Digital integrity vs. the zombies

Reckless texting. Privacy drama. Tech addictions. SN&R's advice columnist counsels readers on how to live a better life online.

illustration by hayley doshay

Joey Garcia writes the weekly Ask Joey column for SN&R.

I witnessed the beginning of the zombie apocalypse about six years ago at a food court in the Los Angeles International Airport.

When the ruckus started, I was waiting with colleagues for a flight home. I turned to see a nattily dressed man, mid-60s, in a face-plant on the bar. He tried to rise but fell off his barstool, demanding, from the floor, another drink. The bartender refused. The older man clawed up the barstool and bellowed a drink order. The bartender left. My colleagues turned away to mind their own business. I didn’t, thankfully, because I would have missed the zombies. The first one, a young businessman in a stylish suit, goaded his wingmen: “Hey, let’s post this on Facebook!” Laughing, each reached for a briefcase and pulled out a phone.

I reached for my indignation and opened my mouth: “You think that’s funny? What if that was your father? Or grandfather? Would you want that video posted on YouTube or Facebook if this man was a family member?” As the young men tucked their phones away, one turned to me and said, “I never thought about it that way.”

Why would he? Zombies are not mindful.

In his brilliant book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage, $15), Jaron Lanier writes that zombies are like people in every way, except “they have no internal experience.”

“Unfortunately, it is only possible for non-zombies to observe the tell tale sign of zombie hood. To zombies, everyone looks the same,” he says.

Lanier, best known as the father of virtual-reality technology, is right. With apologies to Pogo, we have seen the zombies, and they are us. Well, not all of us. There’s still hope. Here’s how to enjoy social media without allowing it to eat your brain:

1. Kill your inner troll

Trolls are people who use the Internet to post inflammatory, cruel and off-topic messages in online communities such as forums, chat rooms or blogs. When a troll is outed (their secret Internet life made known), their friends often express the same denial we hear after a serial killer’s arrest (“But he was so nice!”). That’s because trolls spew vitriol anonymously on innocent strangers instead of dealing with the source of their pain. If you hide behind an online identity to harm others (yes, even if you think it’s funny), stop. Process your anger with a therapist—don’t dump that radioactive waste in someone else’s yard. Develop digital integrity: Be the same person in the flesh as you are online. Then, work consciously each day to become kinder and more generous.

2. Adopt a grown-up vocabulary

There’s a lot of drama hitting the airwaves by people who believe Internet activity is, and should be, private. So, here’s my version of words with friends: definitions. When an individual establishes and maintains a boundary that allows healthy separation between self and another, and does so without lies or deceit, that’s privacy. Confidentiality is respecting the stories and information people tell you, unless they give you permission to discuss what they have revealed. Secrecy is using information to create a (false) sense of control and power, a slice of inner space that (you pretend) no one else can intrude on. What we want is to keep secrets, often because our public selves and private selves don’t align. Regardless of your participation in the pushback against the U.S. government’s collection of metadata, why not also see that situation as a spiritual call to practice integrity online? Ditto if you’re a job seeker annoyed by employers who require social-media passwords on job applications.

3. Transparency bites

One online-dating site asks: What is the most private thing you are willing to admit? People write some ridiculously personal things. It’s worrisome that a faceless questionnaire elicits information now public for eternity. The rise of the online world contributes to the loss of true intimacy (face-to-face, heart-to-heart) but not the desire for it. The desire for intimacy compels self-disclosure. We open up online about our peccadilloes and the skeletons in our closets with anyone who pays attention. It’s not wrong, but there are consequences, and we must shoulder responsibility for potential fallout. Don’t believe me yet? A TV show brought in people to meet a “psychic” who gained the confidence of participants by sharing specifics no one else would know about each individual. Turns out that every personal detail the psychic offered was mined from Facebook. Even if your settings are private, consider Benjamin Franklin’s words: “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.”

4. From iPhone to I-Thou

The philosopher Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” concept will slay the zombie in you and resurrect your humanity. I-Thou is a life perspective that focuses on meeting all beings authentically, without qualifications, expectations or objectification. It recognizes the entire being and the encounter as sacred. I-Thou is the opposite of the narcissistic I-centered existence of most social media.

5. Escape from the dark side

Be present. End phone conversations before you are face-to-face with tellers, clerks or cashiers. Don’t chat or text while driving (yes, your texting is obvious to people in the vehicles around you). Don’t videotape strangers or friends doing embarrassing things, and don’t post anything on social-media sites without the expressed permission of everyone pictured or named. Above all, do no harm. Imagine your post, along with your name, address, phone number and photo plastered on a billboard that the people you love and admire are reading. If after that reality check you still want to post your opinion, proceed with compassion.

When you walk your dog or ride your bike, leave your phone at home. If you think you need your phone for safety, turn it on “airplane mode,” so you can dial 911 but be otherwise undisturbed while outdoors. While crossing the street or walking in parking lots, don’t text or be phone fixated. By checking out of your surroundings and into the e-world, you are forcing others to police you. Mindlessly moving your limbs with no notion of what is happening offscreen is deadly. You are an easy target for a wide variety of crime.

Build immunity against zombitis by sitting quietly in nature and at meals unaccompanied by electronic devices. Then, fast from social media or from electronic devices (one day a week or a weekend each month) to get your heart and brain back.

The only way we can stop the zombie apocalypse is by refusing to lose our humanity. So join me in practicing digital integrity. That way, when the dead walk, you and I will still be free. Ω