Are We Really Becoming Digital Zombies?

Decisions. Decisions. At 5 a.m. this morning I had a decision to make. I could run outside in the cold drizzle of a dark NE Ohio mid-December morning. Or I could head to the fitness center and chase the belt on the treadmill while soaking in the sights and sounds of the morning TV shows. I hit the concrete.

And one reason is that I treasure the time alone and off the grid. I relish not being plugged into audio and video, not tethered to my BlackBerry, and not squirming over the most recent e-mail that demands my immediate attention and reply. It’s both exhilarating and calming to be enveloped in silence. I expect many don’t agree.

Before embarking on my self-propelled tour of the neighborhood, I read an interesting Washington Post online article by Adrian Higgins, “We can’t see the forest for the T-Mobiles.”  Here’s from the article:

Technology has drawn us into our interconnected webs, in the office, on the street, on the park bench, to the point that we exist virtually everywhere except in the physical world. Robert Harrison, a professor of Italian literature at Stanford University, laments that when students pass through the school’s visually stimulating campus, iPhones, BlackBerrys and all the evolving devices and apps draw them into their blinkered personal realms. “Most of the groves, courtyards, gardens, fountains, artworks, open spaces and architectural complexes have disappeared behind a cloaking device, it would seem,” he writes in his book “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.”

This retreat from the natural world is most evident in the young, but it is not a generational phenomenon, he argues. Instead, the ubiquity of the computer is changing the very essence of the human animal. We are in the midst of a historical change in “our mode of vision,” he says, “which is bound up with our mode of being.”

And then Higgins opines: “We have become digital zombies.”

Ouch. But you know what — she has a point. I don’t get out in the real world all that much these days, but when I do — in a restaurant or at the airport — it’s striking how many people are engaged not with each other, but with their magic phones texting, e-mailing, surfing the Web, talking and so on.

And that must be true virtually everywhere — at home, work, on vacation and among all age groups.

A recent NYT article by Nick Bilton says that “the average American consumes about 34 gigabytes of data and information each day.” (Note to self: No wonder it is so difficult for any organization to communicate effectively — on just about any subject to anyone. Go figure.)  Here’s from the article:

According to calculations in the report (by researchers at the University of California, San Diego), that daily information diet includes about 100,000 words, both those read in print and on the Web as well as those heard on television and the radio. By comparison, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” contains about 460,000 words.

The researchers, who built their work on previous studies of information consumption, found that Americans take in data through various channels, including the television, radio, the Web, text messages and video games. Most of this time is spent in front of screens watching TV-related content, averaging nearly five hours of daily consumption.

Second is radio, which the average American listens to for about 2.2 hours a day. The computer comes in third, at just under two hours a day. Video games take up about an hour, and reading takes up 36 minutes.

Most of these experiences happen simultaneously, like talking on the phone while checking e-mail, or instant messaging while watching TV.

I’m going to stick to running — unplugged — for as long as I can.

Even a digital zombie like me deserves a safe haven. You deserve one too.


56 responses to “Are We Really Becoming Digital Zombies?

  1. Excellent post, Rob. I totally agree with the “digital zombie” theory.

    Technology seems to have a snowball effect in regards to its consumption on your life. In college, I was connected via my laptop. Then, I got internet on my phone. Now, I am fully equipped with my beloved Blackberry, which is always within an arm’s reach. Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, Internet, Pandora – who would want to put it down. Even though I participate, I don’t think it is necessarily a good thing.

    There is honestly a noticeable difference when you are walking down the street, using public transportation or sitting in a restaurant. People who were once just distracted by technologically have now almost completely removed themselves from real life. Although, it is considered “social media” and we believe we are becoming more connected, the technological consumption of our lives will eventually be detrimental to our social skills and will actual disconnect us from public interaction.

  2. good evening, Mr. Jewell.

    It’s just a coincidence that i read this post, and i like it. It makes me consider more with my environment. I look at my sister behind me, she’s texting message. my brother, he’s busy with his facebook. and so on. and so on. this is new era of virtual world, isn’t it. i hope everyone can balance their existence.

  3. Pingback: Are We Really Becoming Digital Zombies? « The Project Blog

  4. Wow, I think I’ll try doing that for a while. Thank goodness I don’t have any portables (except my cell phone) when I go on a vacation or else I’ll will not be able to concentrate on having a good time.

  5. I totally agree with you! It’s just that now a days we humans desire to be connected with each other at all times, we want to know every minute detail of our loved ones… and we pay a costly price- not interacting as much with the physical world which is far more important.

  6. I agree on getting away from constant connect and dropping off the grid when I go for runs but I do bring my iPod. I have to listen to music while I run. Even if I have a running partner, that partner is just there to help me motivate. Music really pushes me and puts me in a mood that I sometimes can’t get otherwise. I guess you could call it a performance enhancer.

  7. nice blog. i wonder where all this is headed, being “plugged-in” all the time.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. Unplugging on a regular basis is the key to peace of mind. I have a strict policy that I Never, Ever walk my dogs with an ipod or mobile phone. Cheers!

  9. Yes, I agree we are becoming digital zombies. First big sign is when you ask your friends what they did this weekend and they tell you to visit their Facebook. >_<'

    And running outside doesn't always equal safe haven. Everyone I see on the canal running usually has an ipod or they are talking on the phone or something similar. Which makes no sense because how can you really be running while having a meeting on your cell? O_o

  10. I completely agree. Each day I try and secure an hour or so of alone time. I’m not physically in the presence of anyone, but I also turn my phone, computer, and iPod off and go do my own thing–whatever it may be that day. I think we are learning to depend too much of the constant presence of other people. Although we may not be in the same room as someone, many of us are never alone.

  11. Oh! how true. I was brought up in that misty world where people talked to each other via mouths and faces, wrote things down with pens and bits of paper, went out of doors to see their friends and all this without a trace of confusion, crossed wires and only superficial or divided attention. Quite simply it was – nice!

  12. I enjoyed reading your blog today. Which is ironic because you’re advocating for safe havens away from technology. 🙂 I love the part of the first article you referenced when the author talks about how “groves, courtyards, …art… have disappeared…”.

    The information you stated about the amount of data we taken in is really interesting. I wonder where this is all leading to…

    Anyway.. thanks for the post.. you’ve given me something to think about today! 😀

  13. I enjoyed reading your blog today. Which is ironic because you’re advocating for safe havens away from technology. 🙂 I love the part of the first article you referenced when the author talks about how “groves, courtyards, …art… have disappeared…”.

    The information you stated about the amount of data we taken in is really interesting. I wonder where this is all leading to…

    Anyway.. thanks for the post.. you’ve given me something to think about today! 😀

  14. Great post! Finally, a voice of reason!

  15. wow that was really good…
    I have often thought hoe my cell is forever by my side– even when i go to bed!!! yeeeah.

  16. Rob, I couldn’t agree more. I usually run by myself and enjoy being alone on the trial with my thoughts. A friend asked to join me for a run last week, and I happily agreed for what I thought would a good chance to catch up for an hour by ourselves. She showed up dressed to run, which is, complete with iPod “it keeps me motivated,” and cell phone “in case of emergency.” My condescending glare was enough to make her disengage from the iPod, but it wasn’t ten minutes into our run she was texting away. Then she took a call. I was running by myself after all.

    Pod people. REAL pod people. What a world.


  17. Hi!

    Amazing post, I’ve been thinking about the same for a while, today’s lifestyle doesn’t include a time of instrospection and staying alone, we’re all the time requiring to be entertained.

  18. A good reminder that we are NOT robots and as natural beings we still need to genuinely reconnect with others, nature & ourselves. Reminds me of the John Prine song “Spanish Pipedream”, “Blow up your TV throw away your paper.” Maybe not literally, but we all need to unplug sometimes & meaningfully reconnect.

  19. Congrats Dad! Front page of WordPress! Interesting post as well. A few weeks ago I read about a program for Mac called Freedom. And when you activate it (I don’t know all the details, so any fellow mac-geeks out there, don’t get mad at me), it will shut down your computer at a certain time of the day for a set amount of time. I think it specifically blocks you from being able to get on the Internet. Anyway I can often be a zombie in this digital age, unfortunately, and probably more troubling is that I need my Mac to now block me from using it!

  20. I feel that i’ve become a zombie, can’t live without my iphone.

  21. Well, it looks like most do agree with you, including me.. It gives me a warm glow to see people wanting to disconnect from all the things we seemed to be plugged into all day.
    We got divided and conquered at some point in the past, the only way to fix things is to get to know ourselves and each other all over again.. Great post.

  22. Very true!….Atleast 12 hours a day, Im interacting with some or the other Technology. ima zmbe!

  23. You are 100% on point with this article. I recently lost my iphone and I haven’t had this much peace since I can remember. And when I am with others the amount that they retreat to their phones out of nervous habit is amazing.

  24. Nice post. It’s important to bring these things up. I love being off the grid — in my other life I’m a back-to-the-land type. Funny… I actually wrote a post about how Pfizer and Microsoft might merge to create a narco-powered bluetooth headset to keep you plugged in and working 24/4:

  25. Pingback: No more Hats… « 25 and counting….

  26. I couldn’t agree more!!!

    This is why I coined the word Daykation: see definition here:

    Keep running and blogging Rob!

  27. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read my post — and for the thoughtful and excellent comments. Your comments illustrate the point that I was trying to make. We really do need to find some reasonable balance and — at times — a safe haven.

  28. I totally agree, I live on my computer and Iod Touch ( since it has chat) If i ever had to leave them, i think I’d die.

  29. Yes, as the mother of a 13 year old daughter, I completely understand. At times, my husband and I will remove her electronic companions and “force” her to engage in real life with real people. Soon we will have a new generation of young people who can not socialize in person, but can do anything electronically. As long as one/ they can hide behind a computer or electronics… they can do anything. Gone will be the days of personalized customer service, face to face interaction, greetings of welcome.

    The kids today who can blend life with and without electronics and socialize with human warm blooded contact… I mean eye ball to eye ball will surely stand out from the rest!

  30. Rob-

    This is an important article. I am 29 and most of my friends think it is odd that I gave up having a cell phone. My wife has one because of her profession (realtor) but she knows when to turn it off. As for me, I haven’t missed it. I used to use Facebook but then I deleted my account and, of course, most people don’t understand why. I realized that I, too, was becoming zombie-fied and it worried me.

    It is scary to me that few people these days are not able to walk down the street, go for a walk, or drive for 10 minutes without being connected somehow.

    I write for my blog and I write novels for fun. All of it is done either by hand or with a manual typewriter because I don’t need the distractions of a computer, nor do I want to be plugged in to the wall or have a battery die. And when I am writing there is no phone near me.

    I am trying to wean myself from checking e-mail more than once a day; I make telephone calls from a landline when I get home; I sit and chat with my beautiful wife when we are out to dinner; and, when I’m hanging out with the friends, I HANG OUT with my friends.

    Thank you again for this article. I hope people learn to unplug often before our communication skills and our senses turn to mush.

  31. 2.5 years ago I stopped watching t.v.
    1 year ago I sold my t.v.
    Recently, I discovered that although I thought I was being smart and trying to live off the t.v. grid – I actually have a new vice. The internet.

    Make it stop.

    Nice blog, btw…

  32. Internet has change my life. There is pros and cons about it. But, the key is balance. When to use digital stuff and when not.

  33. I’m with you 100% on this. As an independent writer and publisher, I’m plugged into the Web 8-10 hours a day, never mind any late-night treks into the Cyber realm for last-minute business.

    Fortunately, I only use my out-of-date cellphone for emergencies or when the landline is in use by someone else, but I have been victim more than once of getting together with people only to be five folks at a table, everyone staring and tapping at their phones, leaving me to talk to my Coke.

    Frustrating and ridiculous.

    Good post.

  34. Are We Really Becoming Digital Zombies? The Project Blog
    // December 15, 2009 at 10:29 am | Reply […] Are We Really Becoming DigitalZombies? December 15, 2009 Leave a Comment […]

  35. Its very important to understand that the tech stuffs, the “social network” applications are not controlling you. You need to take the control of whatever you do. The correct mix of these two will be the best.
    I am an undergraduate Computer Science student. I feel that this problem is much more in Western countries then here in India. But as i look around myself, i see this problem is starting to get in, with the price chop down of fast broadband, and cheap mobile phone call rates.
    I personally believe on the control on the stuffs i do. I use Facebook, Orkut, and my email, and check once a day or two days, and thats all. Else code and studying in my computer. Thank god i do not use a mobile phone, instead i tell everybody to call on my land line. But most of the interactions i do is physical, in college, i go to my friends’ house, call them on my place, go out for long walks.
    The main thing is the detection that you are not being controlled by the shiny, hi-fi tech stuffs. Because in virtual reality, noting is real, and when you come out of it, (or possibly thrown out) you are in trouble.

  36. …i’m grateful i stumble on this blog. i agree, we have become impersonal in many ways because of modern technology…

  37. I totally agree with the article that is posted by you. All of us have started living more of a virtual life. We are mostly unaware of what is happening to the person sitting next to us in office or our immediate neighbor, but we certainly are aware of what is happening to a virtual friend of our whom we have not even seen face to face.
    Even as I write this comment I’m wondering am I also becoming a zombie??

  38. I will admit, I am a technophile. I use my computer on a daily basis and spend a good amount of my free time on it. But I do enjoy, at least once a day, taking some time away from everything electronic.

    I have a small area set apart from my house where all I can see are trees. Everyday I make time to spend at least fifteen minutes in this area doing something, with at least a portion of that spent meditating.

    And when I spend time with friends, it tends to be on someone’s back porch playing card or board games and talking, with few technological interruptions. The only time we use our phones during these get-togethers is to invite more people over (7-player Uno gets pretty intense) or to secure rides home if we need them.

    I do love the advantages technology gives us, but I know that everything is best if taken in moderation.

  39. How can i disagree??
    We are human. From the very beginning to the very end.
    I love your post

  40. I agree totally. And your solution (to unplug) is a good start. The next is to remember that just because technology lets you do something, that doesn’t mean that you have to do it. Just say no.

  41. Even in a place where face to face human interaction is so vitally important – a hospital room, the creep of technology is omnipresent. There’s a computer on the wall for me to chart on while I chat with my patient should I choose to (I don’t). Somedays it feels like I spend more time at work in front of a computer than anything else – and I’m a nurse. It’s sad. At least I have 12+ hours a day where I don’t have Facebook or my cell phone when I’m at work!

    Disconnecting is good for the soul.

    Great post!

  42. we are the jetsons and soon will be flinstones…i enjoyed reading your blog

  43. Nice blog! It’s really an eye opener for everyone. I’m 16 and I feel guilty now because I’m always in front of my laptop and the only chance I get outside is whenever I need to go to school, mall, or somewhere. Every vacation, I spend my whole day chatting, surfing the net, etc. I sometimes feel I like chatting more than talking with people personally.

    I can’t keep away myself away from gadgets and technologies. I can’t imagine a day not to be able to see one. But a day without those can be refreshing.. I’ll may try it this Christmas vacation……….but facebook is addicting! XP

  44. Interesting text! ” I treasure the time alone and off the grid” – well, that pretty much sums up what I feel when I say no to gym / fitness centers. Not fond at all of the idea of running without leaving the same physical space…

    And when I go running I never bring mp3 or anything like that, for instance. The breathing, the street sounds, the smells, the footsteps and the heartbeat, everything is some sort of ‘ritual’ you end up spoiling with technology. Plus, when I run I’m thinking about so many things… the music might be nice but it can become a psychological anesthetic.


  45. yes…
    we are digital zombies.
    so am i.
    nice post dude…

  46. Yeah, We are for me im Zombie Of IPhone hahah

  47. You’ve hit the nail on the head here and I’m definitely plugged in way too much.

    I live with a few other people and most evenings after work we’re each sitting with our laptops out, sending text messages and making calls on our phone with the TV on in the background.

    I’m hitting the cement tonight. No iPod.

  48. I really liked the term “digital zombies”. It really describes people when their just going from one physical spot to the other concentrated on their text messages, e-mail, etc. Minimal attention to what’s happening around.

    Great post!

  49. Really topical. Since there’s some really good information coming out on how to unplug at work and more effectively manage emails, messages etc…

  50. Hi, I find it quite ironic reading your article after having just watched Surrogates, a film focused on replacing the human condition with real life avatars, thus removing humanity from reality. You’ve made some valid points, technology has indeed infiltrated every facet of our lives and has replaced many of the most basic activities like talking to another human being face to face. Admittedly, I am indifferent to the ‘technological takeover’, as I love technology in all forms.

  51. I love your blog and it rings so true. As a mother of two small children I worry about the impacts of this virtual living on them.

    I get them out doors and in the natural environment as much as possible, and even though they moan a bit to start with, they generally get into it after a few minutes, and their imaginations take over, collecting leaves, playing with sticks etc. …

    My eldest daughter at aged 6 has just started to climb a tree in our allotment. When she has had a hard day at school she climbs her tree to sit and think…and sometimes I feel like joining her… and after reading this maybe I will …minus mobile phone of course!!

  52. Man… you got it right.
    We take in all this information (Which usually is for nothing) and disconnect ourselves with the world. Especially kids today all they are interested in is their device and not actual conversation. Everything is abbreviated (guilty) and nothing is said in person. The screens have taken our eyes from life, we need to get them back!!

  53. Thanks again for the excellent comments. This topic certainly resonates with many. And the personal examples and experiences you shared added considerable perspective.

    I didn’t get to run this morning because of an early morning flight from Cleveland to DC for a meeting. But I didn’t check my BlackBerry coming through either airport.


  54. Pingback: Is Your Digital Life Simple? « Simplicity by Sunny

  55. It’s interesting to ponder the notion of people becoming digital zombies. It’s as though this phenomenon has come right out of a science-fiction novel or techno-horror film.
    Realistically, I think we are unaware of how ubiquitous the Internet has become and the degree with which we rely upon Web-enabled gadgets and technology in our daily lives (myself included).
    I build Web sites and interactive applications professionally for a living and the idea the Web is potentially undermining our capacity for reading and focused thought is something to which I am keenly aware and compelled to explore:

  56. Pingback: Are We Really Becoming Digital Zombies? « Chronicles of the Undead

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