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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Glowing billboards. ‘Reality’ television. Instagram influencers. Golden yellow arches crowding large city centers. Fake bodies, fake personalities, fake plastic trees.
Flooded with information, memes and seductive advertisements.
McDonalds – I Am Lovin’ it. Nike- Just Do It. Coca-Cola – Taste the Difference. Apple – Think Different.
Manufactured desires. Manufactured appearances.
Passive spectators. Passive consumers.
Welcome to the age of the spectacle. A world of carefully crafted images and illusions. Fiction becomes reality and the ‘real world’ becomes undesirable.
Even prior to the advent of the internet and social media, French theorist Guy Debord recognized modern societies obsession with appearances and images. In his seminal book The Society of the Spectacle, Debord critiques consumerism and the advent of mass media and marketing which came to dominate our day to day lives beginning in the latter half of the 20st century.
He tracks the evolution of social relations from being into having and subsequently from having into appearing.
Being into Having: This transformation represents a shift in human relations where the focus is not one’s character or temperament (ie. who one is), but rather what they own. Their social status and stuff that they have.
Having into Appearing: A second shift occurs in modern societies when prestige and recognition becomes dominated by the world of images and appearance. That is, the representation of a thing or event take’s precedence over one’s own direct experience in the moment. Images and appearances are now of paramount importance. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach summarizes this concept nicely,
…the present age… prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence… truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity
Amongst the numerous examples of this phenomenon, the most obvious of course is the addictive social media apps we all know and love. Every minute of our lives comes to be meticulously recorded, carefully crafted, edited and posted online.
Satisfaction in one’s life does not come from our direct experience with the world, but rather from the likes, comments and shares we get from our pictures and videos. Think of those who go to concerts only to watch the whole show though the screen on their smartphones.
The spectacle shapes and influences our desires, goals and aspirations. It tells us who we are and who we ought to become. If only I could look like the athlete from the latest edition of Sports Illustrated with his toned body, big smile and perfect lifestyle. We think to ourselves, “perhaps if I purchase a BMW I will become as attractive, sleek and confident as that man in the commercials.”
Further, the spectacle affects how we think of personal, romantic and professional relationships. We desire for our dating experience to be as dreamy as those couples from The Bachelor or our marriages to exemplify our favourite romantic film.
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Ultimately, all these endless spectacles and advertisements we see on a daily basis distort reality, and hinder our ability to think critically about issues. We become alienated from ourselves and to others as everything becomes a commodity. It becomes increasingly difficult to live in the world authentically when corporations and their marketing departments shape our interests, beliefs and consumption habits.
The spectacle permeates not just through seductive marketing campaigns, but also has become the norm in our ‘news’ media and politics. Entertainment, viewership and attention becomes more important than genuine policy discussions or analysis.
Recall in the movie Gladiator, how the Emperor Commodus used the gladiator games to distract the public of the various crises across the Roman Empire. This strategy of entertainment and diversion has not changed much from the past, we just have more sophisticated means of distracting the population.
The spectacle prevails.
Are you not entertained?
The political theater that we’ve all become exhausted from isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon per say, but it is just far more apparent with our current crop of politicians. Further, it becomes amplified with the range of digital technologies now available to everyone.
Humanities fascination with the world of images, illusions and representations has been well documented throughout history by philosophers, most notably in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. Just like the prisoners fixated on the shadows, we ourselves have become detached from the ‘real world’ ,and our direct observable experiences with our endless digital distractions.
As technology advances, will we continue to become mere spectators in this world of images or can we cultivate the wisdom and self-awareness to break free from our chains?
To pull the plug and leave The Matrix , turn away from the spectacle and embrace the ordinary.
To love and cherish the one world we have.
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