The two most common things people know about Plato today are that he was a philosopher and that he was the author of the myth or allegory of the cave. You remember it well. A group of people living chained in a cave all their lives and watching on a wall projections of shadows cast by objects they can’t see directly. The shadows constitute all that those people call reality. Unless they are freed, they won’t know the difference between the objects and their shadows, they won’t understand what lies beyond the representation, which is all they know.
The myth still speaks to us. It has never been more relevant. It inspired movies like the Matrix and books like….. It speaks to us because the world we’ve built looks more and more like Plato’s cave. Or may become one. It speaks to us because the wall is still there, the shadows are all around us and we find it harder and harder to locate the objects behind the fire, despite the fact we know they are somewhere there. Some have also questioned the fact that there might be anything at all, objects and fire, that we are just a bunch of drugged lunatics dreaming up caves and chains.
So I think we need new retellings of the myth. A myth of the cave for our digital, techno-infused world. A Myth of the Cave 2.0.
What would this reiteration sound like? Surprisingly, the digital world we’ve built hasn’t moved too far from Plato’s allegorical language. Until recently, Facebook had a ‘wall’ (the word has gone but the wall is still up) where we project shadows of ourselves in the firelight of our own self-interpretation and self-promotion. That Apple has introduced ‘screen time’ (or wall time?) in its iOS devices shows that Plato’s metaphor of chains and captivity is still cogent. The cavernous hall of the virtual space, where we spend more and more time sharing our shadows on the screen (or wall?) has never been more attractive.
For Plato, the cave was a simulacrum to be left behind. For us, it is a wonder-world of fascinating shadows and unsuspected possibilities. A wonderwall. The myths we tell ourselves and others about ourselves have a special place in this mytho-constructed world. Lest we take it for what it’s not – the only world capable of creating other worlds, open, porous and unexpected.
The writing is on the (cave)wall, but the flickering shadows dance too quickly for us to notice it.