Zombie Technologies

Why we need to reimagine our future

This article is originally published at Envisioning.

When we google the words “futuristic city,” the image above is the first that appears on the results page.

This image isn’t, in any way, unusual. Indeed, all the other pictures on the page also portray a set of blueish skyscrapers, roads, and an ultra urbanist landscape. The lack of variation in those results shows that the mainstream meaning of futurism is connected to a static idea.

Admittedly, other researchers have already figured that out. The philosopher Mark Fisher said that futuristic, as a concept, “refers to a set of existing associations, an already existing and established set of protocols. It doesn’t refer to an actual future.

The concept of what we consider futuristic was established in the past, probably before the urgency of concerns like global warming and resource managementIn this sense, our futuristic images are not advanced, but old and anachronic with the contemporary world.

Alexandre Monnin, the Head of the Strategy and Design for the Anthropocene Master of Science, explores this anachronism by relabeling several tech innovations with the term zombie technologies.

Zombie Technologies

Monnin, one of the leading proponents of the term, defines zombie technologies as “technologies that are not based on renewables or are based on finite materials. They remain usable for a short time, and since their components are not part of any biochemical cycle, they end up producing waste that cannot disappear.”

Biogeochemical cycles are natural ways of passing on chemical components from animals, vegetables, and minerals. Some elements, like carbon, are part of a biochemical cycle: it is breath out by animals and taken in from the atmosphere by plants, then kept into the soil in fossils or rocks, to then be slowly released into the atmosphere to start the cycle again and to keep the Earth warm. Of course, our extreme release of carbon from the soil has disturbed this cycle. Anyway, carbon is always in movement; but some metalloids are almost static because their process is prolonged, and once mined out of the soil, they create a very persistent kind of trash. Unfortunately, many technologies rely on such materials.

Take, for instance, a smartphone: its electronic components are made of metalloids such as silicon and germanium; these metals are not renewable and exist on Earth in a finite amount. Their extraction is very energy-consuming and polluting. Moreover, a 2017 study discovered that, on average, the global population replaces their phone every 21 months. A smartphone is useful for less than 2 years, whereas its remains will exist as debris for millions of years. Smartphones, the way they exist today, are perfect examples of zombie technologies.

Zombie technologies have a very short lifespan, and after that, they simply refuse to die, their remains piling up as trash to hunt humanity for millions of years.

Currently, most of our tech and cutting-edge innovations are still part of this group.

This production model was put into motion in a time where we could afford to ignore the finitude of our resources. Now, such a model serves an obsolete future and is fundamentally out of sync with the world’s urgent concerns.

Living Machines

As a way out of this path, researchers such as José Halloy, Professor at Université de Paris, and Susan Hockfield, former director of the MIT, suggest transitioning from zombie technologies to living machines.

Halloy defines living machines as devices made from low-power, widely-available, and highly recyclable components, “including the type of chemistry and ecological processes found in living systems,” such as the “self-regulating ecological cycles of birth, growth, death, and re-use found in the natural world.

Living Machines are technologies that have longer usability and repairability, or are entirely regenerative, just like living systems are. Some examples of living technologies are carbon nanotubes, which can substitute silicon in computer chips or protein-based water filters.

Another step for transitioning to a more livable model could be decoupling; that is when a system can thrive without increasing environmental pressure. Such an approach can be found in the Doughnut Economic model, suggested by economist Kate Raworth, which recently is being adopted by the City of Amsterdam. The Doughnut Economic model incorporates the planetary boundaries in its very architecture.

There is, indeed, a growing number of futurists that are dreaming new dreams and imagining innovative, updated models of the future. The idea is to sparkle a shift in perception to see all our zombie tech devices as antiquated. They belong to those retro-futuristic blueish city scenarios, not to the actual future.

For Monnin, if we continue to build on these old futuristic scenarios, our so-called ‘smart cities’ will very literally be inherited as “ruins of the past.” Besides, no one wants to live on a planet inhabited by zombies.