[This is the first part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the second part here.]
One of the overarching tenets of the digital revolution is the promise that we will become far more educated, enlightened, and cognitively superior than any age that has come before. This affirmation believes that we have ushered in the halcyon days of creativity, imagination, scientific breakthroughs, artistic expression, cultural production, and every other form of human expression. Our ongoing celebration of the marvels of digital technology, with its concentrated and exponential proliferation, rests on the idea that human beings will embrace the liberating force unleashed by our collective genius. The celebrated futurist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil, perfectly captures the optimism of our age: “One thing I’d say is that if anything the future will be more remarkable than any of us can imagine, because although any of us can only apply so much imagination, there’ll be thousands or millions of people using their imaginations to create new capabilities with these future technology powers.”[i] Kurzweil made this statement in 2001 when the power of digital technology was about to be unleashed.
The power of Google is both humbling and awe-inspiring. It is, in effect, the closest we’ve ever come to witnessing the face of infinity.
Twenty years removed from Kurzweil’s idealized vision of a future filled with endless promise, we find that a dystopian present is an unfolding narrative. Our rapacious appetite for smart technology has created a world where creativity, imagination, intellectual curiosity, cultural openness, political awareness, critical engagement, as well as every other constitutive force needed to build the infrastructure of our collective utopian dream have been replaced with the exigency of trivial pursuits. We live in a world of non-stop instantaneous connectivity, but our combined energy has been wasted on social media platforms that both reflect and amplify the lowest and crudest dimensions of our humanity. Twitter has enabled a powerful and vocal minority to engage in the most hateful, deceitful, ignorant, vindictive, obscene, mindless, and irresponsible form of speech without consequences. Facebook has systematically contributed to undermining whatever vestiges of democracy we have left, and Instagram has elevated our narcissistic tendencies to a grotesque level of ego-driven superficiality.
Much of what I’m saying will strike the reader as bitter and harsh. Given the endless encomiums and inflated self-congratulatory praise directed at our digital achievements, it is difficult to reconcile the brutality of my critique with the ongoing celebration of our boundless sophistication. It is due to this disconnect between our irrational exuberance vis-à-vis the world we imagine and the reality of our overly bloated mediocrity that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is needed to expose the truth of how the digital revolution forced us deeper and deeper inside the cave. A handful of multinational corporations built the architectural landscape of our digital world and correctly assumed that people everywhere would utilize, adopt, and inhabit their utopian vision. At a cursory glance, the digital palace that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, and Mark Zuckerberg created was creative, daring, aesthetically pleasing, mesmerizing, seductive, liberating, sparkling, and a testament to their genius.
The iPhone was not simply a telephonic device or a powerful and upgradable computer that gave us immediate access to the world, it was also a work of art. When you open this shiny little gadget, the screen lights up, inviting you to partake of its seemingly endless possibilities. You feel connected to the world in such a way that a generation ago would have seemed like science fiction. The compactness of this phone makes us feel powerful and in control of our own lives. We can use it when we like, how we like, and where we like. In a few short years, the iPhone would become the most powerful liberating force in history. In fact, all of history is contained within its sinuous circuitry. This miracle invention contains sophisticated software and applications that connect us to the world in unimaginable ways. The iPhone gives you a unique sense of identity, as you can customize the device in seemingly endless ways. This magical box in our pocket allows us to interact with the world in such a way that we can no longer imagine what the world was like before without it.
The idea of progress has instilled in us the capacity to incrementally distance ourselves from what came before…we have been taught to look at generations before us as less enlightened, less informed, and less sophisticated.
Another example of how our world radically changed over the course of a single generation is Google. The name of the company is a creative spelling variation on the word, googol, which is a number 10 to the 100th power. In effect, Google is the repository of a near-infinite supply of information about every conceivable topic. From history to literature; mathematics to science; cosmology to philosophy; theology to religion; and every other form of cultural production is immediately accessible. The power of Google is both humbling and awe-inspiring. It is, in effect, the closest we’ve ever come to witnessing the face of infinity. The amount of information available reminds us of our finitude and stubborn limitation to absorb, digest, and frame our comprehension of the incomprehensible. Google, singular in its capacity to increase our intelligence, elevates information to epistemic stardom. In other words, information has become the dominant currency of our age.
Amazon started out with the noble mission to sell books. Today, it is the largest, most popular online retailer on the planet. The ease and convenience by which we can purchase goods from any of our smart devices are breathtaking. If Google is the repository of information, then Amazon is the repository of our bloated material wants and desires. If books once defined the mission of Amazon, the irony today is that books represent less than 10% of Amazon’s total sales.[ii] Now, you might be wondering where I found this bit of factual information. It’s quite simple really. I just moved my computer mouse and clicked on Google, typed in, “book sales make up what percentage of Amazon’s total sales.” The first entry out of 72,400,000 results gave me the answer. The reason I mention this is to show you that even cultural critics rely upon digital technology in order to observe and criticize its impact on society. If I had chosen to go to my local public library or a university library, I would have spent hours searching for an answer to that simple question. Sitting at home, it took me less than five seconds to find the answer. This is the mind-bending ease and convenience of our digital culture.
The belief in progress is deeply ingrained in us that we apprehend the world through the prism of evolving change.
This brings to mind an ethical quandary. This article is a critique of the digital age. Is it appropriate to use smart technology in order to criticize the impact this technology has on the human condition? It is tempting, after all, to tell the critic that he or she is under no obligation to use the very technology being condemned. Here is the problem with this argument. Smart technology has penetrated every crevice of our public and private lives. I suppose I can write this essay using pen and paper, go to my local library to do research and locate source material, use a typewriter, and bind the manuscript at home using a string and cardboard for my cover. Now, here is the quandary: How do I publish and publicize it? If I want to self-publish, I will need to use smart technology. If I want to submit the manuscript to traditional publications, they will need to use smart technology. Let’s suppose I haphazardly bind it at home. To sell copies, I may set up a table at my local town square. The dissonant image of a man selling loosely bound papers would be striking. I would be looked upon as a madman or an irrational prophet of doom. The point I’m trying to make is that digital technology forms the very fabric of our reality; it exists in the interstitial space of our conscious awareness of the world. The only way to escape it is to embrace a luddite existence by completely exiting the tentacle-like reach of smartphones, laptops, tablets, the internet, and every other smart convenience.
If the digital age swept across the globe, uprooting everything in its path, then the only option available to a writer who no longer fits into the scheme of things is to use the very same technology in order to expose its inherent cultural flaws. This brings us back to the title of this essay. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a timeless classic that transcends both space and time. Written some twenty-five hundred years ago, this rather compact parable influenced thousands of years of literary criticism. In his most important work, The City of God, St. Augustine contrasts two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. The City of Man referred to Rome and its inevitable decline. The City of God was a transcendent reality, removed from this world. One can see the influence of Plato’s Forms, which is an immutable reality that is separate and apart from the world of the senses. Francis Bacon employed the term, “idols of the Cave” to criticize those who are stubborn and inflexible. H.G. Wells, in Country of the Blind, describes a man who, by chance, encounters a village of blind people. When the man attempts to explain to the villagers that he can “see,” he is rejected and ridiculed for his preposterous suggestion. C.S. Lewis references the cave in The Abolition of Man, where he explores the consequences of not teaching our youth to look beyond this world.
Regardless of our emotional rejection, the distant echoes of Plato’s Cave Dwellers serve as a reminder that our digital sophistication is an illusion.
Plato’s Allegory appears in Book VII of the Republic. The parable is presented as a dialogue between Plato’s brother, Glaucon, and Socrates. Plato uses Socrates as his mouthpiece to describe a cave where men and women are chained by their necks and feet since childhood. Behind them is a fire where figures of animal and human puppets appear as shadows on the wall of the cave. The chief occupation of these cave dwellers is to memorize the order of the shadows. When one of these prisoners is unchained, he turns around and sees the fire, but it is too bright. He turns back to the comfort of the shadows on the wall of the cave. Socrates tells us that someone drags this freed prisoner up the arduous ascent towards the light of the sun. Slowly, he adjusts to the light and can finally look directly at the sun. The prisoner accepts that the three-dimensional reality outside the cave is infinitely superior to the darkness below. He decides to descend back into the reality of shadows below to inform the others of a different, more substantial reality outside the cave. The parable concludes with the chained prisoners rejecting him as a delusional type.
The shadows on the wall of the cave represent a state of intellectual darkness. The chained prisoners perceived the shadows as ipso facto real. In other words, the prisoners apprehended the very fabric of their world as two-dimensional. Their rejection of the released prisoner symbolizes the difficulty of change. It is important to remember that the freed prisoner was asking them to accept an entirely different epistemology. The chained prisoners were simply in no position to conceive of, let alone understand, a three-dimensional world. The fact the others rejected the freed prisoner is symbolic of our complacency and unwillingness to learn something new. The brilliance of this parable lies in its complete and utter simplicity. One way to make sense of the dizzying pace of technological change in the digital age is to find parallels with Plato’s Cave. To what degree do we, the sophisticated ones of the twenty-first century, watch shadows on our fancy screens? To what degree is the virtual world a more sophisticated version of the cave? The digital shadows of today are the fleeting images that we watch on Instagram and YouTube. The shadows are the endless supply of information that we can never fully absorb or comprehend.
Television has surreptitiously forced us to surrender our capacity for critical thought, our attention for substantive engagement, and our memory.
The chained prisoners in Plato’s Cave might seem to us as ignorant, backward, and wholly removed from the world. We may pride ourselves on being sophisticated, enlightened, and three-dimensionally removed from the darkness below. To attempt to apply an ancient parable to the mind-bending advancements we’ve made in the last twenty-five hundred years is, on the surface, reckless, misguided, and absurd. The idea of progress has instilled in us the capacity to incrementally distance ourselves from what came before. That is to say, we have been taught to look at generations before us as less enlightened, less informed, and less sophisticated. The belief in progress is deeply ingrained in us that we apprehend the world through the prism of evolving change. We have come to accept progress as natural, inevitable, and self-evident. According to the American historian, Carl L. Becker, in his classic book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, “a Philosopher could not grasp the modern idea of progress… until he was willing to abandon ancestor worship, until he analyzed away his inferiority complex toward the past, and realized that his own generation was superior to any yet known.”[iii] In other words, philosophers had to sever their connection to the past before they could embrace the superiority of the present.
Implicit within the idea of progress is the kind of unadulterated optimism that embraces science, reason, and rationality as triadic forces moving forward with a singular vision towards the perfectibility of man. It is precisely because of this vision that any comparison to Plato’s shadows disturbs our comfortable fairytale. Regardless of our emotional rejection, the distant echoes of Plato’s Cave Dwellers serve as a reminder that our digital sophistication is an illusion. Consider for a minute one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century. Television connected (I am purposely using the past tense) us in ways the world has never seen before. Rather than being chained by the neck, are we not chained by the couch watching two-dimensional images from a box in our living rooms? Over time, television went from a bulky box that projected grainy black and white images to sleek flat screens that capture the rich colors of reality better than our own eyes.
Television today mesmerizes us with dazzling colorful images. As a visual medium, television filters reality for us in such a way that we have become accustomed to consuming vast amounts of shadows. The shadows of today are endowed with such sophistication that it is impossible to recognize them as shadows. The three-dimensional contours of reality have been compressed in such a way as to distort our epistemic awareness of the world. The disturbing irony, of course, is that the world is infinitely richer than the shadows that are spoon-fed to us. The fleeting nature of these shadows have enabled us to be in a perpetual state of the immediate here and now. Television has surreptitiously forced us to surrender our capacity for critical thought, our attention for substantive engagement, and our memory. Serious ideas have been replaced with trivial cultural awareness. Television is perfectly suited for the celebration of mediocrity. If you doubt this, simply turn on your television and skim through various channels. What do You notice? From news to reality shows; dramatic movies to comedies, the level of intellectual stimulation has gone out the window.
Television is perfectly suited for the celebration of mediocrity. If you doubt this, simply turn on your television and skim through various channels.
Some of you reading this article may not remember this, but there was a time when television news was a nightly half-hour program. Cultural critics, such as Neil Postman, argued that the half-hour format both trivialized and diluted the news of the day. Postman did acknowledge the value of one-hour news programs, such as the PBS News Hour, but argued, “their audience is minuscule.”[iv] A common response by network television in the 1970s was to place the blame on the half-hour format. In other words, the constraints of time limited the amount of in-depth analysis. Here we are today with several 24-hour cable news networks, but there is no depth. Lance Strate, who is a professor of communications at Fordham University, put it this way: “CNN has all this time on their hands. What do they do? They show us the music of the ’60s. And Anthony Bourdain eating in exotic places. TLC used to be the learning channel and now it’s the Honey Boo Boo channel.”[v] Politicians often identify political bias in news coverage; with Republicans attacking CNN for its left-leaning agenda, and Democrats labeling Fox News as a propaganda arm for right-wing extremists.
The problem with this ideological spectrum of blaming the media is it misses the fundamental bias that all news networks engage in. All news outlets share one thing in common: they dilute the parameters of discourse in order to capture a larger share of viewership. They sensationalize and overly dramatize the news by offering compelling and provocative images designed to keep us watching. When there is a topic of intellectual value, news programs will often invite “experts” and pundits who yell at each other and engage in ad hominem attacks. The louder these guests are, the higher the ratings. To create drama, CNN employs a misleading strategy of plastering across the screen the words, often in bright red, “Breaking News.” One would imagine there is an important news story that is breaking, but in many cases, the story is a non-event. Fox News distorts, obfuscates, minimizes, and strips knowledge of all its essential qualities. As a propaganda arm for the Republican party, Fox News creates a closed-loop echo chamber, filled with circular reasoning, sub-mediocre analysis, talking points, and a frightening level of Orwellian doublespeak.
[This is the first part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the second part here.]
[i] Brockman, J. (2001). The Singularity. Edge.org. https://www.edge.org/conversation/ray_kurzweil-the-singularity. Kurzweil has been intimately involved with the structural direction of the digital revolution. He has contributed to the development of optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, and has been working with Google as a director of engineering. He has long been an advocate for the transhumanist movement, which is the belief that human beings can transform by adapting technology to enhance both our intellectual and physical limitations. He has written several books and given numerous lectures on such topics as life-extension technology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the singularity. The idea of the singularity was first introduced by the Hungarian-American mathematician and physicist, John Von Neumann. The singularity is a hypothetical moment in the future where artificial intelligence, say an android, computer, or software, will reach a threshold, or a “runaway reaction,” where it will accelerate its own “self-improvement,” resulting in a superintelligence that far surpasses the combined intelligence of human beings. The danger of the singularity, according to the science fiction author, Vernor Vinge, is that it will mark the end of humanity, as AI will continually upgrade and advance at an incomprehensible rate.
[ii] (2020) Book Sales Make up Less than 10 Percent of Amazon’s Revenue. Infogrma.com. https://infogram.com/book-sales-make-up-less-than-10-percent-of-amazons-revenue-1grv02gr1wggp1x.
[iii] Becker, C.L. (2003). The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. New Haven. Yale University Press; Second Edition.
[iv] Illing, S. (2018). How TV Trivialized Our Culture and Politics: Why you Should Read this 30-Year-Old Book. Vox.com. https://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/5/8/15440292/donald-trump-politics-culture-neil-postman-television-media. In this article, Sean Illing interviews Lance Strate, a professor of communications at Fordham University.