the STEMfest SF Teen Read, a program presented by NIU STEM Outreach in conjunction with librarians who specialize in teen fiction at the DeKalb Public Library, Sycamore Public Library and Cortland Community Library.

Book cover of M.T. Anderson's "Feed"Organizers encourage young adults throughout northern Illinois to participate in this free program.

  • Check out the selected SF Teen Read book at your local library.
  • Like STEMfest SF Teen Read page on Facebook to connect with other teen sci-fi fans and find cool articles that relate to what you’re reading.
  • Attend the book chat at NIU, where you can eat snacks, ask questions and share your thoughts with NIU experts and other teens.

“Feed” deals with the consequences of having a non-stop flow of advertisements and chat messages beamed directly into peoples’ brains, so organizers have invited experts on internet marketing and the human brain to discuss their research and share their thoughts on M.T. Anderson’s work.

Angela Grippo, from NIU’s Department of Psychology, and her laboratory assistants will share information on their research into the interactions of social behavior, emotion, and the heart.

Grippo noted several parallels between its themes and her work.

Angela Grippo

Angela Grippo

“One of our primary goals is to understand how the brain regulates emotion. In the book, there is mention of the limbic system, which is a group of brain structures that is very important in our experience of emotions,” she says.

Grippo also researches the influence that social interactions have on emotions and health.

“Because the characters in the book have information fed directly into their brains, and can ‘chat’ without actually speaking, their social interactions are disrupted,” she says.

She also notes that although social media and technology provide people with more ways to connect, researchers are discovering that “a very important consequence of social media and technology is the feeling of social isolation or loneliness,” because the short bursts of interactions are more like small talk than in-depth, face-to-face conversation.

Internet marketing expert Alex Eddy, from the Marketing Department in NIU’s College of Business, also will be on hand to discuss the ways that corporations use customer profiling and other techniques to target consumers online. Targeted marketing can create “a personalized and relevant experience for each consumer,” Eddy says.

For example, will recommend items that you might like based on what you and other shoppers with similar interests have bought in the past. Eddy cautions that too much personalization in advertising can be “creepy.”

“There’s a fine line between personalization and stalker,” he says. “Profiling can become obtrusive and make consumers uncomfortable with firms.”

Anderson’s vision of the future definitely moves into creepy territory.

The characters are constantly bombarded with messages and even their dreams are commercials for the next big thing. Anderson wrote “Feed” in 2001, before most consumers had smart phones and other devices that have made the internet and social media so pervasive, but his story predicts marketing trends used today. Corporations are experimenting with tracking consumers using the GPS in their smart devices and then triggering messages and deals based on the consumer’s proximity to a store.

Although the book satirizes extreme marketing techniques, Anderson concedes that he still gets sucked in by commercialized images of “the good life.”

On his website, Anderson says, “For me, the key to the discomfort is how much I love some of it, how much I still do want to be slick like the people on the tube, beautiful, laughing, surrounded by friends. And how much I legitimately do think that the technology-based information resources at our command now are incredible … These are tools for an amazing new intellectual understanding of the world, though they come with strings attached.”

Anderson has volunteered to answer questions exclusively from SF Teen Read participants via e-mail. His answers will be posted on the SF Teen Read Facebook page.

After the discussion, participants are welcome to tour Grippo’s working laboratory to see brains in jars and other cool science stuff.

The SF Teen Read program continues into October when teens are invited to talk with NIU physicists and space shuttle experts during the Oct. 18 discussion of “Orbiter” by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran.

The program culminates Saturday, Oct. 22, at STEMfest — a yearly event that packs NIU’s Convocation Center with exhibits, hands-on activities, and competitions that help local and regional k-12 students and their families explore science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

This year’s STEMfest includes special science fiction events, such as a book nook featuring non-fiction and fiction books on science and technology, an essay contest for high school students, and a possible visit and reading by a science fiction author.

To learn more about the STEMfest SF Teen Read and other free STEM programs, visit the NIU STEM Outreach page or contact Gillian King-Cargile at [email protected] or (815) 753-6784.

Free bookmarks with SF Teen Reading lists and event schedules are available at public libraries in DeKalb, Sycamore, Cortland, Malta, Genoa and Waterman, as well as at the Kishwaukee Family YMCA, DeKalb County Community Foundation, Graham Crackers Comics, New Game in Town and Barnes & Noble.

by Gillian King-Cargile