The Modern Cave and the Question of Technology

Plato’s Cave

Written over 2,000 years ago, Plato’s allegory of the cave in his book The Republic has become increasingly relevant in our hyper-connected digital age. As more and more aspects of our lives become mediated by our digital devices we become further separated from the direct experience. That is, what we can physically see, touch, smell and hear.   

Plato’s Cave – Source

Plato provides us with a metaphor in which a group of prisoners do not have contact with the outside world. What they take for ‘reality’ is shadows and images that are projected on the wall. Further, these prisoners are not aware of their situation. The illusions are the only thing they have ever known.

The story continues with one of the prisoners escaping from their chains and ascending into the daylight. At first, they are shocked into a daze from the power of the sun, but with time they gradually adjust their sight to the real objects in front of them.  Aware of the illusions they previously experienced, the story concludes with the freed prisoner descending back into cave to persuade the others to break free from their chains and climb into the ‘real world’.

What Plato is suggesting through metaphor is how we can easily we can be persuaded by illusions and superficial reality. We often accept things at face value without critical reflection and rational thought.  Trapped in our information ecosystems we become cynical and suspicious of the motives of others when we hear different points of view that differ from our own.

We are all living in seperate realities

Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising

For Plato, the philosopher is the one who is able to transcend their limited perceptions and beliefs to experience a greater more fundamental truth.  

The Machine Stops

The allegory of the cave has been portrayed in literature and in films such as The Matrix, The Truman Show and C.S Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles.

However, one short-story inspired by this idea that I want to focus on is E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops.

Written in 1909, it eerily foreshadows the rise of the internet as it ponders some of the technological concerns we face in the modern era.

The story depicts a world in which humans live underground isolated in small rooms, separated from the surface of the earth. The Machine provides for all human needs, and one has no reason or desire to leave their rooms.  As described in the story,

There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

The story contrasts the viewpoints of a mother (Vashti) who is infatuated and indoctrinated by The Machine, and her son (Kuno) who has a desire to escape the confines of the system and experience the real world.

Photo by Harsch Shivam on Pexels.com

A Look at Technology in the Modern World

Let’s look at some key quotes and themes in the story, and compare them to modern society.

Direct Experience and Original Thought

Beware of first-hand ideas!

Think of how many hours a day you spend looking at screens. Whether its on a computer for work, a phone for social media or a television screen watching our favourite shows. We are constantly looking at the world of projections through our devices.

Further, as I wrote in a previous article, The Age of the Spectacle, the world of appearances that we carefully craft through our online profiles become more important that our experience in the real world.

While we have access to a wealth of knowledge at our finger tips, complex algorithms now personalize what information we see and have access to.

We are drawn towards conformity. If one wants to ignore another perspective or set of ideas all they have to do is stay within own media filter bubble. In a polarized environment, news outlets prioritize views and clicks over truth.

We lose any sense of objectivity.

What is true?

Opinion and fact become indistinguishable.

Progress and the Loss of Human Values

But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.

In his book Technology and Nihilism, Nolen Gertz looks at how technology in the modern world makes us passive consumers. How often do we question or critically think about the impact that technology plays in our lives?

 Building off Nietzsche’s work on nihilism, Getz distinguishes between the individual who actively creates their own values and meaning (active nihilism) versus one who mindlessly accepts the expectations and cultural norms of society (passive nihilism).

For Getz, technology poses a risk to freedom and enables us to evade responsibility. We put too must trust and faith in these machines, and run the risk of not thinking for ourselves.

He draws a parallel to Nietzsche’s critique of religion observing how technology can also be ‘life-denying’. Just like one may reject and neglect their life in this world in the hopes of the afterlife, technology too promises a way out of confronting the issues of our existence and numbing us to suffering.  

Running away from the hard realities of life we turn to the endless distractions on our screens in an attempt to escape.  

Consequently, we mistakenly think technological progress is equivalent to improvements in human progress, character or well-being.  This however is not always the case.

The tech revolution promised us our heart’s desires: everything you want to know at the click of a mouse; the ability to become famous to strangers; anything you want to buy, delivered to your door in days without you having to leave home.

But our happiness has not increased as a result—on the contrary. Mounting evidence shows that media and technology use predict deleterious psychological and physiological outcomes, especially among young people. 

Arthur Brooks – Are we Trading our Happiness for Modern Comforts?

A Way Out?

The purpose of this article is not to convince one to discard one’s beliefs or abandon technology altogether. It is a call to analyze and seriously consider the things we so easily take for granted in our culture – the things we passively accept.

What illusions do we cling onto? What unfounded assumptions do we refuse to let go? Is it possible for us to look honestly at objections to our beliefs and engage in good faith dialogue with others who may disagree with us?

Perhaps we can aspire to one of the forgotten virtues of our culture – the virtue of humility.

With the advent of ‘smart homes’, ‘smart phones’ and ‘smart cities’, artificial intelligence and virtual reality we need to be cautious. Technology can either be a liberating force or plunge us further into our own deceptions. It can either trap us further into the cave or offer a way out.

We are not machines with machine minds and machine hearts. Therefore, human values and morals must be at the forefront of these new developments. Rather than being consumed by technology, we can use these devices to align with our values and goals.

The way out is not easy, but nothing can be more courageous than breaking from your chains and pursuing Truth.

Photo by Brady Knoll on Pexels.com

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10 thoughts on “The Modern Cave and the Question of Technology

  1. Brilliant article and summation of a very modern dilemma. Our relationship to technology- like all things should align with our values. Honesty and truth should sit near the top. Thanks for sharing 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes. And, I think what is happening with notices such as yours, is actually an ability to notice that most human beings do not fall into the category of us” in these kinds of call to thinking.

    I think that it is a kind of selective viewing that I attacked when I talk about things in the way that you are in this post here. It’s not that I disagree with what you’re saying. It’s more that I feel that what you’re saying is only speaking to a small fragment of people who actually exist.

    And I feel like the assumption which goes into my idea that there are a bunch of intelligent human beings who will be able to want to not conform or to enact some sort of original or critical thinking upon their lives, is just a fantasy that I have. And, that if I actually look around, if I actually encounter people for who they are, for how they are, For what they really want from life, I have to admit that most people do not want to think critically at all, and further, what they consider critical thinking is something that occurs only in name, is if they have to use that word in order to —yes— conform.

    I think this is what most people want: they just want to be excepted anyway that they can. Even to the extent that to “think differently“ Or to have an original thought, is just another way for them to feel a part of the group, which is to say to conform to what expectations are.

    When I look around my world, even the people that I consider my friends and coworkers with whom I am friends, and most people at my work, I would say that pretty much all the staff at my work we are a pretty good team and we support each other. But when I actually encounter who they are as people, the last thing they want to do is have an original thought. They only want to have an original thought to the extent that the idea of having an original thought is to conform with the norm.

    So, I think what we’re finding now after about 100 years of exposure to media, which is to say, 100 years of an ability to record in detail the finer elements of humans being, Is the reality of being human. It is not that there are a bunch of subjects who have their own world across an equal playing of the human being. I think it is more that there is a small minority of human beings who actually think, who actually feel a calling, of sorts, to think originally and to solve problems ethically in the world around us. And that most people have no such calling at all, but indeed, they just use words in order to fit in and keep the world same as it ever was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. …but all that said; yes, despite ones desire to conform, individuals can come to thier own idea of ‘original thought’ within conformity. And indeed. There is an argument to be made that Mental health is less an ideal, Than it is people conforming thier ideas of individuality to the norm.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thankyou for your thoughtful comment and critique. I agree with many of the points you listed. I guess my main concern is that with the advent of AI, and VR etc. we will be moving towards a Matrix like dystopia where we neglect our world in favour of the digital realm.

      What is one to do?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great. Interesting. Book 7 of Republic speaks to these times .. how demagogues transform democracy into tyranny.. thank you for the thoughts on technology. Have you read the phenomenon of man by teilhard de chardin where he prefigured a pooled knowledge that in his view leads to omega point where with technology help we come to realise the love that drives evolution?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your take on Plato’s cave allegory is both interesting and close (especially the danger part of speaking truth to power): it comes close but misses the mark of what Plato is actually arguing here. Remember, it’s an allegory, which Plato himself calls a parable for teaching purposes. The images represent the central points he’s raising. To presume the images the chained people see – intentionally chained to the point of being unable to move – represents “how we can easily we can be persuaded by illusions and superficial reality” doesn’t fit the allegory. The placement of the allegory in his book is such that it reinforces his main thesis that forms – the central idea from which all earthly manifestations derive – are what’s true and real (what the philosopher discovers in the brilliant and temporarily blinding light, which takes some time for adjustment) and that what the rest of poor chained beasts encounter in the world are mere facsimiles of them. This notion, widely embraced throughout the Western world bred a millennium and a half of profound ignorance… until Galileo dared to let reality arbitrate beliefs about it. Thus came the scientific revolution and knowledge its companion.

    Why does this interpretation you make matter?

    Well, I think we’re in the midst of a renewal of this broken Platonic idea, that what’s right in front of us, what can be measured, what has properties that can be understood and then applied, is all fake, untrustworthy, one point of view among many. We see this growing trend everyday, in the way facts are quickly becoming of secondary or tertiary importance compared to the subjective belief, the feelings of those involved, the personal narrative, the lived experience. Who cares about what’s true, what is the case, what can be justified objectively? This similar belief in the reality of forms that Plato so successfully seduced generations of ‘deep’ thinkers into believing, in the reality of the subjective belief over the evidence reality provided, is now supplanting facts. The testimonial of supposed ‘victims’ is replacing the need for any and all compelling supportive evidence. The greater the victimization, the higher the moral virtue one earns, the more ‘powerful’ the narrative belief.

    This ancient/new belief that reality is the illusion is what’s creating wiggle room to deny reality its role to arbitrate our beliefs about it. We see this played out in the rise of all kinds of reality denialism, believing it’s somehow okay to pretend, say, climate change is a similar kind of belief, that the efficacy of vaccines is just a belief, that the basic understanding of biological evolution is also another equivalent belief to Poofism, and so on, to the point where we insert our beliefs to be equivalent to facts and sufficient to justify whatever Goop product is being sold as a ‘legitimate’ alternative. We have fully endowed male sexual predators living in prisons for women because the say they feel female. And in the realm of politics, we see the rise of anti-factual beliefs empowering destructive populism, empowering folklore and superstitious notions to be equivalent if not superior to knowledge (insert some pejorative adjective just before the word ‘knowledge’ to see how this works).

    The inevitable result of this movement to believe the real is a facsimile is this notion of ‘alternate’ facts! This is Plato’s Cave writ large in modern body! It was a broken method then to reveal how reality operates and by what mechanisms, and it’s a broken method today to supplant knowledge with ignorance and faith-based belief.

    If human morals and values are to take center stage over ‘technology’ (which is the natural product along with applications and therapies of amassing practical knowledge about reality), then you had better make sure the moral component is grounded not in belief that reality is the shadow but in liberal and not authoritarian secular principles. And I don’t see that happening today; I see the opposite.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your critique, I’ve read The Republic but I’ve never thought about the down stream implications of the Forms, and how it would allow subjectivity to take precedence over objective facts. I have always thought that the Forms were something beyond opinion and perception, namely objective truth.

      However, I do now see how this idea could be misinterpreted or perverted.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Belief in forms as if real things is the central tenet of (metaphysical) natural philosophy imported wholesale into early Christian writings. With it comes the assumption that things have natures so agency must have caused these natures to be inserted (Aristotle assumed motion indicated agency). The longitudinal problems this way of thinking has caused in terms of maintaining ignorance, promoting real suffering to real people in real life in its name as if virtuous (I mean, seriously, Mother Teresa {now a ‘Saint’} handing out Aspirin and called those suffering from cancer pain ‘the tears of Jesus’) cannot be understated. This is the battle we continue to fight in so many different arenas to bring about truly progressive advancements in the quality of life and dignity for all.

        Technology in all its aspects is not suited to be framed on a moral scale any more than ‘medicine’ should be framed; rather, we need to be aware of its costs and benefits at the individual level. Too often, it’s presented only as beneficial to aid sales, and people often fall into this trap of seeing it only this way, versus a critical approach that assumes benefits and costs are always part and parcel of anything we harness… including a diet that has broccoli, rhubarb, eggplant, and kale, believe it or not. I’m almost sure that all of these are only ‘food’ if one adds something edible to them.

        Liked by 1 person

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