I first realized a zombie apocalypse was upon us when I read about Email ’n Walk, an iPhone app that turns on the phone’s camera while you compose e-mail. To take a picture to use as an attachment, right? Oh no, that would be so 2009. The idea, as the app’s name implies, is to let you read or compose messages and walk at the same time, all the while remaining “safe” because the camera lets you see what’s happening on the other side of your phone.
That someone would even conceive of such an app means that we now live in a world where people regularly—you might even say compulsively—read and compose e-mail while walking down the street. But that’s not all people do while power walking to their next appointments. They also text, read Facebook and Twitter status updates, scan RSS feeds, and more than anything else, they bliss out to their favorite tunes at unhealthily loud volume levels.
Of course, while they’re immersed in their digital worlds, these iPod pedestrians (or, inevitably, iPodestrians) are also careening through the real world, heedless of their fellow citizens and oblivious to the city’s dangers. They have become, in fact, iPod zombies, a digital undead army lurching through the streets. We may call it the iPod zombie trance, but it’s a device-agnostic state, since this living dead horde also consists of iPhone zombies, BlackBerry zombies, and the generic MP3 zombies and cellphone zombies.
The iPod zombie pedestrian isn’t alone in needing earbuds and a tiny screen these days. Others in a state of iPod oblivion include iPod zombie joggers, iPod zombie dog walkers, iPod zombie cyclists, and iPod zombie rollerbladers. Similarly, in your local Starbucks, you’ve probably seen your share of laptop zombies who are oblivious to everyone and everything except the screen in front of them.
If walking while texting and other forms of pedestrian inattention were merely comical, no one would worry about them too much. But attention is a zero-sum game, so concentrating on your iPod results in a technological autism or unintentional blindness that can lead to near collisions with fellow pedestrians and actual collisions with street lamps. One study found digital music players to blame for up to 17 accidents every day in the UK.
The preferred term for this among cognitive scientists is inattentional blindness, which they define as “the failure to detect the appearance of an unexpected, task-irrelevant object in the visual field.” So if you’re zoned out listening to Arcade Fire at top volume (the task) and you fail to see an oncoming vehicle (the unexpected, task-irrelevant object), that’s IB, and that’s probably trouble, perhaps even death by iPod.
The risks increase if the driver of the car bearing down on you is preoccupied reading or sending text messages, a form of digital drunkenness known as being intexticated. An incredibly dangerous habit, intextication is also called DWT, or driving while texting. If the driver is preoccupied with a cellphone call instead, call it DWY, or driving while yakking—abbreviations that play on the legal term DWI, or driving while intoxicated.
What’s the solution? It’s almost certainly not government regulation, such as the law proposed a couple of years ago by New York State Senator Carl Kruger that would have made it illegal to use a crosswalk while listening to an MP3 player or conducting a cellphone conversation. New York City famously doesn’t even enforce its jaywalking laws. Then there’s the idea tried in East London’s Brick Lane, where the street’s many bollards were covered with padded cushions to allow, one assumes, for easier ricocheting. Alas, the pads were a mere publicity stunt, and Brick Lane remains as dangerous as ever. Perhaps the best idea is simply to watch out for each other. The next time you see an iPod zombie heading straight for a lamppost or about to walk into the path of an onrushing vehicle, a quick “Heads up!” might save the day. For best results, text it.