July 15, 2011

Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse, Part IV: Zombies in the City

The following is an excerpt of our upcoming chapter in the edited collection Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education.

In our book chapter, "Mapping Zombies", we attempt to discern how the spatial patterns exhibited by geo-coded content are reflective of some underlying social structure. One of the more obvious trends was the concentration of most zombie-related content in just a handful of places -- generally the world's largest Anglophone cities.

Using a simple keyword search for “zombies”, the following map visualizes the absolute concentrations of references within the Google Maps database. The map reveals two important spatial patterns worth consideration. First, much of the world lacks any content mentioning “zombies” whatsoever. Second, and related, the highest concentrations of zombies in the geoweb are located in the Anglophone world, especially in the largest cities.

References to "Zombies" Worldwide

The lack of content referencing zombies can likely be explained by two factors: language and socioeconomic inequality. First, because the searches for the keywords were conducted only in English and Latin characters, all references in other languages and scripts are absent. Nonetheless, many non-English speaking countries still had a number of references to zombies, meaning that language cannot be assigned complete causation. Because previous research indicates that socio-economic factors like income and internet access play a significant role in explaining the contribution of online content, it is likely that this accounts for much of the remaining difference. This ultimately means both that much of the world is left out of processes and practices of information sharing and generation, and that content is concentrated in a relatively small number of places rather than ubiquitously distributed across space.

Even within Europe and North America (i.e., the parts of the world containing the most zombie-related content), there is a significant concentration of content in just a handful of cities. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, for instance, contain the greatest number of online references to zombies, a fact that reflects their status as important nodes in the world’s information ecosystems. Information, much like zombies, is attracted to existing centers of activity as part of the historical process of urban agglomeration.

As of 2008, the world’s population was evenly divided between those living in rural areas and those living in urban areas. Given the sharp upswing in urban inhabitants through history, that ratio will increasingly favor those who live in cities. Given this oft-cited fact, it is unsurprising that, if we are to accept that zombies are an extension or a representation of society-at-large, references to zombies are clustered in urban areas. Such connections between zombies and urbanism are not unique to the geoweb, as May (2010) has argued that “recent zombie films offer a vision of the city that articulates the corporeality and bodily ambiguity of the zombie simultaneously with depictions of urban space” (285-286).

While the cognitive connection between zombies and the city is apparent, what the mere concentration of references cannot tell us is what exactly is being referenced. Each mention of “zombies” could be positive or negative, earnest or facetious, though there is no established way of discerning this context. References to zombies could refer to the location of annual ‘zombie walks’ or a place to buy a children’s zombie costume for Halloween. There seems, however, to be an interesting contradiction in the possibilities for zombies in the city.

On the one hand, zombies represent a dystopic future for the city. As one mathematician discovered, a zombie outbreak in a city of 500,000 people would take less than one week to eradicate all non-zombie life (Smith? 2009). Given startling, if still fictitious, statistics such as this, it’s hard not to imagine the city as the locus of the zombie apocalypse in the vein of Bladerunner or any number of books by Mike Davis. On the other hand, the city is something of a safe haven from zombies. The zombie attack in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead begins in rural Pennsylvania, and the characters in The Walking Dead comic book series take shelter from zombies in the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia. This alternative understanding is perhaps more in step with the urban fetishism of some recent scholarship which views cities as the solution to the world’s problems (Glaeser 2011).

Ultimately, drawing on our previous post outlining our approach to zombies in the geoweb, it is apparent that there is some important connection between zombies and the city, though we are unsure of what exactly it may be. Nonetheless, the fact that zombies are highly concentrated in only a handful of places is reflective of the importance of cities to society and of those particular cities as command and control centers for the global economy.

Gleaser, Edward L. 2011. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. Penguin Press.

May, Jeff. 2010. Zombie geographies and the undead city. Social and Cultural Geography 11(3): 285-298.

Smith?, Robert. 2009. A report on the zombie outbreak of 2009: How mathematics can save us (no, really). Canadian Medical Association Journal 181(12): E297-E300.

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