Noble Fictions and Sacred Texts

Note: This is my contribution to the book What Do We Do about Inequality?, the first such book from an initiative called The Wicked Problems Collaborative. The book just marked one year since publication, and with the blessing of WPC publisher and editor Chris Oestereich I’m posting it here. It has been very lightly edited from the original.

It has been asserted that the relative morality of cultures and practices can be scientifically determined—“scientific” not in the sense of people in white coats doing lab experiments, but in the sense of being empirically perceivable. The idea is that we can compare one cultural practice or norm or moral tenet to others, observe how they affect human happiness, and make an objective judgment. This is a controversial way of thinking, notably advocated by Sam Harris in his concept of “The Moral Landcape,” and I largely agree with it. To be broad, I feel very secure in saying that a culture or morality that, say, makes a virtue of the subjugation, demonization, or abuse of entire classes of people is objectively worse than one that values all members of society and works to see them realize their individual potentials.

In order to say that a practice is morally better because of its impact on human happiness, we have to first decide that human happiness is something worth achieving. For if we choose not to grant that human happiness is an assumed goal of any moral code (in favor of, say, maximized production or complete subjugation of a given class or ethnic group), what we then determine is and isn’t “moral” changes drastically. There is no Cosmic Rulebook that states with utter authority that human happiness is something anyone, humans included, should give a damn about, so we have to choose it as our goal. We have to decide for ourselves that we will base our morality on what best allows for the flourishing of human happiness, and then behave as though it is an irrevocable law of existence. If we behave as though this is a malleable idea, that human happiness is only sort of important, then all choices that flow from this change entirely. Not only do we choose human happiness as our moral bedrock, but we also act as though it could be no other way even if we wanted it to be.

Let’s leave this aside for a moment.

I used to make my living (such as it was) as a Shakespearean actor. In the theatre world, there exists the concept of “the sacred text,” a kind of secular devotion to the words on the page over all else. If, as an actor, you want to make some kind of bold choice with your character, it cannot be out of the blue; there has to be support for it, an explanation of that behavior, in the script. If one is playing Willy Loman, and one feels compelled to perform him with an outlandish Australian accent, one had better see something within the words written by Arthur Miller in the text of Death of a Salesman that provides the basis for this.

The idea of the sacred text is given extra weight when referring to Shakespearean drama, partly because Shakespeare is widely considered to be the English language’s greatest writer (and so we assume that he probably knew what he was doing), but also because his works are, to us, so very old. They are now part of the very foundation of Western civilization. Go ahead and muck around with a Neil Simon comedy, even get crazy with your Bertolt Brecht (he is practically begging you to, anyway), but if you think Hamlet is entering from stage right on a hoverboard, you better find the line where he or someone else on stage says something synonymous to “But soft, what yonder hoverboard is this?”

Even if Shakespeare’s genius is taken as a given, adhering to his text and treating it as sacred is still a choice. But to take this to its extreme, to decide that the Word of William is infallible as far as the production of one of his plays goes, something has to be sacrificed. Usually, this is the audience’s attention. I suppose one could remain entirely faithful to the text of Comedy of Errors and probably wind up with a more-or-less satisfied audience. It is rather short and intellectually light for a Shakespearean play, so it doesn’t demand much of the audience’s brain power, and it also has a lot of dirty jokes that transcend time and space. On the other hand, as someone who has sat through full-text versions of plays like Henry IV and Hamlet, I can tell you that a production’s reverence for the text can go horribly awry, causing some of the most beautiful lines of English ever written to syphon off the audience’s will to live.

This gets us into what it means to treat a text as sacred. Certainly, we keep every written line intact, but must it then also be performed exactly as Shakespeare himself might have? Complete with the accent and pronunciations of sixteenth century England? The same clothes made from the same fabrics, fashioned without any industrial tools? Should the actors not bathe frequently? You see where this can go.

The idea of the sacred text is fine; it serves as an excellent guideline, a starting point for the choices that will have to be made in the mounting of a theatrical production. But if we choose to behave as though the text of a play is inerrant (and I say “behave as though” because we assume the play was written by a fallible human), the production can become shackled, rigid, and, essentially, bad art. If the goal is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening performance, choosing to treat the text as entirely sacred is a bad strategy. Instead, a production can remain faithful to the spirit of the play, cut lines where needed, add elements where they enhance the show, and make the best of it. But if the goal is to rigidly honor the words of a 400-years-dead man at all costs, those costs will likely include the joy of the art itself. By restricting the production to what it “must” be, we miss out on the all the possibilities of what it could be.

Laws are like this. As with plays, strict adherence to the precise wording of a given law (literally, “the letter of the law”) is a best-intentions means of making sure a law is applied equally to all parties, but the spirit of a law, the problem it seeks to solve, can be lost. And if they were not considered at least somewhat malleable, the Supreme Court would not have much to do. The same goes for musical notation, codes of ethics, and, yes, religious texts.

Let us now then look at an example that covers a lot of these aforementioned bases, as both a kind of code of ethics and religious text, at least for a civil religion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

American society, as well as the broader Western world, gets a lot of mileage out of this couple of sentences. It is not a law, really, nor a code, but an expression of values—a “founding document” in the clearest sense. It is a declaration that a new nation has been established, one basing its very reason for being on its statement of purpose, that “all men are created equal,” with a particular set of rights that cannot be revoked even by said nation.

For this to work, though, for the “mission statement” of the United States to make sense, one has to accept that all men are, in fact, equal. But, of course, the very men who signed this document did not believe this to be the case. The man who wrote it certainly didn’t believe it, or, if he did, he was primed for a very awkward encounter with his slaves (who would be explicitly decreed a fraction of a person each), and an uncomfortable night at home, with the wife that he and his colleagues had forgotten to include in the franchise.

We’re off to a rough start with what is more or less the single most “sacred text” on the continent, excluding of course religious scriptures. It did not have full buy-in from its authors and signatories, and certainly was not applied in any broad sense. If we presume that the word “men” in “all men are created equal” was intended to mean “humans,” it was an utterly unfulfilled idea. And if it was meant in the narrow sense of males, the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote still gives the lie to this assertion.

Not much of a sacred text then.

Interestingly, subsequent generations have broadened the meaning of “all men” to include more or less all human persons, at least in definition if not in practice. Despite enormous resistance, it seems to get broader all the time. And a lot of that progress has to do with the fact that so many of us today treat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text, in a way that its authors and signatories clearly did not.

But let us be coldly rational for a moment. Are all humans created equal? Of course we aren’t. We are unequal physically: not only do we come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, but some of us are born with catastrophic conditions, and some with mind-boggling natural talents and innate geniuses. Beyond biology, we are born into different geographies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to flourishing depending on any number of factors from availability of natural resources to whatever form of government manages the people within one’s borders. We are born with different tastes in food, sex, art, and activities. We are born into different stations in life, some into wealth and rank, others (most?) into abject poverty, and desperation. We each, individually, then take our collected circumstances, and make vastly different choices about how we will go about our lives. To assert flatly that we are created equal is so astoundingly and blatantly incorrect that it implies a fundamental problem of word comprehension on the part of the speaker.

Does this throw the entire human experiment in democracy, and well, humanism itself, into the toilet? Of course not: we still have some degree of agency here. And the founders, narrow as they were in their definitions, helped us out with this.

As a humanist myself (and a secular one at that), as much as I revere the broadened meaning ascribed to “all men are created equal,” the most meaningful words in all of America’s founding documents are actually its first:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

It is most decidedly not self-evident that all humans are created equal, for the reasons previously mentioned and an infinite number more. But the Declaration says that we will behave as though it is. It does not say, “Whereas it is self-evident that all men are created equal,” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We have decided, on our own, using our fallible human brains, that we will act as though all men are created equal and form our government around this noble fiction.

I derive great inspiration and resolve from this. In the face of staggering inequality among the human population (where, in America alone, there were slaves and royalty, aristocrats and massacred indigenous people), these men said that their new nation would begin its very existence with those words, which amount to an admission that this founding idea of equality was entirely anthropogenic. God did not say we were all equal, and there was nothing embedded in our genes to tell us this by instinct. We just decided to think that way.

That part of the text is particularly sacred to me. It is both humble, in that it admits to being wholly invented, as well as grandiose, in that it means to act on this invention and use it to build an empire of the people.

This is all very well; we have announced our intentions as a people to treat each other equally, but, why? Because it seems nice? To what end? Evidence suggests that treating all human persons as though they were equal, even if they are not inherently, increases overall human happiness. Throughout the democratic world, where societies have rejected the official codification of castes, class distinction, and discrimination and disenfranchisement based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, things have been better. Where everyone gets the same relative shot at an education, at employment opportunities, at business transactions and patronage, at social interaction, the society as a whole flourishes, leading to more opportunities and more happiness.

We are, of course, fallible humans, so we still manage to screw it up, but because this is science, we get to keep trying. It takes a long time to go from experiment to experiment, and the failed experiments can often be devastating, but we do learn. And through all the twists and turns civilization has taken in modern history, and the roller coaster ride on which democracies have taken their citizens because of varying interpretations of equality, it remains pretty obvious that those societies that act on the fiction of equality across the board contribute more to overall human happiness than those that do not. That means that even for self-serving narcissists, it makes more sense to back a system based on equality than inequality, if for no other reason than that because it tilts the odds for happiness in your favor.

Many plays begin with an acknowledgement that what the audience is about to see is fake. The opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V is not only an acknowledgement, but also an apology:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…

This thing you are about to experience is a fiction, we are told, but we need you to buy into it. It won’t work otherwise. Excuse the fact that it’s obviously not true, and go with it, and we will all benefit. You’ll have a wonderful time at the theatre, and we actors will get paid. And when it’s over, we all know that it was just a show.

Knowing that these are our goals, to entertain a crowd and keep a troupe of performers employed, we can take the text given to us by the playwright and make the best of it, without treating it as immovable. We can remain true to the spirit of the play, but cut lines where necessary, make acting and staging choices that enhance the experience of the performance but may not be explicitly called for in the text. We can do all that because we know that our aim is not to robotically recite thousands of lines of verse, but to deliver an experience of art and entertainment. We need not treat the text as “sacred” in the theological sense, though we can revere it.

Ostensibly, the aim of government is to establish the parameters of societal behavior within which human happiness can be maximized. So we make rules and laws, and we establish systems and methods for carrying them out. If we follow each one to the letter, rigidly enforcing their literal meanings through all time and in all scenarios, we miss the chance to experiment and improve. If we follow the spirit of these laws and rules and systems, we offer ourselves more of a chance to make things better for everyone affected. If we were to treat “all men are created equal” as a sacred and inerrant expression of divine will, the majority of the American population would still be left out, and human happiness would be severely stultified, capped at the happiness of males, presuming we are at least not limiting this definition to white, property-holding males.

It is a remarkable thing, to see a theatrical performance in which the play itself acknowledges its own artifice. It is liberating for audience and actor alike to openly agree that we will all now consent to a fiction for the purpose of maximizing the happiness of the evening.

It is astounding that we could do the same when building a society. We can admit to ourselves that while our collective equality may be a fiction, yet we will hold it as a self-evident truth in order to maximize human happiness over the span of generations. The rest of the words in our play—in our constitutions, in our law books, in our manifestos, in our declarations and proclamations—are there to uphold the spirit of that idea, the idea of universal equality as a means to the general well-being. This suspension of disbelief is difficult, for some more than others, but once we all buy in, we can enjoy the hell out of the show.

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In a Dark, Confusing World: Carl Sagan, 20 Years Gone

20c_carl_saganTen years ago today I wrote a piece about the impact Carl Sagan had on my life, commemorating what was then the tenth anniversary of his death.

Today, obviously, Carl Sagan is 20 years gone, so I’ve dusted off the original piece to see if it still holds up. It does. Every word of it remains true. (Except I might today not talk about being “excited” to live in the world, but, you know, I grow more curmudgeonly and Asperger-y as I age.)

So, to mark two decades of being Carl-less, here’s “Why Paul Was Sad That Day,” written December 20, 2006. I’ll have additional thoughts at the end of the original piece.


I don’t remember where I was when I first heard that Carl Sagan had passed away, but I do remember where I was later that night. I was in college, hanging out at my friend’s apartment. A few close friends were there, and I brought up the news item of Dr. Sagan’s death.

“Carl Sagan died today,” I said, sadly.

“Who’s Carl Sagan?” was the reply.

I was totally surprised, because I assumed everyone knew who he was. I didn’t expect that most people had read a bunch of his books, or had seen Cosmos (recently, anyway), but surely he was famous enough to warrant recognition by my friends at least. I mean, Johnny Carson had imitated him! “Billions and billions!” Come on people!

I tried to convey to them why it was so bad that we had lost this important man, and while my friends played along and humored me, I really couldn’t get my message across. I would have to grieve a little more privately. It was too lonely to be openly morose about the death of a man who, to everyone I was with, was no more than some guy that nerds worship for space or something. Maybe now, ten years later, I can have another go at it.

When Cosmos first aired, I was too young to understand any of it, at age three or four. It wasn’t long after, though, maybe only a couple of years, that my dad played me the series, recorded on videotape (on Beta, no less). He knew I was interested in space, but only inasmuch as it was a location where Star Wars took place and the Transformers came from. Would I sit still for a lengthy PBS series on the real thing?

Not only did I love the series as a child, but I would continue to love it as I grew up. Having the entire series on videotape was a tremendous blessing, as I would watch it in its entirety every couple of years for most of my childhood, well into college. In our house, Carl Sagan was a huge celebrity, frequently cited (and imitated). We would be delighted to see him appear on other shows, or be referenced or made fun of by comics. But what was it that was so great about him?

Carl Sagan was a gifted storyteller. Even to a fifth grader, the story of evolution, the birth of the solar system, the building of DNA, or the death of a star were all as fascinating as any fictitious story about monsters or aliens. While these things were no doubt of passing interest to me as long as I can remember, Carl Sagan made them thrilling.

As I got older, and read his books, I realized that he was about more than appreciating how cool outer space was. My appreciation for his work deepened tenfold when I heard his call to rationality. His dismissal of superstition and shortsightedness was influential to me even in the early part of my life, but it was upon reading The Demon-Haunted World that I had a framework to discuss it. I had a means to verbalize and visualize what had always been to me simply an abstraction, wanting to be logical and thoughtful. Carl Sagan shifted, in my mind, from a celebrity to a role model.

With Dr. Sagan, you didn’t need to layer on any supernatural hocus-pocus for the world to inspire and overwhelm. Biology, chemistry, and physics were plenty astounding on their own. And it wasn’t for science’s sake, or even for wonder’s sake. It was for our sake. Sagan knew that to understand our Universe, and to marvel at life on our planet, was to cherish it, and to work to preserve it. And by preserving it, we preserve ourselves. If there’s anything I think Carl Sagan wanted, it was for humans to survive into the millennia, so we can get a fair shot at growing, evolving, and unlocking more of the Universe’s secrets. He essentially wanted us to stay alive, and not to stay put.

the_sounds_of_earth_record_cover_-_gpn-2000-001978I have been a professional actor and musician for many years, and I am now moving into the world of professional politics. I am not, and probably never will be, a scientist. But if Carl Sagan’s goal was to open the wonders of science and the value of reason to non-scientists, I am his poster boy. I think Sagan’s purpose was not necessarily to make scientists, but to sow an appreciation and enthusiasm for the Universe as it actually is. Even though my career and career-to-be are not strictly about the workings of the world at the quantum level, the appreciation for those things that Sagan has fostered in me has made me excited to live in this world and inspired me to understand it and work toward its welfare.

Today, I read the works of folks like Richard Dawkins, Tim Ferris, and Brian Greene, and I devour their words and delight in the struggle to wrap my brain around concepts like branes, supersymmetry, and Bussard collectors. The problem is that I never would have taken the plunge into the world these scientists inhabit if Carl Sagan had not opened the door for me in the first place. I fear that without someone like him today, someone who can ignite the imagination as he could, far too few people will be drawn to science and reason. In a dark, confusing world that seems to be shying further and further away from those very things, I mourn the loss of Carl Sagan anew, on this day, the tenth anniversary of his death. I wish so very much he was still with us, because we need him today more than ever.

And that, my college friends of 1996, is why I was so sad that day.


Back to 2016. That last sentiment, that we need Sagan now more than ever, has only become more true. Only yesterday, our Electoral College formalized the election of a man to the presidency who embodies the brazen rejection of everything good Sagan represented. Misinformation is the rule now, not the exception. Conspiracy theory and emotion-fueled irrationality is the coin of the realm. Planetary-level existential threats, the kinds that Sagan would have given all of his energies to working against, are now accelerated.

If there exists an individual or individuals who have the inspirational power that Sagan possessed, I’m not aware of him or her. Many come close. But I’m afraid that they don’t come close enough. I do hope I am wrong.

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Jill Stein’s Shameful Pander on Vaccines and Homeopathy

About a month ago on a Reddit AMA, Dr. Jill Stein, the presumptive Green Party nominee for president, was asked a simple question about her official stance on vaccines and homeopathy.

Stein is, of course, a physician, so the answer, one would think, would be simple. For example, “Vaccines are safe and save lives, and everyone who can get vaccinated against preventable diseases absolutely should. Homeopathy is a sham pseudoscience that doesn’t do anything, wasting people’s money and risking people’s health while having no effect.”

Nope. You see she’s running in the Green Party, and hoping to pick up some of that sweet, sweet Bernie-rage. So here’s her answer:

I don’t know if we have an “official” stance, but I can tell you my personal stance at this point. According to the most recent review of vaccination policies across the globe, mandatory vaccination that doesn’t allow for medical exemptions is practically unheard of. In most countries, people trust their regulatory agencies and have very high rates of vaccination through voluntary programs. In the US, however, regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs. So the foxes are guarding the chicken coop as usual in the US. So who wouldn’t be skeptical? I think dropping vaccinations rates that can and must be fixed in order to get at the vaccination issue: the widespread distrust of the medical-indsutrial complex.

Vaccines in general have made a huge contribution to public health. Reducing or eliminating devastating diseases like small pox and polio. In Canada, where I happen to have some numbers, hundreds of annual death from measles and whooping cough were eliminated after vaccines were introduced. Still, vaccines should be treated like any medical procedure–each one needs to be tested and regulated by parties that do not have a financial interest in them. In an age when industry lobbyists and CEOs are routinely appointed to key regulatory positions through the notorious revolving door, its no wonder many Americans don’t trust the FDA to be an unbiased source of sound advice. A Monsanto lobbyists and CEO like Michael Taylor, former high-ranking DEA official, should not decide what food is safe for you to eat. Same goes for vaccines and pharmaceuticals. We need to take the corporate influence out of government so people will trust our health authorities, and the rest of the government for that matter. End the revolving door. Appoint qualified professionals without a financial interest in the product being regulated. Create public funding of elections to stop the buying of elections by corporations and the super-rich.

For homeopathy, just because something is untested doesn’t mean it’s safe. By the same token, being “tested” and “reviewed” by agencies tied to big pharma and the chemical industry is also problematic. There’s a lot of snake-oil in this system. We need research and licensing boards that are protected from conflicts of interest. They should not be limited by arbitrary definitions of what is “natural” or not.

What the fuck was that? I mean, I honestly can’t discern an actual position out of this inscrutable wall of pandering.

The best I can glean from this mess is, “Vaccines may have saved lives, but now you should be afraid for your life because Big Pharma.”

And on homeopathy, what the fuck does “just because something is untested doesn’t mean it’s safe” even mean? I honestly don’t know. But then she gets back to making people scared. It’s not the fake medicine that’s the problem, you see, but Big Pharma pulling the strings. I mean, YOU CAN’T TRUST ANYONE.

I so deeply regret my support of Ralph Nader in 2000, but I always maintained a place in my heart for the Greens, those well-meaning hippies. But this is just gross. Stein is a fucking doctor, and she should at least have enough respect for the voters to speak a plain truth about issues that are literally life and death.

And if she actually believes what she’s saying (assuming she even knows what she’s saying), then all the worse. Be gone, Green Party. You once seemed full of fresh ideas, but now, well, you’ve spoiled.

RT This Post for Dopamine Squirts

This piece by Darya Rose is about indulging in things that are bad for you, but that you think are making you happy, like alcohol and junk food. But it speaks to me in terms of what I have come to need from my creative pursuits: attention.

Dopamine fools your brain into mistaking reward for real pleasure. In the heat of the moment you believe that following your dopamine urges will guide you to certain happiness, but more often than not it leads you into temptations you later regret. [ . . . ]

Serotonin, GABA and oxytocin are chemicals in your brain that are actually associated with feeling good. They boost your mood, help you relax and cause you to feel close and connected to people and things you love.

Activities that promote the release of these brain chemicals include exercise, music, meditation, prayer, creativity, learning and socializing.

You know this intuitively when you are cool, calm and collected. When everything is fine the rational part of your brain can clearly articulate that these wholesome activities lead to real fulfillment, and that following your urges and cravings usually leaves you feeling worse (with a dose of shame thrown in for good measure).

I think a big part of my problem is that I have allowed myself to believe that the pings of the connected digital world are the signals of something truly fulfilling as opposed to being mental junkfood. But if I really want to heal my brain with the aforementioned cocktail of true-happiness chemicals, I need to find things to do that aren’t associated with feedback, pageviews, shares, likes, favs, retweets. Less reliance on dopamine squirts, more serotonin brewing.

Less blogging? More blogging?

Maybe it’s time for those grown-ups’ coloring books.

Ironic Imaginary Conversations

Photo credit: leafar. via / CC BY-SA
Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard reports on research that shows how animosity toward nonbelievers can be reduced by the religious having an imaginary, positive conversation with an atheist. And most of the subjects said they didn’t know any atheists personally:

Those who engaged in the imagined conversation “expressed significantly less distrust toward atheists” than those who simply ruminated about the subject. The researchers conclude this more positive attitude was driven by “more comfort with atheists, and more willingness to engage with atheists.”

Moreover, a reduction in distrust, which the researchers call “the central component of anti-atheist prejudice,” was even found among religious fundamentalists. Perhaps they enjoyed the imaginary give-and-take.

This is encouraging, but just soak in the irony here.

Talking to an imaginary atheist makes a person who normally talks to an imaginary superbeing feel better about atheists.

We’ve been doing this all wrong this whole time. Think of all the social advancement we could have already made if we’d just been make-believe.

Immortality the Ineffable Underdog

Photo credit: Macrophy (Grant Beedie) via / CC BY-SA

Everyone you love and everyone you know and everything you touch will someday be gone. We will lose our lovers, our friends, our parents, our children, our animals, ourselves. The pain will be almost intolerable. The jobs we define ourselves by will end. Anything you make with your own two hands will eventually be dust. It will take only a few generations for you to be completely forgotten within your own family.

This is by Elmo Keep (she who is responsible for so much of the Mars One reporting/debunking that I’ve written about on this blog), who has written a positively brilliant, lengthy piece for The Verge on transhumanism, Zoltan Istvan, and the effort to harness technology to make human life, in some form or another, everlasting. Read the whole goddamn thing.

And this passage by Keep about the unbearable inevitability of death, this is exactly why I (like other white, male, no-longer-young tech enthusiasts) am so attracted to transhumanism in the abstract. We find ourselves living at a time when the ascent of computer superintelligences and, simultaneously, our ability to “meld” with computers are remarkably plausible. Perhaps not certain or even likely, but it’s out there in the hypothetical “someday.” If you squint, you can almost faintly see the event horizon of the Singularity.

And because I’m/we’re no longer young, we feel the tension, the gravitational pull, the off-putting gaze of death. We don’t have to squint to see it over the horizon. We just can’t quite tell how far away it is, exactly, but we know for certain it’s there.

So it’s a race, of sorts, or we imagine it to be. Two runners, death (nature) and immortality (technology), and the finish line is our lives.

We’re rooting for the Singularity, or at least for technology to save us from death. But right now, it’s no more than rooting, and for an underdog no less (or no more). If you’re like me and pushing 40, being saved by technology is a lot less likely than it is for, say, my kids.

But even so, we’re talking about something ineffable, really. A notion, a dream, nothing that’s been proven to be the case, to be imminent. We don’t know that technology will defeat death, or even vastly extend and preserve human life. We just really, really hope, and see inklings of possibilities. But that’s not enough for anyone to be hanging their hats on. To be working on? Investing in? Sure, fine.

I can’t afford to get my hopes up about it, though. I couldn’t bear the disappointment. The grief-upon-grief-upon-regret. I can watch for developments, and I can cheer on advances. But I can’t let myself believe in it.

But, oh, would I like to. I would like to so very much.

The Fear of Being Phoneless, Quantified (Sort of)

Photo credit: JLM Photography. / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
This summer, researchers at Iowa State University made some easy headlines with a study on “nomophobia,” their term for anxiety about being away from one’s smartphone. I can’t get access to the paper itself, so I have no idea what exactly they found, but according to press materials, they gave respondents a 20-question qualitative survey about the level of anxiety they experience in certain phone-free situations.

Respondents were to rate their level of anxiety from 1 to 7, 7 being the most severe, but they also omitted any mention of what total score, when all 20 answers are added up, qualifies one as a “nomophobe.”

So here’s me thinking, well I must be one! I mean, I’m threatened by the very concept of smartwatches because one of their ostensible purposes is to give me less time with my smartphone. No thank you!

So I decided to take this little questionnaire, even though I’d probably learn nothing new, and to do so in public, with you, right now. Fun? Fun.

Here we go.

* * * Begin questionnaire * * *

1. I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone.

Paul’s answer: 7

How else would I know about things?

2. I would be annoyed if I could not look information up on my smartphone when I wanted to do so.

Paul’s answer: 7

Look, certain expectations have been built up around the Information Age and the post-iPhone era. I pined for this ability when I saw Penny and her computer book on Inspector Gadget, I lusted after the T-Mobile Sidekick when it brought Google to a cell phone, and now I get mine.

3. Being unable to get the news (e.g., happenings, weather, etc.) on my smartphone would make me nervous.

Paul’s answer: 7

Well first of all, my job is heavily affected by current events, as are most of my hobbies that aren’t strict performing arts. I’m not able to do most of my work or play if I can’t get the news whenever I want. Or at least I’m hampered. I mean, I could get a newspaper or something. Shut up.

4. I would be annoyed if I could not use my smartphone and/or its capabilities when I wanted to do so.

Paul’s answer: 7

I mean, I’m always annoyed, and this would break many camels’ backs.

5. Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me.

Paul’s answer: 7

This is getting a little cruel. I mean, do I have to think about this? I assume this presupposes that fast access to a charger or backup battery is not available. In which case…guh…guys, I’m a little sweaty.

6. If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit, I would panic.

Paul’s answer: 5

I mean, I’d just pay for it, and explain it to my wife later. Thus the 5.

7. If I did not have a data signal or could not connect to Wi-Fi, then I would constantly check to see if I had a signal or could find a Wi-Fi network.

Paul’s answer: 7

What, I’m supposed to just give up? Is this not America?

8. If I could not use my smartphone, I would be afraid of getting stranded somewhere.

Paul’s answer: 8

You have to understand, I have no sense of direction or orientation. You know the way that some people are just tone deaf, and those of us with strong musical ears can’t understand what’s wrong with them? I’m the tone deaf guy, but with where I am in three-dimensional space. Okay, even two dimensions are too many. Before GPS, I was pretty much in a constant state of lost.

9. If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it.

Paul’s answer: A million

Is this questionnaire not paying attention? Come on.

Oh look, new section!

If I did not have my smartphone with me…

10. I would feel anxious because I could not instantly communicate with my family and/or friends.

Paul’s answer: 4

This is different. I want to be able to keep up with my wife and kids, but for the species at large, no, I’m fine without yammering with them on a steady click.

11. I would be worried because my family and/or friends could not reach me.

Paul’s answer: 3

I mean, do they need me right now? ’Cause like I just sat down.

12. I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and calls.

Paul’s answer: 1

You know what that’s cool.

13. I would be anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or friends.

Paul’s answer: 3

They’re fine.

14. I would be nervous because I could not know if someone had tried to get a hold of me.

Paul’s answer: 2

Please don’t get ahold of me. Hey look, I’m doing pretty well here!

15. I would feel anxious because my constant connection to my family and friends would be broken.

Paul’s answer: 6

Okay, now we’re moving into parent-paranoia territory. My friends are fine, but go and bring my kids into it. Sheesh.

16. I would be nervous because I would be disconnected from my online identity.

Paul’s answer: 7

Look, I’ve been cultivating my ridiculous, cartoon-like online identity since I was 13, and I’m not about to let it flitter away. Bill Boulden once called me his “favorite Twitter curmudgeon,” and do NOT take that lightly. If you think my online identity is a mess, you should see the shitshow that is my meatspace identity.

17. I would be uncomfortable because I could not stay up-to-date with social media and online networks.

Paul’s answer: 4

I like my Twitter pals and all, but you know, a lot of you people can go scratch.

18. I would feel awkward because I could not check my notifications for updates from my connections and online networks.

Paul’s answer: 4

See above.

19. I would feel anxious because I could not check my email messages.

Paul’s answer: 5

Not the end of the world, but what if I miss a good coupon email or something?

20. I would feel weird because I would not know what to do.

Paul’s answer: A million trillion.

* * * End of questionnaire. * * *

Let’s add up the score, shall we?

Paul’s Final Nomophobia Score:


Yeah, that’s about what I expected. Maybe a little under.