Bice and I have talked about this before. Neither of us have any affinity for the zombie aesthetic that seems to have infected all of pop culture over these last few years. So rather than rant about just how dull these monsters are, I want to talk about when I feel like one, particularly focusing on the part of the metaphor where the creature is a shambling, mindless semblance of a person, devoid of all that gave them their humanity.
There’s a really interesting riff on this in A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. A human society in the book has developed a form of slavery called Focus, which works by compelling a human being to be obsessed with a particular technical endeavour, such as gardening, translation, or programming. The slave cares so much about their area of focus that they do not want to take breaks or bathe or talk to family – their focus is all. It’s almost an anti-zombie.
It’s not exactly a potent myth for the present day. I mean sure, I guess some employers would like their employees to be ridiculously obsessed with their work, but certainly no one I’ve ever worked for. The zombie disease that threatens me isn’t Focus (what I wouldn’t give for more time in flow state), but instead its opposite, which I’m going to call Engagement.
Sitting at my computer connected to the Internet, I feel under siege by a dozen forces all of which want to rob me of my mind in order to convince me to click on more things. IRC, Twitter, email, Facebook, G+ – they all want me to stop what I’m doing and look at them, and they are all very good about doing it. In the worst case, I feel like a human being implementing a terrible event loop, constantly cycling between all of these different sources of input, reacting to them in the shortest time I can to make them go away. A whole day can pass this way, fussing, responding, commenting, not enjoying a single moment but being compelled to carry on nevertheless.
When it’s done, I don’t feel happy, or accomplished, or even more human. I feel as if I’ve been gamed, my mind hijacked in the service of some Social Engagment Manager somewhere who gets a bonus if enough people click on things.
Much of it is valid: bills must be paid, invitations must be accepted or declined, the time it takes to reach my next appointment must be known in advance for me to get there. But so much is, if you’ll pardon me, meaningless bullshit. This piece of software must be updated, someone has followed you, like this petition in order to be seen to care about social change.
People even joke about it, saying that the zombie apocalypse has already happened, with everyone glued to their phone and ignoring the majestic panaroma of life all around them. I call shenanigans on that one – it depends so much on what you’re doing with the phone. Before I ever had a phone or even a computer I’d walk around with my nose stuck in a book. Middlemarch is as much a part of the majestic panaroma as the number 36 to New Cross Gate. Connecting with another human through literature is one of the most pleasant and life-enriching things you can do. And actually conversing with people can be genuinely joyful – even over the Internet!
I wish we makers of technology would take a stand against Engagement, against “the round eternal” of alerts and notifications and unread counts, that we’d stop hacking people’s heads doing our best to turn them into mindless click zombies, and instead just get out of the way, and let us get on with making cool things and talking to each other.