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Bug Metaphors Billions Cicada 17 year cycle 1990’s web culture hive swarm buzz

May 9, 2013

Carl Zimmer in NYTimes: “Marvels and a Few Mysteries in Cicadas’ 17 Years” is about the story buzzing around New York news all week regarding the coming storm of dormant insects that arise from underground once every 17 years to mate in the trees:

From North Carolina to Connecticut, billions of creatures with eyes the color of blood and bodies the color of coal are crawling out of the earth. … Those Clinton-era larvae then squirmed into the dirt and spent the next 17 years sucking fluid from tree roots. Now, at last, they are ready to produce the next generation.

They are called “Brood II” and Zimmer explains how this kind of mass burst helps them survive because there are not enough predators to kill them when they bust out in the billions. Still, there are surely ways humans in the anthropocene can disturb their development. What if one year they just don’t come? Is it always 17 years exactly? Biology is amazing.

Cicada are harmless but they are disgusting and annoying. The biggest annoyance is the noise, but the next biggest annoyance is the mess; first they shed their larval exoskeleton and then the males scream all night trying to find females. And then they die dropping like giant flies, flapping helplessly on the ground, buzzing and bouncing hysterically if you try to touch them before they are completely dead. If you have pets, be careful. Some dogs and cats will want to toy or eat these nasty bugs. As disgusting as it might be, it’s probably not particularly harmful (see “Don’t Worry If Your Pet Eats Cicadas, American Verterinary Medical Association“) – and reaching into your dog’s mouth when they have ‘prey’ can actually be more dangerous. Overall you just want to stay away from these annoying bugs but of course there will be billions of them, so good luck with that.

Zimmer did not succumb to the temptation to use the word zombie. He’s used it before but maybe this time just seemed too easy. Compare:

The AP story, via FirstCoastNews: “Billions of cicadas coming to East Coast” quoted:

“It’s not like these hordes of cicadas suck blood or zombify people,” says May Berenbaum, a University of Illinois entomologist.

CBS News via WIBW: “Obnoxious Bugs Scheduled To Invade The East Coast

If you live on the East Coast, fair warning, you’re about to be invaded, but it’s not the zombie apocalypse. It’s actually an invasion by billions of creatures coming back to life after being buried since the 1990s.

zombie may berenbaum zombie carl zimmer

It’s funny how the media here seems to want to allude to the zombie meme but discount it. If ever there was a zombie swarm this would seem it, but the harmlessness is perhaps the key. These bugs are not dangerous, disgusting but not dangerous. Is “zombies” reserved for situations of danger only? These mindless buggers are going to swarm and make noise – they are a primordial flash mob meet up, trolls on 4chan.

Also this week, in Ars Technica, Wired Magazine: by Mark Piesing:

Humanity has often looked to the insect world for its technological metaphors, and now for digital inspiration

Swarms. Hive minds. The web*.

It can be hard to avoid talking about our digital culture without using insect metaphors.

Yet for new media theorist Jussi Parikka, it may be more than just a metaphor.

Mr. Parikka has a book “Insect Media” (2010) and a more recent book on “What is Media Archaeology” (2012). Visit Parikka’s site, “Machinology”, for his complete list of publications.

Recall connection of zombies to hackers and issues of identity and frauds and privacy and free expression. I am also reminded of Robert Heinlein’sStarship Troopers” and the alien arachnoid species “the Bugs”.

What other kind of 17 year cycles are out there hiding underground? Presumably this kind of thing happens in other parts of nature, maybe in economics and in cultural trends too. It reminds me of the booms and busts in digital startups and housing markets – lots of innovation all at once and the major predators can’t stop everyone – some are bound to succeed and they will frame the structure until the next generation.

See more ZombieLaw posts tagged insects

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From → Academics, computers

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