Allegory of the Digital Cave: Plato and Smartphones

By Tavern Voices, in Article Guest Post on . Tagged width: , ,


It has been twenty years since the inception of mobile phones that were capable of accessing the vast world of the internet, and around that same time the first social media websites began to spring up all over the place–beginning to grow and burn like wildfire. The early collision of these industries was a positive change to most consumers, allowing all those who felt a similar urge to connect via devices that fit seamlessly into one’s pocket.

Less than two decades later, 63% of Americans now own a smartphone with a large percentage of them using social media applications such as Twitter or Facebook, which means that almost two-thirds of Americans can now instantly share a thought, snap a picture, or message a friend from anywhere in the world–granted they can get a reliable connection. At any given second, over 211 million people are capable of sharing any thought that comes to mind with the rest of the plugged in world. With the combination of internet-capable mobile devices, and increased accessibility to the web, the perception and practice of individual thought has been irreparably changed.

But has this change been for the better?  The Allegory of the Cave, written by Plato in the Republic, has been around since 380 BCE–and as with all good philosophy it continues to evolve with society, generation after generation.  The setting is thus:

Imagine a cave in which humans are imprisoned from birth.  The people are bound by chains to prevent any kind of movement, forcing them to constantly stare at a wall in front of them.  Unable to see anything else but the wall, not even their fellow prisoners, they are presented day in and day out with a kind of shadow puppet show.  There is a light behind them and objects or people, standing atop a raised walkway, are silhouetted against the wall of the cave.  The suggestion being that since this is all the prisoners are ever presented with, it becomes reality–despite being nothing of the sort.

Most of the modern world finds itself in the same sort of cave that Plato once cautioned against, bound by the chains of mobile devices displaying the age of “modern thought” on an LED-lit wall. This instant access to information with the tap of an iPhone keeps users bound to the block of plastic and glass that most Americans do not leave the house without. Like the very chains that bound the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory, smartphones have become the addiction of the new frontier, and with each passing year become a harder habit to break. New psychological ailments arose almost immediately, going by names like ‘Nomophobia’ or ‘Smartphone Separation Anxiety’, but despite our need as a people to create some new medical frontier to explain the phenomena, these issues are actually nothing more than a clear case of the more notable Stockholm Syndrome.

The content of our digital cave is slowly, but nonetheless surely, altering the nature of our reality and discourse.  With lightening speed we can now find any number of sources to further validate our malformed opinions and provide us with a need for constant validation in a place where it is readily available.  This constant flow of information has begun to gentrify our thoughts, and boil down emotion into its most shallow form.

The injection of these factors into the mainstream has blurred the line between fact and opinion–and the cave is no longer a physical location, but a concept that constantly hangs over our heads.  As the population of unconnected citizens dwindles, the concept of individual thought dies with each tap on the screen.

The real debate as to our future comes when we analyze the second part of Plato’s allegory–the departure.  We are presented with the idea that a sole prisoner is released from his incarceration.  He is now able to see everything that is behind him–the fire would sting his eyes, and when told that what he is now looking at is the true reality, he would immediately reject the idea wanting to return to all he has known.  Then the prisoner is forced out of the cave completely.  The harsh sun would be incredibly painful at first, but slowly he would begin to accept all that the world truly is–night and day, nature, and society are all new and welcoming concepts.

This all begs the question of whether or not we can truly escape our modern cave, or if the prison has been built so well that it will keep us for the rest of days.  If not then it might be argued that only the singularity awaits us–a philosophy that in its very name forsakes individualism.  It’s hard to find a middle ground between the two extremes, but perhaps it lies in simply being aware of the struggle between them.  The axiom that too much of a good thing can be harmful should be heeded in these times where technology outpaces the evolution of human philosophy–

–if it isn’t then far bigger problems could present themselves before we have time to conquer them.

Robert MeadowsThis was a guest post by Robert Meadows. Meadows is a Western North Carolina native, studying to become a Systems Network Adminstrator. His interest in technology is only paralleled by constant studies into social and political paradigms, and their constant state of flux.

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