Yesterday I unexpectedly walked up on a zombie. Well, not an actual, no-blood-coursing-through-the-veins or hungry-to-snack-on-my-insides variety, but a zombie all the same.
Standing in the center of the canned vegetable aisle of a local grocery store, a woman numbly stared into small screen of her cell phone. Her eyes, casting a single-mindedness onto her virtual world, effectively shut out her surrounding world. Others, maybe a shopper looking to pick up a couple cans of green beans or stewed tomatoes, uncomfortably flowed around her much like water rushing around an arrogant boulder staking out the prime real estate of a mountain stream.
What, I wondered, could be so important to completely sever her connection to the world and people around her? How far removed from her surroundings was she? What power could suck the life out of her awareness of the world existing outside her small screen?
Today we seem to be experiencing a mass affliction to mass distraction.
According to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans own a cell phone (October 2014); 67% of all American cell phones are smartphones. The gap between our authentic reality and self-designed virtual reality is quickly closing.
Furthermore, the research finds nearly 7 out of 10 people regularly check their phones unprompted by a vibration or sound. If you account for the fact our brains release a small taste of the pleasurable and addictive dopamine with each virtual encounter, our growing collective addiction more clearly comes into focus.
Our virtual worlds are wonderful places to visit. We download apps designed to bring us only what we desire (news feeds, social media contacts, games, etc.) while blocking out the obtrusive and unpleasant features of the real world. In our digital life, we are able to create the ultimate vanity show – one written, directed, and produced by our favorite talent: us. Flattering photos, insightful quips, or shared affiliations flesh out the blank or shallow spots in our public persona.
And as the diversity of media voices expand in quantity and accessibility, an unintended conditioning becomes possible as we gravitate towards to like-minded opinions or viewpoints. The discerning of a wide variety of information, thoughts, or experiences becomes dull from lack of use. Having a discussion in an echo chamber, one where shared opinions are everywhere is generally a more pleasant experience (send more dopamine, please) but not necessarily intellectually healthy exercise.
Which brings me back to the increasing legions of zombies trolling the world today. Are they, in some clinical sense, dependent on a self-administered drug or stimuli? Does their increasing dependence, much like any other addict, create a social isolation while all the while creating a virtual reality to their liking?
The woman in the grocery aisle never saw me walk past. Nor did she see the beautiful little girl tagging along behind her mother. And she never saw the two friends greeting each other over by the cans of creamed corn.
No, zombie life is different. I only hope we can find a cure.