The end is coming and we’re obsessed with it

ASU philosophers take a look at our society’s infatuation with the apocalypse and afterlife in popular TV shows

November 8, 2019

After a long day, most people choose to unwind by watching television. There are so many shows to choose from on streaming sites, networks, even web series — and in recent years, there has been an influx of shows about the apocalypse, postapocalypse and the afterlife. "The Good Place," "The Walking Dead," "The Last Man on Earth," "Miracle Workers" and "Good Omens" have all captivated audiences with their writing, plot and characters.

Odds are you’ve heard about at least one of these shows, and if you’ve seen any of them you might think you’re just relaxing and watching a funny comedy or an intense survival drama when the truth is, you’re learning all about moral ethics.  sunset with pathway going through it Image courtesy of Download Full Image

Every single one of these shows, at its core, is a conversation about what it means to be good or bad, what it means to do the right or wrong thing. It’s a discussion every society has and tries to determine among itself. But what if being good or bad doesn’t matter —because it’s too late? 

That is where these shows come in. NBC’s "The Good Place" follows Eleanor, a recently deceased woman from Arizona who is mistakenly placed in “the Good Place” when she should have gone to “the Bad Place.” Once she realizes the mistake she asks her new friend Chidi to help her be good, but if she’s already dead, how can she become good?

Or in TBS’ "Miracle Workers," two angels must convince God there is a reason to keep the human race alive after he determined humans to have no redeeming qualities. Set on a clock, the audience watches and questions if humans can be saved in time. 

So why are we so tuned into this dilemma? Why are we fascinated by the end of our existence and where we might end up when we die? Can philosophy help us understand personal change and how mistakes define humans?

Maura Preist

Maura Priest, assistant philosophy professor

“Let me begin with this, philosophers disagree,” said philosophy Assistant Professor Maura Priest. “They disagree a lot and disagree with intensity. Virtue ethicists believe that the core of ethics is character, i.e., what kind of character traits make someone a good person or a bad person and relatedly, what can we do to acquire character traits that will make us better people? What should we avoid if we wish to avoid the degeneration of our character from good, or at least decent, to bad?”

According to Aristotle, who some say is the founder of virtue ethics, if we are capable of change, that change comes through habituation. This means that before we can be good people, we must act like good people.

“Suppose that we know one of our character flaws is selfishness with our own time,” Priest said. “We can start to change by saying, ‘yes,’ when asked to volunteer our time. We might not want to say yes, but we should both say yes and act as if this is what we wanted to do.”

A change can be difficult at first, but if a pattern is followed, it can become easier to emerge as a better person without realizing it. Practice makes perfect, right?

Saying yes and trying to be nicer is one thing, but what about when our emotions come into play?

“There are times to be angry and during those times, the virtuous person must learn to not only be angry, but to have the proper degree of anger for the proper amount of time,” Priest said. “Anyone who wants to be a better person, then, must focus not merely on what they do, but also on what they feel.”

This is, of course, easier said than done. In watching shows such as "The Walking Dead," viewers are thrown into a world where people don’t have to control their emotions as well as they do in regular society: A whole new idea of how to be good comes into play. 

Even in a zombie-ridden society, the characters are fighting to bring good back into their world despite their conditions. Yet they struggle and can end up bringing harm and bad to the world around them. We are no different. 

“In spite of the fact that most of us care about being a good person, we also do things that bring bad into the world and make us worse persons,” Priest said. “But why would someone who cares about goodness promote what is bad? Because humans are complicated.”

We can be good in our day-to-day lives and try to be good people in practice. Yet in falling short or doing something that hurts another in an attempt to gain something for ourselves, we become bad. 

There are many forms of media that play on our desire to be good. So why are we all so drawn to death and despair? 

Shawn Klein

Shawn Klein, philosophy lecturer

As philosophy lecturer Shawn Klein puts it, by putting characters in an afterlife of sorts, whether it be literal or physical, the choices characters make are heightened and have a greater weight.

“Since being good means consistently doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons and at the right time, it is all too easy to go wrong,” Klein said. “There are many spots along the way to misstep.” 

As characters in these shows come to realize they have made a lot of mistakes in their lives, it is easy for viewers to reflect on their own lives and wonder where they have gone wrong. But with so many ways to go wrong, it can be a bit unsettling to think about.

“First, we are reminded of how easy it is to make a mistake and how these missteps can accumulate, and if we don’t change, we could send ourselves, as Yoda (from 'Star Wars') warns, towards the Dark Side,” Klein said. “Second, we can’t rely on our expectations that the angel or superhero is the good person. We are forced to think about the characters and evaluate them based on their choices and actions.”

Good and bad can be blurred at times, but that is where ethics comes in. Media can help bring us these discussions. As Klein said, “These stories expand our moral imagination, giving us chances to experience kinds of ‘what to do in this case’ (scenarios) that we might never experience in our lives.”

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

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An app today keeps the doctor’s forms away

November 8, 2019

Phoenix Children’s Hospital and ASU students partner to create an app that replaces outdated medical history forms

Stressed, exhausted and sitting in a hospital waiting room, the last thing anyone wants to do is spend half an hour filling out paperwork. Yet that is the first task patients and caregivers are saddled with during a hospital visit.

This not only takes away precious time that could be spent with the physician, it creates a burden for the doctor as well. She has to scramble to read through forms moments before she walks in the room. After the visit, she must enter them into the electronic medical record along with her own notes.

Currently, doctors spend around two hours of their time on electronic medical records for every one hour of face time with patients, according to a study by the Annals of Family Medicine.

To improve this process, Phoenix Children’s Hospital — one of the largest pediatric health care systems in the U.S. — partnered with Arizona State University to form a Practice Lab. Practice Labs bring together interdisciplinary teams of students to help companies creatively solve pressing issues.

The Phoenix Children’s team is creating a dynamic web app that allows patients to submit their information before an appointment and then enters that information directly into the health system’s records.

“We're reducing time that providers spend on collecting data, which means they can serve more patients, which means that people get more access to health care. There's some noble pursuit that we are achieving here,” said Chase Adams, co-principal investigator on the project and assistant director of the ASU Luminosity Lab, which develops student teams for Practice Labs.

“It was undoubtedly a great opportunity to bring new energy and new insight,” said David Higginson, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Phoenix Children’s. “It was time to come up with a solution to an old, ongoing pain point that most health care systems face.”

“It’s an exposure to the outside world,” said Nikhil Agarwal, a computer science master’s degree student with the project. “We get to interact with professionals and understand what problems they are facing and whether we could make their lives easier.”

Diagnosing the problem

The medical staff at Phoenix Children’s have long struggled with issues related to physical patient forms. Typically, the health system needs to collect three types of information from a patient: past history, such as prior surgeries or illnesses; family history, such as hereditary diseases; and social history, such as education and income.

“We felt that the patient family should have the opportunity to input this kind of background data when they have time at home, rather than in their doctor's office,” said Vinay Vaidya, senior vice president and chief medical information officer at Phoenix Children’s, who collaborated with the Practice Lab.

The hospital and Practice Lab team decided to focus on collecting family history as the first step in developing their app.

To better understand how health care professionals go about doing that, the students met with genetic counselors, who evaluate and advise families on genetic disorders. The counselors conducted mock interview sessions that allowed the students to see how they might improve the process and learn where patients typically have questions.

One of the team’s biggest takeaways was gaining experience working in an interdisciplinary group, much like they would in an industry setting. Communication has been key, they say, to ensuring that their individual work comes together cohesively.

Prescribing a simpler solution

The Practice Lab’s web app is a serious upgrade to the typical paper form. One of the main differences is that it only asks patients for information relevant to their hospital visit. For example, if a patient is at the hospital for a heart-related problem, the app will not ask questions about a family history of vision problems.

The app also saves the patient’s information for future visits, so there is no need to answer the same questions over and over. Instead, the patient can update information that has changed, which will allow the doctor to track the patient’s health over time.

“This benefits both the doctor and the patient,” Agarwal said. “The patient doesn't spend time filling data that he has actually already filled, and the doctor doesn't waste time looking at excess data.”

The app will work like this: A few weeks before an appointment, patients will get a text message from Phoenix Children’s with a link that will prompt them for authentication before taking them to the web form.

Once in the app, patients will be asked questions related to their appointment. Answers are in a simple “yes, no, unsure” format. Depending on how patients answer, the app will customize the questions that follow.

Patients can also leave and return to the form if, for example, they need to ask family members about their medical history.

The project team hopes that the ease of use will free patients to fill in more complete information than a paper form, or doctors’ notes, would allow.

“A lot of the patients that come in aren't necessarily tech savvy, so to make sure that it was as simple as possible was the biggest priority,” said Kusum Ijari, a human systems engineering master’s degree student.

Student Kusum Ijari presents the app's design to team members

ASU student Kusum Ijari (center) goes over the app’s design with fellow team members Nikhil Agarwal (left), Rakshith Subramanyam (bottom right) and Siddarth Madan Kumar (upper right). Photo credit: Andy DeLisle

A positive prognosis for the future

The Practice Lab’s user testing suggests they were successful. The team asked parents who worked in the Luminosity Lab to fill out the web form with their children’s family medical history. The test subjects were able to complete the form in an average of just three minutes.

The team also made an effort to keep the coding for this app clean and modular, like Lego blocks, to enable add-ons of other potential features in the future. Those could include graphs or medical family trees using patient data; a Spanish version; or expansion of the app to gather patients’ past and social histories.

The project entered a new phase at the end of October, when the team handed their code over to Phoenix Children’s for further testing and refining.

The health system will ensure that the app meets the industry’s rigorous security standards and offers a seamless user experience before launch. Higginson says he hopes to begin pilot testing in the first or second quarter of 2020.

The app represents the latest wave in a growing trend of integrating technology in health care. Now that doctors can interact through electronic medical records, the industry is ready for better virtual communication with patients.

People on both ends of the stethoscope will likely be more than happy to leave the clipboards, flower pens and lengthy forms behind in exchange for a few taps on the screens in their pockets.

If your organization is interested in forming a Practice Lab with ASU, please contact ASU’s Business Concierge at for more information. Learn more about ways companies can partner with ASU.

Top photo: ASU students Rakshith Subramanyam (left) and Nikhil Agarwal (right) work on the web app. Photo credit: Andy DeLisle

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise