There’s Something About Those Stars

Every night, I venture onto my back porch and spend about 15 minutes looking up at the stars. Because I do this at pretty much the same time every night, I see the same stars over and over again, and almost exactly in the same position as the night before.

The constellation that gets my attention is Cassiopeia. I don’t know where I first learned about this particular constellation, but it’s one of the more famous ones, so I imagine it was sometime when I was young. Even still, I don’t think I understood how to spot it until I was in my twenties.

It looks kind of like a tilted “w” that sits low off the horizon, to the north and east of the Big Dipper (otherwise known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear — though truth be told, the Big Dipper is only the central section of the even bigger Bear).

I somehow know Cassiopeia was a Greek queen, but I don’t know how that queen’s story earned her a constellation (not that she didn’t deserve it or anything; I simply don’t know the facts of her story).

Usually, during these minutes of stargazing, I don’t carry my iPhone on me. This has not been because of a deliberate decision on my part; it’s merely been an ever-lengthening coincidence.

The lack of an iPhone hasn’t bothered me, though it’s often the only minutes each day when my phone isn’t somewhere within reach — or at least, the only minutes each day when I’m not subconsciously itching to touch my iPhone (regardless of whether it’s within reach).

The reaching for it, just the gentle desire to touch it, to make sure it’s there, I feel it, subconsciously, all day, and when I’m not able to do so, some part of me, sometimes consciously but always subconsciously, cries out, “Where’s my phone? Where’s my phone?,” until finally, there it is!, and I have it again.

But that itch goes away each night when I look up at the stars and pick out Cassiopeia. I don’t notice this lack of an itch, but thinking back on it, it’s true: the itch completely goes away.

Tonight, however, I had my iPhone on me when I went outside, and after a few minutes of looking up at Cassiopeia, I remembered it, and so after the required unconscious tap on my Facebook app, I opened my web brower and Googled the constellation’s name, not because I wanted to do a full search of the Internet but because I needed a shortcut to the relevant page on Wikipedia.

And Wikipedia (i.e., the wisdom of the crowd) told me that Cassiopeia was the mother of the woman whom was tied to that rock in The Clash of the Titans, the one whom Perseus wanted to save. She (the daughter) was served up to a sea monster to appease the wrath of Poseidon, who was holding the mother guilty for the crime of blasphemy, which she (the mother) committed when she boasted that both she and her daughter were more beautiful than the daughters of a sea god. The sea god was not Poseidon, mind you, but rather, the god who ruled the seas prior to Poseidon, so like, one of the sea’s still-living, past-ruling-gods (kind of like the sea’s version of Jimmy Carter).

Poseidon had to do something about such a boast. There’s a reason blasphemy is a sin. Blasphemy calls into question the power dynamic between a subject and its ruler. In order for the ruler to continue to rule, these dynamics cannot be doubted for a moment, and every outspoken doubt must be met by an overpoweringly undoubtable show of force, elsewise one brings into being the very beginning of a revolt.

And so Poseidon did what he had to do, and he came up with an unimaginably bitter pain for the boastful Cassiopeia: she had to sacrifice her beautiful daughter, whose only guilt resided in being the object of her mother’s boastful pride. To satisfy the wounded sea god’s pride, however, Cassiopeia had to sacrifice her daughter in a horrible, yet relevant way; she couldn’t just slice her daughter’s neck; she had to give her living daughter up to be consumed alive by a horrible sea monster.

In the story, Perseus comes along just in time and saves the princess (whose  name, by the way, is Andromeda; you’ve probably heard of her: we not only gave her a constellation [right below Cassiopeia’s], but we also named a galaxy after her — we’ve always liked princesses better than we’ve liked queens).

But the princess wasn’t really the guilty one; her mother was. So Poseidon had to come up with another punishment for the queen’s blasphemous crimes. He decided to curse her with a frozen immortality where she would forever be positioned as her daughter was positioned during what must have been the most torturous moment of both her and her daughter’s lives, forcing her (the mother) for all time to relive and never be released from the pain of that horrendous moment.

But he would do so not in private; Cassiopeia would not be frozen in some locked dungeon far beneath the earth where no one would ever see her or think about her crimes; no, instead, she would be held up high where we would all have to bear witness to her pain, a reminder to all of humanity as to what will happen if we boast against the gods (including those gods who are no longer in power).

And Cassiopeia sits above us, tied to her throne like Andromeda tied to those rocks, crying out, forever stuck in a moment of impending and violent shame.

The story of Cassiopeia doesn’t relate to my addiction to my iPhone, unless one wants to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point and compare modern culture’s worship of technology to the act of an ancient blasphemy…but hey, for argument’s sake, why not?

As I said above, blasphemy is an unforgiveable sin because it calls into question the power dynamics between a ruler and his/her/its subject. If we imagine for a moment that there is no such thing as God or gods, then what blasphemy are we committing when we sacrifice parts of our lives to technology?

As an academic living in rural Vermont, I have more than a few friends who are committed anti-technologists. They’re not nutjobs — they all watch Netflix, use computers, drive cars, etc., but they are also outspokenly critical of the costs and pains that come with our dependence on modern technology.

They are, in a word, humanists. They believe that humanity has an intrinsic value that ought to be defended. To their credit, they do not seem to believe that humanity is more valuable than anything else on the planet, but they believe that, despite its egalitarian relationship with everything else, humanity is truly unique and deserves to be saved.

One of the things it deserves to be saved from is technology. Like any other vice, technology sucks the life-force out of humanity and redirects it for its own use — like a poppy plant getting humanity high in order to make us grow more poppy plants. The more we sacrifice our energy, our attention, and our time to technology, the less control we have over our selves.

Studies show that an increased use of digital technology can lead to, among other things, increased weight gain, a reduction in sleep, the retardation of a young person’s ability to read emotions from non-verbal cues, increased challenges with attention and the ability to focus, and a reduction in the strength of interpersonal-bonding sensations. It directly harms our ability to enter into healthy relationships with other human beings, thereby harming humanity’s ability to regulate itself.

In other words, technology rules over humanity at this point; it regulates our interactions, even when we’re among each other. Technology has inserted itself into even our most intimate relationships (see: vibrator), and found itself enthroned upon an altar at which the majority of us bow down every night until we go to sleep, stealing from us the only productive hours we have after we sell ourselves into wage slavery in order to pay down our debts, debts which, let’s be honest, were mostly incurred by the manufactured desire to offer tribute to technology (collected in small amounts by technology’s high-priests: Comcast, Apple, Verizon, Samsung, the New York Stock Exchange, etc.).

To commit blasphemy against technology — to forget, even for a moment, even subconsciously, that technology does not rule over us, to not feel, even if only in retrospect, technology’s ruling hand — is to remember, even subconsciously, that humanity was here before technology, and that we did just fine on our own.

We weren’t weak. We weren’t bored.

We had kings and queens and gods who kept them in their place. And every night, we looked up at the dark night sky, and without feeling the uncomfortable itch of addiction, thought to ourselves, calmly, quietly, “There’s something about those stars.”