The New Zombie
Zombies are attacking us; not for brains, but for attention. The consequences of this is that they are everywhere and sucking the intelligence out of human systems.
Zombies are hot. TV shows, books and films about zombies are more popular than ever, and this time of year the public’s attention to the undead is at its nadir. The CDC in the United States even got into the act by using zombies as a health promotion vehicle to support emergency preparedness. From zombie walks to art shows, the staggering brain-eating, brain-less are everywhere.
Yet, there is a new breed being formed that doesn’t eat brains and has them, but may not be using them well and they are all around us everywhere.
They walk among us
Look around and what do you see? People online, on the phone, texting and walking and driving, being everywhere except where they are. Examples of people walking into fountains or falling into a sinkhole while on the phone are often seen as comi-tragic, yet they belie a remarkably powerful trend towards disengagement from the world around them. Charlene deGuzman and Miles Crawford‘s beautiful and disheartening short film I Forgot My Phone plays this for further comic and sad effect as they portray a day in the life of someone paying attention to those not paying attention to anything away from their screen. The film highlights the modern paradox of being more connected than ever, yet overwhelmingly alone.
Emerging research is showing remarkable spikes in risks associated with mobile phone use and injury and mortality. We might laugh at people falling into holes or bumping into things, but only when it hurts the ego and not the body. This is serious stuff. Keep in mind that we don’t see non-reported injuries (e.g., someone bruising their head) and the many near misses between person and object — including cars, which have their own epidemic of problems with texting and attention.
Indeed, zombies embody paradox: a brainless being that is undead seeks brains to stay unalive. Whether they are alive or dead depends on where you stand and that is what makes them a complex character despite their surface-level simplicity.
Brains…need…more…(use of science) brains….
While it might be easy to point to those on phones, zombie behaviour occurs elsewhere in places where the effects are far less comic and just as dangerous. The latest issue of The Economist features a cover story on the problems science is having with it credibility and quality control. Some of this is due to what I would call zombie-like behaviour: mindless attention in a manner that restricts awareness and appreciation of one’s immediate context and the larger system to which that behaviour occurs.
The recent expose by science journalist John Bohannon published in the journal Science exposes zombie-like thinking in how open-access science journals accept and reject papers. Bohannon’s inquiry was prompted by questions about the way fees were charged for open access journals (which is how they can remain open to the public) and the peer review require to advance publication. Presumably, an article has to pass review from peer professional scientists before it is accepted and then the fee is paid. No acceptance, no fee (except for perhaps a small application processing charge).
Bohannon wanted to find out whether fee-charging open access journals were actually keeping their promise to do peer review — a process in which scientists with some knowledge of a paper’s topic volunteer to check it for scientific flaws…
…In the end, what he concluded was that “a huge proportion” of the journals were not ensuring their papers were peer reviewed.
Even in cases where peer review happened, it didn’t always function correctly. For example, the Ottawa-based International Journal of Herbs and Medicinal Plants clearly sent the paper out to be reviewed by real scientists, who pointed out some flaws, Bohannon recalled. Even so, when Bohannon submitted a revised version of the paper without correcting any of the flaws, it was accepted.
Bohannon’s approach and findings are not without some problems of their own, but they don’t much change the conclusion that there are deep problems within the scientific enterprise.
Much of what Bohannon found can be attributed to greed, but a great deal of it is due to bad scientific practice. As a consultant who is also a publishing researcher and ‘recovering’ academic I know the enormous amount of energy that goes into publishing an academic article in a scholarly journal. As one who is sent between 4 to 5 manuscripts to review from legitimate journals per month I know the demands that are placed on reviews. We also publish far too much for the system to handle. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein and colleagues look closely at the ‘avalanche’ of publishing and shed light on many reasons why the problems that the Economist and Science occur (Note: I’d strongly encourage you to read through the comments as it is as instructive as the article itself).
They are everywhere
To add to the examples of zombie culture I need only look to my own daily life outside of science and mobile phones. Just the other day I witnessed the following example at a community meeting that was organized in part to discuss the expenditure of funds to make a better living area for people in a building:
Presenter: “…and I am pleased to conclude that the new furniture for the outdoor spaces is going to be made by a company that created the same products at [place] out of recycled materials. We will expect to have the new furniture here in 6 to 8 weeks. Any questions?”
First question: “I love the work you’ve done. Can you tell me when the furniture will be here?”
Sadly, I have many other stories that show that many people are not paying attention. They are sitting through workshops and not picking up basic concepts (even after having asked for it and having been given it multiple times over), asking for materials that were already shared on multiple occasions, suggesting ideas that were already discussed and agreed upon over because that person didn’t engage in the discussion and so on. This happens not because people are stupid, but because they are disengaged.
A simple search through statistics compilations finds enormous material on what kind of inputs we expose ourselves to and its impact on attention. There is more coming at us in quantity and context and that is undoubtedly influencing quality of processing and engagement. I can speak of this personally and through observation. The amount of times I find people not hearing what is said, processing it effectively, or even remembering something said is staggering.
It’s not surprising. We are alerted everywhere: a text message, a phone call, a Facebook message, an email, an app alert, someone coming by the office, external noise outside, and visual noise everywhere. The explicit and ambient signals we are exposed to in a day is staggering. Clay Shirky suggests it’s not that we have too much information, it’s that our filters are failing. I think it’s now both and one reinforces the other.
Coming back…a look at systems
While individuals are distracted, they are products of distracted systems. To look at one part of the science zombie situation, professors are now asked to publish more than ever, get grants from a dwindling pool, teach more students than ever and in more crowded conditions and with greater social needs, and to find ways to make their research more accessible to different audiences while engaging more with the communities of interest affected by that research. All of this takes time. Add to that the probability that the professor her/himself has to raise their own salary and that the only way to do this is to be very successful at the above-mentioned tasks and you get someone who is stressed and overtaxed.
Mindfulness-based approaches do not change any of that, but they can help strengthen the filter. By being more individually mindful, but more importantly create mindful organizations. Building resilient tribes of social innovators and the leadership communities to steward them is another. Granting ourselves the time to reflect, sensemake and listen to the systems we work in is also key. By listening better, we are better able to design systems that are innovative, responsive and humane by building them to human scale.
All well and good you might say, but how? That’s what’s to come in some future posts as we look at designing better systems and making them more attractive so people stay engaged.
Stay tuned….and watch out for zombies.