You're Not Afraid of Zombies (or, The Ghosts of the Machines)

The ghosts of our modern-day scary stories are no longer dead spirits of our ancestors; they are machines. Not tyrannical robots bent on our destruction, rather, they’re the unexplainable marvels that surrounds us every day. 

Ghosts and demons are footnotes in the box office of today. The frightening multi-media, million-dollar stories that get invited into our nightmares are disaster films, post-apocalyptic video-games, zombie comics--and what do they all have in common? The total shutdown of our precarious technological existence.

Our modern storytellers have given up on the use of the supernatural to scare us. They don’t need to invent ghosts and demons to frighten us any longer. We see unexplainable wonders every day. Only, we know someone else can explain them. Our lives depend on the fact that a doctor can tell you which of the clear fluids in that cabinet will save your life and which one will kill you in an instant. That same doctor has no idea how to ensure the hydroelectric plant sixty miles away will keep running so that she can turn the lights on in the Emergency Room.

When you read this website on your screen--a phantom powered by electricity, fed data from servers thousands of miles away--servers that you wouldn’t be able to find even if you spent the whole day trying--well I could go on, but you already know that you only have a vague idea of how this screen works.

But you know, you trust, that someone does. That's the social contract you were born into. The person who built this screen, or rather, designed it-- because the people and machines who make these devices don’t need a full grasp of the screen's inner principles in order to make it--could tell you. But you don’t need to know. You know that it works and you can replace it, should it stop working.

What happens, then, when the people who understand the technology that keeps you alive… are gone?

Suddenly, the survivors of the apocalypse are haunted by the mechanized ghosts of our inventive society and are forced to admit the most frightening thing of all: You, me, your family, everyone save for a few survival aficionados and the poor people living outside the boundaries of the industrialized world, would die.

In the process of that horrible upheaval, those other hopeless saps who got stuck with you are now threats. It’s easier to imagine your competitors for the last remaining resources: food, clean water,  the vestiges of modern technology and the power that fuels it--as already dead zombies. That’s because only a small percentage of us are really prepared to fight our neighbors for a scrap of bread and the world’s last working AA battery. And most of those people really belong in therapy, as far as we’re concerned.

The truth that we must accept and ignore daily is what frightens us the most. Our precarious existence is dependent on technology that we don’t understand and people we’ve never met. Even the most brilliant and industrious among us could only ever hope to fully comprehend a small percentage of the things she is dependent upon to live.

And rather than separate ourselves from our inventions in order to avoid those cautionary ghost stories, we’re far, far better off living with this electric vulnerability. The wisest course of action would be to ensure that each of these vital, interconnected pieces of technology are built with the capacity to fail gracefully. But that topic is far better addressed by Cory Doctorow than I.

All of these hard truths funnel into another philosophical fact: in order to achieve great things and  reap great rewards, we must accept and even invite risk and vulnerability into our lives. We could live without all the benefits of the modern world and be perfectly assured that our short, labor-intensive lives would never suffer from a sudden loss of technology. We would never be at risk of getting stuck in an elevator during a power outage. And we would probably suffer from horrific diseases that could have been cured if we simply had the infrastructure to manage a health care system--which requires all of modern society's dedication and technology.

Certainty is not worth the price of stagnation. Vulnerability invites growth as well as disaster, but we humans are not so loss averse as to be unwilling to reach out for those sudden rewards found in collective innovation.