IMHO: Doing what I can to get ahead

By Ron Scopelliti

Living the freelance lifestyle means always being on the lookout for business opportunities. So, in the process of writing this month’s feature on the Smithfield Building and Zoning Office, I couldn’t resist checking out a PDF guide to starting a business that I found on the town’s website. Having started a business before, there wasn’t much that surprised me, except for one unexpected fact: Smithfield charges a $100 business and license fee for anyone who wants to practice phrenology in town.

Phrenology, for those of you who have more productive things to do than keep up with debunked pseudosciences, involves studying the shape of people’s heads to gain insights into their character and intellectual faculties. It fell largely out of fashion by the first few years of the Twentieth Century, though the British Phrenological Society soldiered on until 1967. I think we can attribute that to the same British steadfastness that keeps them building sports cars with wooden-framed bodies, and paying monarchs to live in palaces and look awkwardly regal.

Phrenology seems to be all but non-existent in our area. So far I haven’t been able to find a single phrenologist in Rhode Island. There’s a New England Institute of Phrenology Facebook page, but there’s nothing on it, so I’m not sure if it’s a real organization. There definitely was, for a brief time, a Boston Phrenological Society. But as far as I can tell they haven’t met since 1839, and the main subject of that meeting was the lack of activity among the members.

Anyway, when I found that the town had this licensing fee, despite the fact that nobody seems to be chomping at the bit to open a phrenology practice, my first question was, “Why does it exist? My second, and more interesting question was, “Why does the existence of this fee suddenly make me want to become a phrenologist?”

I soon realized the folly of this line of inquiry. The question shouldn’t be “Why become a phrenologist?” The question should be, “Why the hell not?”

We’ve entered a cutthroat age when you have to do whatever you can to earn a living.There is no more “social contract.” Employers are less likely than ever to reward the loyalty of their workers with job security and benefits. More often than not, they’re willing to avoid benefits altogether by offering 30-hour “part time” jobs, and requiring employees to work overtime if they wish to remain employed. That’s assuming that you’re not a cashier or a bank teller who’s been replaced by a machine.

How absurd have things gotten? Otherwise sane people have decided to earn extra money by picking up strangers to ride in the back seat of their personal cars. Given the alternative of transporting hurling drunks in the back seat of my car, opening a phrenology clinic seems downright sensible.

And there are other advantages to starting a phrenology practice. I’ve already documented the dearth of competition in the field. And there’s little chance of my job being lost to automation – who ever heard of an Automatic Phrenologist Machine?

People might say it’s unethical for me to practice a profession that I clearly don’t believe in. I can’t deny that it is a valid point. But I could hang a disclaimer on the wall of my shop reminding people that my services are “for entertainment purposes only.” And even though I don’t believe in phrenology, I have been known to be wrong. Like that time I predicted that Facebook would never be as successful as MySpace.

And what if it turns out that the medical establishment suddenly discovers that phrenology is legitimate? When I was a kid people laughed about medieval barbers using leaches to treat illnesses, and now they’ve been found to have valid medical uses. If the same thing happens with phrenology, I could be in on the ground floor of a new trend. Not only could I have a thriving business – I could also open a school for phrenologists where I could train people to start their own franchises.

Maybe I’m completely missing the boat here. Maybe instead of starting up a business that has a permit fee in town, I should be looking at a business that doesn’t. For a while, I’ve been thinking of developing an app that would exploit Smithfield’s existing connection with ocean explorer Dr. Robert Ballard. I wonder if he’d consider teaming up for an underwater ride-sharing app called SCUBER?