Electronic Screens Have Created a New Version of Plato’s ‘Cave’

The Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote the Allegory of the Cave about the nature of how we perceive reality. In his instructional story, a group of people live their entire lives chained in place and facing a cave wall. Behind them, on a ledge there is a fire casting its light on the cave wall that they can see.

People go about their daily activities in front of the fire so that their shadows are cast onto the wall, so the chained people can see them. Plato asks, what will the chained prisoners think of reality? Won’t they think that the shadows are the true nature of reality?

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave almost perfectly describes our modern age as we concentrate on electron shadows flittering across the screens of our media devices. For many people, screen time constitutes the majority of their social interactions. The shadow figures on the screen talk and act as friends. They are usually good-looking, well-dressed, and talk authoritatively. They make us want to be like them, talk like them, be like them.

When TV personalities sign off, they often use the conceit, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” What they mean, of course, is that we will see them. What we don’t get to see is the industry behind those shadows. The money and organization that creates the content of those shadows are hidden behind the electron beams casting the shadows on our screens.

“News” organizations have been the targets of these alternative reality networks. Their ability to make “news” into an entertaining show has done much to destroy more local news. National networks have the resources to employ good-looking and authoritative-sounding entertainers, which local news organizations have difficulty competing with. They tell us what to think, what to feel, and what to be angry about. Highly intense, emotional, simplistic messages that favor some powerful econ omic/political ideology are behind these cable networks. Too often our electronic media presents highly emotional commentary, stereotyping, fearmongering, and promoting hatred rather than pragmatic understanding.

Reflections on our screens are not reality. Our modern lives are much more complex than the two-dimensional messages on media screens. Actual involvement with others, and compassion for others’ viewpoints, are not available on screen time. When we read newspapers, we get to do it at our pace, pausing, thinking, and taking the time to read the piece again. If we go to meetings, we can ask clarifying questions, debate, and establish a social relationship with other people. We cannot do any of these things with the electron shadows on our screens as they rapidly, and relentlessly move from one topic to another.

Television, the internet, and social media are popular for their immediacy. Is something happening? We get to know, and often observe it as the event unfolds. This is especially true if the story is one that is a highly visual event caught on camera. Pundits are called on to make immediate assessments of the meaning of the event. Since the event is immediate, they usually try to fit it in with their particular ideological position. As a history teacher, I feel that time needs to pass before one can really research the event to make meaningful judgments. In our immediate, need-to-know society, however, the event holds center stage briefly before more compelling events pile in behind it.

I had an elderly U.S. history professor at Wartburg College in 1963. During the afternoon, I heard on the radio that JFK had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. I, and other students, were looking forward to what the professor would have to say. He opened the class by saying, “I know you want to hear my views on the assassination, it will take time to study this event before we will understand it. So, I’ll start my usual lecture.”

When something of significance is happening, take the time to read about it in The Record Review, and other newspapers. If it is of real interest, books can provide background in depth.

It is human to desire to be in the “know, and to take an immediate stand,” but kneejerk reactions and ideological pundits do not provide understanding. We should treat instant analysis as an oxymoron. It is good to note events as they happen, but understanding of events takes time and effort. By looking at our world mainly through experiencing shadowy screen experiences, we are recreating an electronic version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.