Christy Wampole, “The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation,” HarperCollins Publishers. www.harpercollins.com.
‘A good essay,” writes Princeton assistant professor of French Christy Wampole, “asks the reader to continue its work after the final sentence.” This collection of 16 essays by Wampole, a Gen-Xer and Stanford Ph.D., aims to do just that through subjects ranging from a comparison of France’s La Marseillaise and America’s Star Spangled Banner to a riff on awkwardness.
Wampole’s academic research focuses primarily on 20th and 21st century French and Italian literature and thought. Her forthcoming book project investigates rootedness as a pervasive literary, political, and philosophical theme in 20th century French and German culture.
In an interview with Salon magazine, she said “since I started teaching in 2000, I’ve noticed that students seem less and less willing or able to have a conversation of more than five minutes without succumbing to the siren call of the phone. It’s like a pacifier. The grand intervention of this kind of technology in our lives has mortally wounded face-to-face interaction, I’m afraid. What’s worse, distracted people are fairly easy to control. If your attention is dissolved enough, you are less likely to notice the culture patterns that make people behave this or that way politically.”
On that note is the excerpt below, from an essay titled “On Distraction.”
You may have noticed of late that the zombie has become a pop culture favorite on the little and big screens of TV and cinema. They’re ugly and they’re coming for us. As the Caribbean Marxist Frantz Fanon wrote, “Zombies, believe me, are more terrifying than colonists.”
The ubiquity of the undead today is not arbitrary. Cultural patterning is never arbitrary; it is always symptomatic. The fear of becoming the living dead has arisen because they surround us every day. They ride the train with us, bump into us on the street, stand in line with us at the grocery store. These soulless corpses are so distracted by their devices that they nearly forget there is a world other than the virtual one in which they’ve invested their full selves.
The zombification of America manifests itself in the everyday collisions or near collisions of two, or three, or five people staggering down the sidewalk toward the impact point like badly programmed automatons. They are Roombas with a nervous system. At one time, the fusion of man and machine was imagined as an upgrade of human capacity, an improvement on the bodily limitations of the lowly Homo sapiens. The reality of Homo digitalis more closely resembles that of the humans from Wall-E than that of RoboCop. You may recall that the humans in Wall-E’s world are listless and chubby, having lost the muscle mass to even walk. They sit in floating chairs and guzzle Big-Gulp-like beverages all day long while screens hover endlessly in front of their entertained faces. (When I saw this movie in the theater, I had the uncanny experience of looking toward the audience stuffing its collective face with twenty-dollar vats of popcorn and swigging from drink cups the size of cremation urns as they stared at their computer-generated doppelgangers doing the exact same thing.)
Like the zombie, the new digital people are mobile but clumsy. They are alive but cold. They want to spread their own malady. (You’ve witnessed the scenes of social pressure to buy the slightly modified version of a nearly identical apparatus.) They want to devour the human brain.
There are few vignettes more depressing than that of the distracted collective. A family of four enters the restaurant and sits at the table next to me. Before the server even brings water for them, they’ve pulled out their screens and teleported their attentions elsewhere. For the duration of the meal, they barely speak; a bi-syllabic or tri-syllabic grunt escapes here and there.
The server becomes merely a human interruption, an annoyance ripe for deletion were he not bringing the meal, which is summarily photographed and shared. They stare at the screens, punctuating their finger surfing with a bite here and there. The bill comes, they pay and shuffle out, the teenager almost knocking over a tray full of food because he is not paying attention as he walks, his head bent downward toward his device.
Some predictions: The idea of family will dissipate as pets replace children and spouses. People will begin to adopt higher-order primates so they can have a pet that resembles a human but who won’t argue to take up too many emotional gigabytes. (We will largely express ourselves through computing metaphors.) Screen zombification will come to represent borderline poverty and low culture, just as fast-food consumption does now.
The well-off will have figured out a way to free themselves of all of the latest technologies for the sake of convenience and efficiency. They will never be without their fluid pouch of coffee or some energy drink suspended from a rolling stand for intravenous delivery directly through the arm. By then, you will have stopped asking them questions or addressing them in any way; their headphones prevent them from hearing your voice anyway. They may have even plugged up all of their holes so as not to receive any external stimuli at all. By then, the images will be delivered directly to the occipital lobe via Wi-Fi.
Then life will be composed entirely of distraction, one big and busy intake of peripheral information. Anything that pulls concentration away from the meaningful programming that will undoubtedly fill the rich hours of zombie leisure will be condemned. This includes sunlight, forests, conversations, and weekends reading quietly in a hammock.