Reanimating the Digital Zombie

Designed by Ji Hong Ni

Warm Bodies is not alone in using the zombie genre to critique our dependence on technology.

A mashup of the zombie and rom-com genres, Warm Bodies (2013) opens with the undead protagonist “R” lamenting his zombification while lurching through an airport terminal: “This is a typical day for me. I shuffle around occasionally bumping into [other zombies], unable to apologize or say much of anything. It must have been so much better before, when everyone could express themselves, and communicate their feelings and just enjoy each other’s company.” R’s voiceover accompanies an imagined scene of an airport teeming with living people; here, the director contrasts R’s idealistic dreams of human connection with the image of faces buried in phones, tablets, and laptops (Figure 1). In this poignant scene, Warm Bodies depicts technology as a force divesting us from one another’s company. However, Warm Bodies is not alone in using the zombie genre to critique our dependence on technology. 

Figure 1: Warm Bodies, 2013

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2019), a recent genre-bending zombie flick, portrays the “digital zombie” on screen for perhaps the first time. Jarmusch’s ghouls aren’t brain-eaters,1 but instead maintain their pre-zombified habits: undead millennials stumble with phones illuminating their rotting faces as they growl “WiFi”, a good internet connection more desirous than brains (Figure 2). The term “digital zombie” was coined by University of Sydney scholars as someone “connected online all the time but never really living a full and healthy life…disconnected from the digital world.”2 You may have seen these digital zombies walk into a closed door, streetlight, or pothole, their eyes fixed to an LCD screen. It’s no coincidence Jarmusch’s undead millennial is just as blundering. 

Figure 2: The Dead Don’t Die, 2019

In adopting the mindless zombie trope, Jarmusch steps into a lineage of cultural critique set in action by filmmaker George A. Romero in his genre-establishing zombie films of the 60’s and 70’s. Jarmusch follows Romero’s pattern, using the zombie as a vehicle to comment on social issues. In the words of Bob, Jarmusch’s meta gas attendant and horror flick aficionado, “I dig your car man — very Romero.” We dig Romero’s vehicle too, and we’ll use it to reanimate the “digital zombie,” a term used by scholars,3 speakers,4 and writers5 to critique our dependence on technology, but one that hasn’t been fully reconciled with the zombie’s cultural and historical origins. 

From the Hollywood Zombie to the Digital Zombie

While a handful of zombie films were produced before Romero, it was his Night of the Living Dead (1968) that elevated the zombie genre, and horror films more broadly, as a means of social critique. The film’s hero, Ben (Duane Jones), faces a zombie horde encircling his farmhouse hideout. He survives the undead invasion only to be shot down by a search and rescue party composed of white men. The film’s depiction of the murder of Ben, the sole African-American character and only character killed by other humans, came months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and echoes the anxiety of the Civil Rights era.6 In the hands of Romero, the now-familiar archetype of the Hollywood zombie was born, an archetype rife with cultural criticism.

A decade later, in Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero cuts against the grain of American consumerism, setting the film almost entirely in an American supermall. At the climax of Dawn, members of a neo-Nazi biker gang ransack the gleaming white shopping mall in which the protagonist Peter and his fellow refugees hole up to survive the zombie apocalypse. The bikers, in their frenzy to pillage the mall’s dazzling displays of garments and gadgets, leave the mall doors open to the incoming hordes. Soon after, those entranced by the mall’s alluring displays are dismantled by the undead. One death in particular foreshadows the coming of the digital zombie Jarmusch would display 40 years later. A biker, seen scrambling around an undead horde and sporting a shoplifted sombrero, rushes to strap himself to a blood pressure monitor in a corner of the mall (Figure 3). Nearby zombies shamble toward him, but the biker sits rapt, eyes glued to the machine, waiting for results. The zombies totter over and devour the biker, his distraction by the machine the reason for his death.

Figure 3: Dawn of the Dead, 1978

While Romero may have teased at the force of attraction between man and machine, and Jarmusch might have smirked at the undead millennials groaning “WiFi,” the digital zombie deserves more than a playful critique. The digital zombie is real. And it’s horrifying.

Today’s Attention Economy and Biopower: Surveilling and Controlling the Digital Zombie

From the onset of Dawn, Romero critiques how corporations often treat mass consumers: as bodies to be manipulated. In the opening scene, Fran, a correspondent working at a TV studio, listens to a heated argument between the TV anchor and his guest, a scientist. While the scientist’s speech about an unfolding zombie crisis causes commotion and confusion in the studio, Fran notices the outdated rescue information displayed on the monitors. She fixes the issue, but a man becomes upset and reminds her of the business imperatives of the TV studio: “Without those rescue stations on screen every minute, people won’t watch us. They’ll tune out” (Figure 4). Bewildered, Fran asks, “Are you willing to murder people by sending them out to stations that have closed down?” The man’s response is affirmative; don’t let the digital zombie look away.

Figure 4: Dawn of the Dead, 1978.

No discussion of digital zombies is complete without naming the attention economy’s role in creating them. The devices that beckon people to their screens — computers, televisions, phones, and more — and the people summoned to them are governed by a larger system of actors fighting for control over our attention. This system is the attention economy.

Tim Wu outlines the attention economy’s history in his 2016 book Attention Merchants, which describes the originary “innovations” that laid the groundwork for today’s iteration.7 One of them is the 19th-century penny newspaper, which sold below cost but published gruesome crimes and outlandish stories to boost readership and ad revenue. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other major tech companies have ramped up the same attention economy to a broader scale. With the lurch of technology into our lives, homes, and bodies, the power to capture and manipulate people’s attention has ventured into unforeseen realms. 

Bailey Richardson, one of the founding members of Instagram, compared today’s Internet to the kind of shopping mall shown in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. In an interview for The Social Dilemma (2020), she states, “Creative things happened on the Internet, and certainly, they do still, but, like, it just feels like this, like, giant mall. You know, it’s just like, ‘God, there’s gotta be… there’s gotta be more to it than that.’”8

There is.

In the digital shopping mall, the consummated safe haven of the digital zombie, attention manipulation is the defining dynamic. While the mall of suburban America is designed to manipulate shoppers when physically present, the internet mall is designed to take a more active role in attracting and manipulating consumers. Between the dings, buzzes, and light flashes which alert users about online activity and the “smart” notifications designed to encourage habitual use, modern technologies beckon like no mall can.

Beyond just grabbing attention, today’s digital zombification technologies surveil their users to understand what makes them tick. The session recording tool Inspectlet,9 for instance, boasts that, with its webtool, you can “See every mouse movement, scroll, click, and keypress on your site.” It provides “eye-tracking heatmaps” based on “Research [which] shows that mouse and eye movement are highly correlated.” Google takes this surveil-to-control ideal to the extreme, feeding the user data it collects into large-scale algorithms to serve ads and generating revenues of over $100 billion in 2018 and 2019.10 In the online world, your every move can be surveilled and profited on. 

Internet companies care about clicks, mouse and eye movements, feelings of lust and compulsion, and the individual’s body and mind. But, with big data and big data analytics, control can also be implemented at the population level. The actions of entire hordes of people can be more or less influenced as a group. Want to target pregnant digital zombies with a specialized coupon?11 Easy. What about targeting “anyone who lives in Philadelphia, studies philosophy in college, is 21, has bought a blue T-shirt in the past year and is neurotic”?12 Also possible. Such “personalized” advertising is in fact not personalized at all; it adopts a dehumanized perspective of a group of individuals, viewing them through the lens of traits and behaviors often identified by third parties. Elizabeth Dillon, in her “Zombie Biopolitics,” argues, “in Night of the Living Dead, we see not just a dehumanization of individuals who are infected with zombiehood but the transformation of individuals into a population” (Figure 5).13 Sounds familiar.

Figure 5: Night of the Living Dead, 1968

Using their sub-individual (fingers, hands, eyes, feelings) and supra-individual (data, patterns, trends, groups) levels of control, today’s internet companies operate with unprecedented influence. Managing people’s interests by managing their eyeballs is not new, however, the technological systems we’ve built in pursuit of universal and high-speed control over our eyeballs, bodies, and minds possess power of a new kind and scale.

This power over human bodies is none other than the “biopower” coined by French theorist Michel Foucault: the ability to induce, control, or structure people’s biological and social processes. Rather than preventing certain actions and requiring others, as the law might, biopower aims to embed itself in the biological mind and body of the individual and influence their decision-making and thus future behaviors. This matches precisely the mode of power the digital zombie is up against. The Facebook user, for example, is by no means required to use the platform. That Facebook activity has social significance has been sown and then ingrained in their worldview. The advertising on the platform then serves as an additional, subtler but nonetheless dominant, level of biopower acting on the user’s feelings and fingers and seeking to sway future purchases. While not all digital zombification devices advertise, the vast majority exert biopower on some level to capture, retain, and influence the attention of users.

Foucault’s discussion of biopower lies within the context of “biopolitics,” or the use of biopower by modern governments to produce an economically efficient population; however, corporations can exert biopower, too. Biopower is used by advertising technology companies to manipulate the attention of digital zombies. It is the power symbolized by Fran’s TV producer, and, digging deeper into the zombie’s grave, the same power that created the zombie itself.

Exhuming Historical Depths

The Zonbi first emerged from the slave experience on Haitian plantations, and, as such, serves as a symbol of extraction, marginalization, and, indeed, biopower. As Elizabeth Dillon argues in her essay “Zombie Biopolitics,” the Haitian zombie was by design. Slaves were, in effect, divested of their souls to serve as a labor resource for the plantation. While Dillon uses Foucauldian “biopolitics” to refer to the colonial regimes exerting biopower on plantations, she also critiques Foucault’s Eurocentric approach, seeking to extend his limited conception of biopolitics to acknowledge racial capitalism. Dillon couples the work of Foucault with race in the context of the New World, arguing that plantation-owning capitalists pioneered specific practices in the Caribbean to destroy the “social body” of slaves for the purpose of capital gains in a new “plantation economy.”14

The digital zombie is wholly different than the zombie of Haitian origin. The unique cruelties of the plantation system — enslavement and the wholesale manufacturing of racial violence and oppression — are in no way exhibited by today’s attention economy and its digital zombie. Silicon Valley, however, has developed its own strategies for manipulating the minds and bodies of digital zombies. While corporations have left behind the brutally extractive model of capitalism built on the back of Haitian Zonbis, some theorists argue that we never left the era of the plantation economy: the “Plantationocene.”15

Donna Haraway’s definition of the “Plantationocene” broadens the scope of the plantation, beyond the cruelty of chattel slavery, to discuss a “plantation system depend[ing] on the relocation of the generative units: plants, animals, microbes, people.”16 Inspecting the high-tech attention economy in terms of the “Plantationocene,” it appears to exhibit a similar relocation of material, attentional, and biological units. For instance, does it not often employ cheap foreign labor in inhumane conditions to extract raw materials and build its devices?17 Do those devices not in turn mine people’s data and attention for use in advertising systems? Is the displacement of local residents away from growing tech headquarters not a form of relocation?18 

However, the “Plantationocene” as an epoch is more than just the “relocation of the generative units.” It is one also marked by biopower. To this end, Dillon writes, “disentangling people from their social worlds and biota from their environmental worlds…exemplifies the workings of biopower.”19 Biopower is at work in the digital zombie and its historical origins alike.

The biopower present in the zombie’s racial history also provokes new questions about race and the digital zombie. Although extensive research into how structural racism is embedded in many of the practices of the commercial internet exists, there is notably less work investigating the intersection of race, biopower, and digital zombification. Tech platforms receive criticism regarding the proliferation of hateful or discriminatory content on their sites, such as the recent Stop Hate For Profit campaign20 or press regarding the emergence of race-based “filter bubbles,”21 but relatively little is said or known about the effect such structural bias has on the addictive use of technology by marginalized communities. In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Noble writes about “a host of problematic ways in the indexing, organization, and classification of information about Black and Brown bodies [on the] commercial web.”22 The examples of racially biased internet algorithms are prolific, but what can looking through the lens of the digital zombie and biopower uncover?

Answering such questions is beyond the scope of this essay, and we hope others may take them up. Nevertheless, the dark origin of the zombie is important because it adds gravity to a term lacking cultural weight. In this new reanimated form, the “digital zombie” demands further examination, or better yet, a cure.

Finding a Cure

At its heart, the digital zombie refers to the person caught in the grip of systems of digital zombie biopower, the person always on social media or watching TV, living but perhaps not really alive. These digital zombies echo the characters of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, so distracted by consumption they endanger their own lives. It is the extraction of our time and our life experiences that makes many technologies profitable. Moreover, the extraction of data and attention on a population level further increases profitability, enables fine-tuned influence over innumerous people, and potentially endangers democratic institutions.23

We don’t mean to say that technology is necessarily bad; we mean instead to paint a bona fide, zombified picture of the digital zombie. However, in doing so, we might find ourselves agreeing with police officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) of The Dead Don’t Die when he repeats to his partner Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), “This isn’t going to end well.” Perhaps, like the destruction of the natural environment by industrialization, the problem of the digital zombie is a debt future generations will have to pay. As Shoshana Zuboff describes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “Industrial capitalism transformed nature’s raw materials into commodities…now it is human nature that is scraped, torn, and taken for another century’s market project.”24

Or perhaps, as in the penultimate scene of Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, a completely unexpected U.F.O. will come down from the stars and extract us from the enclosing horde (Figure 6). In the case of the digital zombie, maybe this “U.F.O.” will come in the form of public outcry and demands for change. Maybe it will come in the shape of aggressive antitrust legislation. Or maybe it won’t come at all — most zombie films don’t end with a genre-breaking interruption, afterall. 

Figure 6: The Dead Don’t Die, 2019

If we are to stick with the zombie genre for an answer, we find one in Warm Bodies (2013). Following the zombie protagonist “R”, the film displays his slow transformation from the undead to the living. He initially eats humans, consuming his victim’s brains and reliving their memories, but his romantic attraction to one human, Julie, reinstates a heartbeat in his otherwise dead body (Figure 7). The antidote to his rabid consumption? Love.

Figure 7: Warm Bodies, 2013

Cliche? Sure. Contrived? Absolutely. In the rom-com zombie logic of Warm Bodies, only love can humanize the undead.

But maybe love can humanize the digitally undead, too. After all, what is the curse of the digital zombie, really? What is it that we lose when we go on Reddit instead of chatting with a new acquaintance? Or when a “smart” notification draws us to a screen instead of a loved one? While numerous companies promise social connections on their platforms, the biopower they exert on users for advertising reasons may in fact fray interpersonal relationships. The digital zombie loses moments to love, connect, and care for others when its attention is extracted for profit. For the digital zombie, the thesis of Warm Bodies might not sound so far-fetched. A reinvigorated emphasis on human connection, a stubborn demand for technologies that inspire intimacy, empathy, and social consciousness, and a dogmatic rejection of those that do not, may just provide the much-needed cure for the digital zombie apocalypse.

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