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

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.

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Philosophy as an Antidote to the Ills of Modern Society

We live in an age of unprecedented change and exponential growth. It would have been unimaginable to someone a few decades ago to believe that we would have access to all of the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Homo Deus, many of the issues we now face in the West come from excesses rather than deficiencies. For instance, in many countries, more  people die from obesity than malnutrition. Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now, does a great job of charting the tremendous progress in humanity in eradicating disease, reducing violent conflicts and expanding human life expectancy. While we still undoubtably face challenges, for the most part, our basic needs of ‘food, shelter and clothing’ have been met. This must be seen as a great feat and accomplishment of human civilization.  

Despite all this progress, it seems increasingly apparent that there is a cloud of worry and existential angst hanging over our society.  Author Jonan Hari attributes this to a culture that has sold us ‘junk values’. That is, we have been conditioned to believe that we must pursue self-gratification, status and constantly feed our egos to be happy. This may provide us with a short-term pleasure, a quick dopamine rush, but it is a far cry from Aristotle’s notion of happiness as human flourishing known as eudaimonia.  UofT Professor and cognitive scientist John Vervaeke accurately reflects on our current situation in his brilliant series YouTube series ‘Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.’

The consequences that stem from this are significant. We are in a mental health crisis. According to data from CAMH, a mental health illness will affect 1 in 2 Canadians by the time they reach 40. Furthermore, our social and political institutions are degrading. Although social media was intended to foster cooperation, it has made our politics, attitudes and opinions more divisive. We are now more polarized, unwilling to make compromises or see eye to eye with those who disagree with us.  We are addicted to online platforms which drive our egos. They pull us towards narcissism as we continually try to glamorize our lives and outdo one another.    

These issues presented cannot be solved strictly though business, science or technology. Likewise, we can’t simply buy our way out of this through material more wealth or new products. The writer Aldous Huxley presents us with this vision in A Brave New World in which he constructs a world where individuals receive instant gratification for their desires and are able to escape all suffering and malaise by taking a drug called Soma. I don’t think this is the way forward. A shallow and empty society where we are merely passive consumers is not one that we should aspire to.

On the contrary, I think we can learn a great deal from philosophy, particularly practical philosophers such as the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were deeply concerned with how humans can live a good life, one of purpose and meaning. They were far more interested in developing noble character and virtue than pursuing external pleasures such as fortune, fame or wealth.

I am starting this blog because I want to reflect on the knowledge and wisdom presented to us from philosophy. This wisdom can help us put life into perspective and address our questions of meaning and purpose. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but philosophy can be the start of a journey of introspection and contemplation. Each person may be drawn towards a different beliefs, ideologies and thinkers. That is ok. However, I think self-reflection is critical, and as Socrates once said “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll come along and enjoy the journey with me!