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The screen zombies

Did science fiction predict our sometimes disoriented present state?

Anthony Russo for the Boston Globe

Every once in awhile, life serves up a jolt of future shock that gets me thinking about classic science fiction of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. We’re living in the future those stories imagined, and at times they feel spookily close to prophecy. I play a game sometimes in which I consider which of those past visions of the future offer useful perspectives on some aspect of our own contemporary life.

Take the proliferation of screen zombies, for instance. I experienced one of those science-fiction jolts the other day when my 10-year-old daughter reported that there was nobody to play with after school because all the kids on the playground were sitting around looking at their phones. It makes sense; that's the behavior adults model for them. There are moments when I'm out in public — walking down the sidewalk, riding the T — and everyone around me has nose to screen in the devotional stoop that has grown ever more common in our time. Passing unseen among them, I can't decide if I'm an insubstantial ghost or they are. It's as if we all inhabit parallel universes.


So, which classic science fiction stories does the screen zombie bring to mind?

I start with "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (1943) by the great C. L. Moore and her husband, Henry Kuttner. In it, two children discover a time-traveling box of educational toys from the future and learn how to depart their parents' world, never to be seen again. Appropriately dark as the outcome may be, with the children disappearing into the technology, I think the story is in some ways too optimistic to serve as the template for understanding screen zombies.

The educational toys in the story offer complex lessons in logic and problem-solving that shape the two children's brains in fresh and exciting ways, but you can't really say that's what's happening in your typical case of phone-staring. If those inert fifth graders were watching, say, a live feed from a Mars rover or from inside an erupting volcano, I would accept that there's a genuine choice to be made between gee-whiz novelty and traditional playground pleasures. But they're mostly just texting each other (talking is "awkward") to say the usual text-message things: I'm here; you're there.


Then there's Isaac Asimov's "It's Such a Beautiful Day" (1954), which imagines a 22nd century future in which everyone gets around by teleportation machine, a shrewd figure of the way that cars, TV, and other technology were increasingly pulling Americans in from the outdoors. But Asimov adds a dissenting twist to his fable: When one family's gadgetry malfunctions, a little boy is forced to walk to school and grows to like the outdoors, which leads to the intervention of a psychiatrist, who is himself eventually converted to walking. Asimov had a point. If a phone-disabling pulse could somehow be unleashed on the playground, the kids would no doubt get back to climbing and running around.

In my more pessimistic moments I think the best template for the screen zombie might be found in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" (1961), in which one character is obliged to wear earphones that produce frequent, randomly timed bursts of noise intended to scramble his brains and prevent him from sustaining a thought. The story, a nastily comic take on state-sponsored egalitarianism, invents a Handicapper General to enforce this condition. But in our government-hating age we are only too happy to outsource the shortening of our own attention spans to ourselves in the name of distraction, entertainment, social connectivity, or some other high contemporary virtue.

I could go on. There's the machines-do-it-all nightmare of human idleness in Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" (1954), for instance, and, going farther back, E. M. Forster anticipated and nailed several aspects of our current technological condition a century ago in "The Machine Stops" (1909). I don't play this game to depress myself. Rather, I find it useful to remind myself, via these old science fiction fantasies, that we've reached our sometimes disorientingly weird present state over time and by degrees. In our habits of living we are forever trying to catch up with technology that we invented to satisfy desires that have long histories.


Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is "Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.''