You've Got Zombies: Devoured by E-mail in the Technological Apocalypse

Yancey Orr
Still from The Walking Dead, Season 6

If the persistence of zombies reflects cultural fears, what's really devouring us now?

The Walking Dead

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Chandler Riggs, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride
Network: AMC

AMC’s The Walking Dead resumed its sixth season on Sunday, 14 February. For those unfamiliar with the show, it chronicles a group of survivors in a zombie-infested world. Adapted from Robert Kirkman's graphic novel of the same name, the series debuted in 2010 and last season, it was the third most watched show in the US (just behind The Big Bang Theory and Sunday Night Football). HBO’s Game of Thrones, with half the audience, is the only other cable series in the top-50 programs by viewership.

Given its popularity, the question arises: Why is a show about zombies so popular?

Some of The Walking Dead’s success is independent of its zombie premise. Its writing, storytelling, acting, and production value combine to create a compelling drama. Zombies are unequaled in their ability to create a context of continual anxiety. From this anxiety, friendship, antagonism, morality, and group dynamics gain heightened significance. Does such a fantasy awaken that primordial part of our psyche still attached to small group cooperation? During the 190,000 years of the Stone Age, our greatest asset for survival in a hostile world was the highly cooperative bands that also comprise the most resilient social units in The Walking Dead.

Or maybe, the show’s grip on us rests on our fears of an apocalyptic future without states, laws, technology, or humanity. I don’t think, however, that it’s really about the past or the future. The Walking Dead is of this world at this time, and it speaks to us precisely because a land in which the undead ceaselessly hound the living actually captures a defining experience of contemporary life: e-mail.

The term "zombie" has its origins in West African religions; however, the fear of the dead consuming the living is found across many cultures. The earliest work of written literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, contains a passage in which a god threatens to release the dead from the underworld to feast on the living. Other than their diet, this initial record offers little specifics about these undead.

Details in later incarnations of zombies reflected the cultures that imagined them. In agricultural societies, zombies served as a supernatural elaboration of rabies, in which nature engulfed human beings through the betrayal of trusted domestic animals. For Africans in the colonial Caribbean, the emphasis on the supernatural mechanisms by which bodies came under the control of voodoo sorcery reflected the trauma of slave labor.

Closer to our own era, George Romero used zombies to examine society’s racism, consumerism, and inequity in a sequence of films over four decades. Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror employed the undead to illustrate the social cannibalism of the military-industrial complex. Following the trend of inverting genres within the arts, in Warm Bodies and Zombieland, puppy love returns an undead adolescent to life and remedies teenage anomie. The most recent iteration on the big screen was World War Z, which focused on an epidemiological investigation of zombies voicing contemporary fears of global pandemics.

Given such a rich cultural and historical context, what do our zombies say about us? How does The Walking Dead resonate enough with our experience to transform an individual’s imagination into relatable public art? In the series, zombies aren’t just malevolent things within the broader world, they effectively are the world. Forests, swamps, houses, churches, patios, garages, bars, and cars are infested, and thus transformed into an environment that’s hostile, dangerous, contagious, and, most of all, perennially waiting to eat you. Unlike other zombie apocalypses, there’s no initial wave of infestation to be defeated, as in Night of the Living Dead, or outlived, like 28 Days Later. The pre-apocalyptic environment that we’ve so successfully transformed into benign resources becomes one that sees us as food.

How can e-mail make this relatable? What part of it turns each moment of subjective experience into a landscape of potential threats haunted by the undead intent on devouring you?

E-mails are non-living beings that exist as objects only to consume the living. And, like in The Walking Dead, their presence haunts nearly everything. But how could something as harmless as digital letters create such a relatable nightmare? E-mail is a type of writing -- itself is a form of disembodied communication -- but the potency of its technology changed the way letters are used and thus experienced. E-mail's capacity for volume has turned disembodied communication into something sinister. Traditional mail comes in three basic types: junk mail, bills, and personal correspondences. The first two are dealt with by either ignoring or paying them, and thus require little of our cognitive lives.

When standard mail demands our thoughts, it’s most often in the humanizing form of correspondence. Personal letters are now thought of as an almost purely affective medium, but they also constituted the 18th century’s "Republic of Letters" (Respublica literaria) linking intellectuals throughout Europe and North America into a community. Our young century’s contribution to this tradition is Twitter.

Looking back at the sentiment attached to e-mails in the ‘90s illustrates to us just how unromantic they now are. The conjectural eroticism in You’ve Got Mail that titillated Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan was sadly not a harbinger of what the actual digital world would become. Listen to how Ryan’s character romantically described what became the boulder of our Sisyphean existence: "I turn on my computer. I go online. And my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words 'you’ve got mail'."

Such a sentiment could not seem farther from the contemporary experience of this medium. If we have a Pavlovian response to emails, it’s holding our breath in anticipation of the day’s digital onslaught whose clarion should be "…brainsbraainnsss…". Any heightened expectancy of romance through the digital medium now combines the hollow physicality of digital photographs with the parsimonious a-poetics of text messaging.

If e-mails are not simply digital letters, are they as hostile and threatening as zombies? E-mails, far more so than regular mail, are requests of something from you that, unlike standard mail, cannot be summarily dismissed. Whether they are for your knowledge, actions, or decisions, they require your attention and time. There are exceptions: GIFs and videos too large for text messaging end up on e-mail. Group e-mails among friends can provide content for entertainment and half-hearted birthday wishes and congratulations.

Of the vast majority of e-mails that request things of you, some, at least, can be discarded by looking at the sender, but most have to be read or opened, and because of the ease with which they are made and sent means they are often comprised of the pettiest of demands. The significance of this is hidden by how it’s now assumed that e-mails are a platform for obligation and responsibility, but rarely growth, learning, pleasure, or other pursuits. Ironically, the Nigerian scam of the internet's early years, in which a distant person contacts you because your trustworthiness remedies their fabricated situation was the prototype for what e-mail actually turned into, the only difference being that the fraud has been removed from the extortion. These requests take so many bites out of you; they, with the recent advancement in technology, transform space and time into mediums waiting to devour you.

Is the hostility of e-mail amplified enough to create its own reality? Teachers, lawyers, engineers, project managers, and other "knowledge workers"” begin their days with dozens of e-mails waiting for them, and go to bed knowing more will follow. The idiom by which many express workloads is now the quantity of emails. Last year, 660 times as many emails (66 trillion) were sent than human beings that have ever existed (100 billion). The majority were unnecessary and even unread, yet the average worker spends around 30 percent of his or her time reading and writing them; for those in the knowledge economy, it's likely far greater. I know that I spend more time processing email than I do writing lectures and teaching students.

But do these changes simply intensify and depersonalize work while leaving life alone? With smartphones and data plans, e-mails now reach us beyond the physical limits of the office and the temporal constraints of the workday. We get e-mails at home, in bed, in the car, at lunch, at the gym, etc. As is the case with zombies, the extreme environments associated with high-speed watersports and airplane travel are among the few places we are generally safe from their reach. Although only 30 percent of work time is spent on e-mails, how much recreational or family time is flavored by the worries over them?

So e-mails are a medium dominated by continuous demands of our thoughts and they reach us almost everywhere; then again, we've been in constant interactions of obligation to others throughout our existence. However, e-mails don't simply intensify existing obligations; they transform reality into a surreal horror by their very preternaturalness. About 5000 years ago, the written word appeared, approximately 35,000 years after spoken language emerged. Before the 19th century's phonograph and radio, verbal communication was more or less instantaneously brought into and out of existence with a breath. Until recently in our species’ history, requests couldn’t live in anything but our memories.

With e-mail, demands are disembodied and atemporal. Your coworkers or clients don’t simply just ask you something, to which you respond in situ; the request lingers outside of the physics of living nature. The request becomes something that wants something from you, but that’s not alive. It’s timeless desire without personhood: a zombie. This means that you experience the environment more and more as though it only exists in pursuit of you. This world, with its 66 trillion e-mails, creates an un-living ecology, yet one that still desires… making it also undead. The cosmos is one that increasingly waits (or walks) to eat and infect the last living parts of subjective experience.

That being said, imaginary worlds aren't just metaphors for our own. They also project fantasies that we’re unable to fulfill. In almost all permutations of the genre, zombies can be stopped by damaging their brains. Because e-mails cannot be killed so easily, this is the part of zombie mythology that’s a projected fantasy. We wish that we could just delete or ignore them, but they hover over our psyche.

Tragically, the way we kill e-mails is by answering them. Other than by taking part in their world and becoming infected ourselves, they remain waiting. As a vector, we send our own e-mails and thus continue the web of contagion. This is where the zombie myth extends beyond just expressing subjective experience, and into a communally held fear. Fear that we’re becoming something less than human in which our humanity, located in our capacity for generative solitude, our sympathetic interactions with others, and our relationship with our living surroundings, is degraded by the instrumentalism, bareness, and ubiquity of e-mail.

Our world is increasingly haunted by the undead. Can we do anything about it? Enclosed in the protection of a hollow tree trunk as a pack of zombies passes, two teenagers in The Walking Dead prepare for a first kiss. Life can certainly become more exhilarating when surrounded by threats to it. But something has changed. Death, when it's life's abomination and not its end, is no longer its complement. The girl unsuccessfully tries to calm her skittish lover’s concern over the pack of undead. She whispers an epiphany of the defeated "it’s their world, we're just living in it". The Walking Dead’s popularity suggests such whispers don’t calm us either.

Yancey Orr is an anthropologist and a faculty member at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. His writes on contemporary human ecology, phenomenology, and technology.

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