Recent years have seen many stories involving zombies, from the book “World War Z” to the movie “Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies” to the TV show “The Walking Dead”. Why are there so many of these? And why now? My theory is that zombies are appearing in the arts because we’re seeing zombie-like people in our daily lives.

The rise of the zombies
A few weeks ago I was in Hong Kong to speak on creativity at a university and meet with clients. The third time that a Hong Konger walked into me while looking at their mobile phone, I looked around me and realized with astonishment that mankind is in the process of transforming into zombies. More and more people are losing themselves in a virtual world and disengaging from the real world, walking around like zombies, completely absorbed by what their mobile devices have to offer. Things aren’t as bad in Bangkok as in Hong Kong, but zombies abound there, too. The next time you’re on the Skytrain, count how many people are staring at their mobile devices instead of paying attention to what’s happening around them.

Questions: Have you already become a zombie? How many times a day do you flee reality and escape into the virtual shadow world of your mobile device?

Vice and virtues of virtual zombification
Modern smartphones are technical marvels that not only deliver phone service, but also news and information, instant messages and e-mail, games, chats, videos, music, and much more. Coupled with social sites like Facebook, they allow people to escape the mundaneness of the real world and instead enter into the pleasures, trivia and banalities of zombie-land. Why spend all that time watching the sun sink slowly in the west when you can watch it in fast-forward on YouTube? Why converse over dinner with just one or two people when you can instead upload a photo of your food to Pinterest and Facebook and then read the comments? Why spend time with a few friends in person when you can have hundreds of virtual “friends” online? Why work instead of exploring the world of the Web?

There’s no going back to the simple cell phones of 2000. Smartphones, in one form or another, are here to stay. But we need to find a way to balance our virtual lives with our real-world lives. We need to find a way to avoid becoming addicted to being online. We need to stop becoming zombies.

Questions: Do you see the zombie in yourself? Do you see others around you who are becoming zombies? Do you panic when you leave your mobile phone at home? Do you go into withdrawal if you can’t check your phone at least hourly?

Zombies vs. innovators
I admit it: I, too, am a mobile phone zombie for a few minutes several times a day, checking the news or playing what I call Speed-Sudoku. But I try to minimize it because I know what complete zombification would mean for my work, my thinking, and my creativity and innovation.

  • Because we are bad at multi-tasking (yes, you, too — see my related article of 06.12.2012), any interruption of real work to perform virtual activities steals much more time from your work than the time spent doing virtual tasks. And time is precious, because life is short and its end is unpredictable. So if you care about what you do, why waste time on trivia, pointless games, and fake friends, when instead you can spend your time making a difference, creating meaning and value, and developing relationships with real people?
  • The virtual world can sometimes fertilize creative thought. But the unpredictability and serendipity to be found in the real world is much more likely to produce deep insight and great ideas.
  • The length and depth of your virtual interactions are tiny, compared to those of an in-person conversation with a real person. The odds of intellectual cross-fertilization are proportional to the amount and range of information exchanged, so if you want new ideas, talk to a real person, not a virtual one.
  • Mobile devices teach us to expect immediate updates wherever we are, whether when messaging, watching comments on a Facebook post, or following the news. Over time, this addicts people to instant gratification. However, the things you need to succeed, in business and in life, require hard, sustained work and the ability to persevere despite obstacles and adversities. This is as true in innovation as anywhere else. Many projects succeed in producing innovation only after years of hard work. As Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Mobile device zombies, however, seem to live on “1% inspiration and 99% pleasure, trivia and instant gratification.”
  • Virtual interactions are usually less social and human than real-life interactions and conversations. This is because when we talk in person, only 7% of the communication is derived from the words spoken, but 38% from the speed and pitch of your voice, and 55% from your body language and facial expressions. Since most of this gets lost when virtualized, it’s not surprising that most of these messages contain meaningless blather, trivia and social niceties, instead of communicating real meaning. If you communicate like a zombie, you’re well on your way to becoming a zombie.

The zombification of the world not only runs counter to natural human communication and thinking patterns; it also limits us when trying to respond creatively and innovatively to challenges. Stop doing the zombie things you do, and instead become more responsible and disciplined in your use of modern communications. Help those around you to do the same, so we can all live, work, communicate, and innovate in this marvelous real world.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2013