Texting Zombies: The Scourge of Text Messaging in Public

Texting Zombies: The Scourge of Text Messaging in Public

Posted Jul 02, 2010

The texting zombies are after me.  One zombie nearly caused me to crash while biking this morning. I was attacked by a dog during my bike commute. For one small part of my ride, I use a trail that has a fair amount of pedestrian traffic (it's the safest place to cross the freeway). I slow down on the trail and call out as I approach people - basic good manners when biking. I called as I was overtaking a woman walking her dog. She showed no sign of noticing me. She also didn't reel in her German Shepherd on the 20 foot long extension leash. I called out again. No response. I biked carefully by and the dog came after me. I just avoided getting knocked over and attacked. The gnashing teeth missed my leg by inches. Why didn't the woman notice me? She was a texting zombie (for the record, I wasn't texting and neither was the dog - we were both aware of each other).

My wife and I stopped at the grocery store last night to pick up a few items for dinner. A woman suddenly stopped in the aisle directly in front of us. I nearly walked into her. Why did she stop? To respond to the text message she was reading.  Another texting zombie.

We left the store and were walking back to our car. A man was backing his car out of his space. He didn't see us and nearly hit us. We avoided him. I'm pretty sure he never saw us because he wasn't really looking as he was backing out. Why? He was looking at his cell phone. I assume he was checking his text messages.  The zombies are everywhere.

Walking across my university's campus has become much more difficult in the last few years. I've always had to navigate around the other people. Usually those other people help. Walking in a public space is a cooperative enterprise. People look around, make eye contact, and slightly modify their routes to avoid each other. Cell phone users fail at walking. They don't cooperate. People texting don't look around, don't make eye contact, and don't help with the successful passing. People talking on their cell phones may look around, but they don't see. I'd be happy if they cell phone users would simply walk straight. At least then I could avoid them. Of course they weave all over the place and I feel like I'm in a video game trying to dodge dumb obstacles that are coming toward me.

The news media has been inundated with stories of people hurting themselves while texting. They walk into things, trip over objects, and fall down holes. They cause traffic accidents and run tow trucks into swimming pools. I admit that I find it a little funny to read some of these stories when the people are only hurting themselves. Unfortunately, they hurt others as well.

People believe they can multi-task successfully. Several researchers looking at the effects of cell phone conversations on various driving and walking tasks have found that people can't multi-task successfully (see my earlier post titled Unicycling Clowns, Train Wrecks, and Pilots Forgetting to Land). Instead cell phone users experience inattentional blindness - they lose awareness of the world around them. Cell phone conversations also mean that people are less likely to experience attentional capture - unusual stimuli no longer grab their attention (see my post titled Squirrel!).

Cell phone users believe they can multi-task because they don't realize all the things they are missing. When researchers ask, cell phone users believe they are aware of the world around them. When you show them what they've missed, they are amazed. When someone experiences inattentional blindness, they are unaware of the world and unaware that they are unaware. They are completely oblivious.

Sometimes it feels like the texters are zombies coming after me. They stumble through the world wreaking havoc wherever they roam.  Cell phones turn normal people into zombies.

I'm wondering about a new campaign to promote safe cell phone use. We've made it too easy for cell phone users (both texters and talkers) to stumble through the world. The rest of us constantly dodge the texting zombies. Maybe we should stop enabling their dangerous lifestyles. Instead of dodging the texting zombies, maybe we should quietly stand in their paths. Of course, this may not be safe if they are driving cars or walking large dogs.