America, as we all know, is amid a zombie apocalypse.
Walk down any city street and you’ll see armies of the digital dead shuffling slowly, their eyes affixed to a small screen in their hands. This device, according to accounts I’ve read, tells them where to go and what to order at restaurants and it can also read the minds of others.
From time to time, they will glance up and a brief squall of confusion will cross their faces as they try to reorient themselves. At other times they’ll scan their immediate environment with the squinty, narrow gaze of a hunter, their nostrils flaring slightly, in search of unguarded electrical outlets where they can refuel their gadgets. But they eventually will look back down and reenter their safe and cloistered world.
The digital zombies among us present a risk to self and others. They often walk into stop signs and light posts and stumble off curbs. They wander into streets and traffic as if no cars or other hazards exist in their parallel universe. One zombie woman made small news last year after walking off a pier into Lake Michigan while texting.
Confronted with this invasion, we as a society have rallied and are doing what we have always done best: We study them.
For instance, researchers at the University of Washington observed 1,102 people cross a busy intersection in Seattle at randomly selected times. They found that one in three pedestrians was distracted — by either smart phone typing (7 percent), ear bud listening (11 percent), or cellphone talking (6 percent). Also noted: Zombies took 18 percent more time to cross the street than the not-yet-dead.
This more or less jibes with another study, published in the journal Gait and Posture in 2012. In this, 33 test subjects were shown a target a few dozen feet away, and were instructed to walk there — some without any distractions, some while talking on a phone, others while texting. Those texting ended up walking 13 percent farther than the others, and showed a “lateral deviation” of 61 percent. (Texters also were one-third slower in getting to the target.) “These results suggest that the dual-task of walking while using a cell phone impacts executive function and working memory and influences gait to such a degree that it may compromise safety,” the authors noted, adding that “texting creates a significantly greater interference” than talking on phone while walking.
Not surprisingly, the living and the digital dead sometimes have trouble cohabiting. “‘Sidewalk Rage’ Plagues New York City Streets,” screamed the web headline of one CBS affiliate, leaving the impression that people enraged by sudden lateral deviation were resorting to fisticuffs citywide. “Experts say acting out on sidewalk rage may be a sign of a psychiatric condition known as ‘intermittent explosive disorder,’” the report warned. No actual evidence was presented; this did not, however, prevent readers from posting 550 online comments. Chillingly, some comments were from zombies themselves.
The biggest problem with the digital zombie is not the walking into signposts. It’s more insidious than that, and involves an incurable disharmony with the outside world. A walker strolling down the sidewalk mulling how many exclamation points to append to his or her Facebook status update about walking down the sidewalk is not really here. Studies suggest that he or she is even more disconnected from the actual world than is someone driving 80 miles an hour across west Texas at two in the morning while cranking Carlos Santana.
Recent research published in the journal Psychological Science has shown that being constantly connected electronically can result in a marked decline of our actual biological capacity to connect with other people in real life. Note that this is physiological, and not metaphorical. Just as our muscles can atrophy from sitting too much, researchers found that part of our cardiovascular system — the part that links mind and heart through the vagus nerve — can lose tone through lack of use. “If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so” writes study co-author, psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson in the New York Times.
Others have concluded that, likewise, you can lose your capacity to appreciate the natural and built environment around you. “Just as over-reliance on air travel can undermine our sense of movement through space,” writes Iowa State University philosophy professor Joseph Kupfer, “so too can over-reliance on virtual, electronic connections erode our connection to actual physical places.”
Kupfer notes that the “skills and habits” required to navigate place begin to fade when the small screen transfixes us. Places attenuate into pure, almost abstract volumes wholly lacking in detail — a wall here, a corridor there — as do the people around us. They become those faceless, Giacametti-like stick figures that once chiefly populated architectural models, always walking, never arriving. “Electronically produced experience is isolating,” Kupfer writes. “It isolates us from other people and from ourselves.”
Can zombies be cured, short of blowing up all power stations worldwide? Possibly. Ingeniously, some software developers have, worm-like, burrowed into our gadgets with apps to force us out of them.
I have one such app, called Serendipitor.
“Serendipitor is an alternative navigation app for the iPhone that helps you find something by looking for something else,” the developers explain, although not very helpfully. But their explanation gets better: “In the near future, finding our way from point A to point B will not be the problem. Maintaining consciousness of what happens along the way might be more difficult.” Toward that end, the app is “designed to introduce small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route.”
Using Google maps as a base, Serendipitor plots random walks for you, from wherever you happen to be to, well, wherever you happen to end up. Along the way “small detours and minor interruptions” pop up, with instructions such as: “Turn left on Chestnut Street and then follow a pigeon until it flies away. Take a photo of it flying.”
I’ve used this app a number of times. And in an obscure kind of way, it actually helps me stop and pay attention. It’s especially handy when I’m traveling. It serves as a sort of anti-guidebook, prodding me out of the deeply worn routes past the usual landmarks, and making me look around. I have yet to take a picture of a pigeon, but Serendipitor once by happenstance had me walk around a school where I watched the tightly choreographed ritual of picking up children at day’s ¬— (it was so precisely orchestrated Merce Cunningham could have been behind it). It also once directed me through a sketchy neighborhood where elderly men sat on stoops and watched me with grave suspicion before greeting me with waves and smiles and small conversations. Serendipitor has introduced some minor adventures into otherwise mundane days.
I like it, but I think we could go a step further. I like the idea of creating the equivalent of an ignition interlock system of the sort that deters drunk drivers. If your smart phone’s GPS detects that you’re moving at three miles per hour while texting or emailing or Googling, then every few minutes a screen would pop up that requires you to stop and answer a question: “What is the temperatures, within five degrees?” “How many people on the street around you are wearing red?” “In the next block, how many times can you observe the numeral 8?”
Only after answering the questions would you be allowed to reenter the digital world. (How the app would determine whether you answered correctly is still being worked out; this remains the only thing standing between a billion dollars and me.) Privacy statement: Under no circumstances will any of this data be stored to be parsed in the future for marketing purposes by algorithms as yet uninvented.
Stopping, looking, lifting your head up, searching around you for something… it’s all part of what being human means, of what we evolved to do.
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life,” said Walker Percy’s protagonist in The Moveigoer. “This morning for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be into something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” • 19 August 2013