Every day, thousands of us are zombiefied. We have our brains sucked out. We move among the living, undead, hidden in plain sight. We stalk the earth, barely cognizant of our former humanity.
Zombies are all around. You can see them when you look out the window, when you pay your taxes and when you help your landlady carry out her garbage. You saw those movies. You should have known this would happen. Mila Jovovich hacking her way through an army of malevolent flesh-eaters. Wake-up call...
But the real zombie apocalypse is not a product of a genetically engineered virus that escapes from a lab at Big Pharma. Real zombiefication is caused when human frailty and Mark Zuckerberg collide. Humanity is being zombiefied via its smartphones. You think you’re sucking on the glass teat. Got some bad news for you on that: it’s sucking right back.
The smart-phone zombie has become so prolific there is even a new word for him. Her. It: the smombie. (Voted Youth Word of the Year 2015. I’m not joking.) And, as you can see from a cursory look at any busy intersection on earth, smombies are everywhere.
Oxforddictionaries.com defines a zombie as:
"a person who is or appears lifeless,
apathetic, or completely unresponsive
to their surroundings"
"a hypothetical being that responds to stimulus as a person would, but that does not experience consciousness"
Oddy apt, in the circumstances. One is absolutely smombiefied with one’s snout in the smartphone - in particular, one’s situational awareness of the real world jumps in the express elevator and hammers the button marked ‘basement’.
North American telco giant AT&T tacitly acknowledged the danger the connectivity which it facilitates poses with this video, in which a series of arsehole millennials defend their lame, self-entitled decisions to drive, smombiefied.
If you can watch the whole thing without tearing up, the first time, you’re a much harder man than me. It’s a complete gut-wrencher. Such a beautiful girl … and her life completely changed, for ever.
Drivers are, of course, the primary targets for smombiefication awareness programs. But there’s a kind of moral asymmetry at play out there on the road. It concerns pedestrians. If a car hits a pedestrian, the default presumption is: The driver is at fault (and obviously one of the primary imperatives of driving is not to run anyone over). But smombie pedestrians are everywhere, and they routinely contribute to their own demise.
The Germans have a novel solution. Augsberg, Germany - just outside Munich - after a spate of dumber-than-dogshit smombie pedestrian incidents (where trams have run over the undead) city officials placed traffic lights ‘down there’ in the roadway itself - in the traditional smombie smartphone line of sight.
Augsberg is not alone. In North America: Portland, Seattle and Cleveland have busses that alert pedestrians when the bus is turning. Rexburg, in Idaho, implemented a $50 fine for a new traffic offence: texting and walking.
And in China, Chongquing has smombie segrgation … on the footpaths - smombies on one side and situationally aware humans on the other.
(Washington experimented with that, too.)
Dropping speed limits won't help
Here in Australia there have been inevitable do-gooders calling for a reduction in speed limits to ameliorate the scourge of smombiefication. 30-kilometre-per-hour speed constraint advocate-imbeciles mean well, perhaps, but they never studied. Speed limits are predicated on stopping distance. At 40km/h (the school-zone mandate) a car can stop in about nine of 10 metres. This is about two car lengths.
So, if you manage to see the problem two car lengths away, or - heaven forbid - three, you won’t hit anything. Mister-fucking-Magoo can see that far down the road. Dropping to 30 kilometres per hour will not help, you well-meaning dickheads. It’s a reductio-ad-absurdum argument.
Proposing this is like commissioning an exorcism when someone has an epileptic fit (and remember, we actually used to do that, and not that long ago) - but today we realise a neurologist and the right anti-seizure medication will probably work a little bit better.
Speaking of countermeasures, North American telco giant AT&T launched the DriveMode App for iOS and Android, recently. An attempt to make smombiefication impossible in a moving car - with a lot of parent-friendly functionality, too. Australian telco providers: still a bit too mentally retarded for anything like that.
But perhaps a smarter Swiss army knife-style countermeasure solution is to take personal responsibility. If you’re going to drive a car, leave your phone in your bag. Put it on silent. Put the bag in the passenger’s footwell behind the driver’s seat, out of reach. To sideline temptation. Acknowledge driving’s risks, and mitigate them by being responsible.
How hard is it?
I know: Very.
If you’re going to be a pedestrian, remain situationally aware. I’m as addicted to my phone as the next connected first-world human - but it really is pretty easy to look up and take a snapshot before stepping off the footpath and onto the road.
See also: the mad science of crash survival >>
The Neuroscience of Smombiefication & Risk Management
The big problem is: Nobody’s prepared to acknowledge the elephant in the room: We know it’s dangerous to become smombiefied - and by this I mean we all know it intellectually. But we don’t believe it’s dangerous - not viscerally. Not emotionally. Not deep-down in your bones. That’s neurological dissonnance - feelings trump intellect every time. It’s called being human.
Here’s an example: Rooting the boss’s secretary is generally a very bad idea. Not always, but generally. Long term. You know it’s wrong - dangerous - but it feels so right. The more you do it, the righter it feels, and the less the danger seems pertinent. Until it all blows up inconveniently in your face, and there are some awkward questions to answer.
Just ask Bill Clinton.
Experience - a Bad Teacher
Smombiefication is exactly the same thing. The more you get smombiefied, the more normal it seems. The further away the danger seems to reside. It’s less tangible every time. We learn from our most powerful teacher: experience. If you ride a pushbike as a kid, you very quickly learn what’s important - what to concentrate on - because falling off hurts. Pain is a very good teacher.
Except in a ‘low probability/high consequence’ environment, like out there on the road. You know, being run over is probably an excellent learning experience - except if you don’t survive. There’s really no way to ease past that.
We humans simply do not evolve fast enough. We don’t have the processing power to type, tweet, troll, and manage contemporaneously the comparatively boring four-dimensional space-time real universe unfolding around us. Something’s gotta give - and usually it’s situational awareness.
So you cross the road smombiefied - sexting the boss’s secretary - and you get away with it. Feels pretty good. So you do it again. And you do it again, and again. Pretty soon, the outside world just disappears, because experience tells you sidelining reality to concentrate on more engaging stuff is entirely benign. Except it’s not.
(And we are very good at processing the complex world around us into what matters and what doesn’t - without exerting much intellectual control over how that process happens.) And then all of a sudden - mid-sext - you wake up dead - which must come as something of a shock … but only if there’s an afterwards.
The smartphone has upended human neurology. You think about it: For the past 200,000 years between swinging down out of the trees in Africa, and the discovery of quantum mechanics, we’ve been really twitchy about the real world. With good reason. We’ve still got the alarms ‘upstairs’, hardwired into our brains - and they still go off all the time.
Homo sapiens: we live in fear. How many times have you been home alone, and the curtain moves or the floorboard creaks, and you can feel your ‘spider sense’ tingling? Switches get thrown upstairs at the drop of a hat - that’s your thalamus talking to your amygdala. Getting ready to run away from - I dunno - a pack of hyenas who think you’re lunch, or an unpleasant alpha-male who wants your woman and all your other resources.
This is a ‘false positive’ response - and it happens all the time - you go from a twitch in the curtains to ‘axe murderer’ in a heartbeat. Look me in the eye and tell me that does not happen to you. And the reason is: consequences. No historical primate ancestor ever died from presuming the breeze in the curtains was Hannibal Lecter. But every potential human forebear who ever presumed the axe murderer was just the breeze in the curtains is dead.
So humanity evolved with threats all around. Runty little apes surrounded by hyenas and lions and tigers and other slightly less runty apes with malevolent gleams in their eyes, and pointy sticks, who wanted our women and all our other resources, and we adapted neurological programming that kept us hyper-vigilant - and therefore alive. And it’s been that way for hundreds of thousands of years. False positives wherever you look.
Evolution's Next Step, or Just Cleaning Out the Gene Pool?
Except for the smombie, of course. Instead of false positives - the natural human state - the smombie exists in a world of false negatives. And there are chalk outlines on sidewalks everywhere, recently, to prove this. Perhaps the smombie is the natural next evolutionary step designed to make the human gene pool even stronger. That’s a pretty cynical way to look at it. But I like it.
There’s never been a benign transport system. Horses and carts kill people, even today, and so did Apollo and the Space Shuttle. And every transport system in between. Trauma and transport are symbiotic. We will never eradicate trauma. There’s something a politician (or Volvo) will never admit. We won’t cure road trauma like we cured smallpox. That’s for sure.
The only thing you can do is make smarter choices aimed at mitigating risk - don’t get smombiefied.