In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato provides what is considered one of the most famous thought experiments. In it, people with a distorted sense of reality try to make sense of their world—but with no real reference, they remain confused—and afraid.
And nearly 2,400 years after the allegory appeared in Plato’s “Republic,” are we any different? Or is our own sense of reality also distorted—by digital devices?
For those in need of a refresher, the Allegory of the Cave goes something like this:
A group of men spend their life shackled in chains in a dark, bleak cave. They stare into the abyss of a blank wall, with the only stimulus being the shadows cast by figures behind them that walk behind their backs and in front of an eternal flame from a fire. The men give names to these shadows, taking this for a reality they don’t know to be devoid of the big picture—for all they know are the shadows and not the life and beauty that lay behind them, outside the confines of their prison.
Socrates later explores the question: “What if one of the prisoners were to break free from the cave?” Naturally, the man would broaden his horizons and come to understand that he had been stripped of the beauty of life—that no shadow could convey the warmth of sunshine touching your face, birds chirping and flying in harmony, or the smell of freshly baked bread. And were the freed man to come back to his brothers in chains, they might be unpersuaded by his claims because they have blindly accepted the comfort and familiarity of the cave as the status quo. Each of the men would naturally agree there is no better life, for they have been conditioned—as a tribe—to accept their reality and deny the existence of a better, more beautiful world.
The parallels to our acceptance of a digital reality are ghoulishly uncanny. Yet instead of a cave and log fire, our muted and altered sense of reality is depicted on a black mirror.
Take the average American’s morning. What’s the first thing they do upon waking? Well by a conservative estimate, 89% will start their day checking their smartphone.
Rather than wake up and naturally gauge their energy level as they drink their first cup of coffee, they rely on an app that tells them precisely how many REM cycles they hit and how mentally and physically recharged they are.
After your app affirms that the day is a wash given your poor sleep quality, you scroll through social media only to see posts of all your friends valiantly sticking to their disciplined resolution of waking up at 5 a.m. to get a jump start on the day. Now you’re tired, dejected, and feeling inadequate—and you haven’t even rolled out of bed.
Your reality is only more distorted as the day transpires. As you check your email from your boss, you can’t gauge tone or nonverbals and you assume his innocuous message indicates you’re one mistake away from being fired.
Your morning political podcast then proceeds to rile you up to the point of hypertension during your morning commute, as you ingest all the negative news and only get a picture curated to leave you feeling an overwhelming sense of dissonance.
The “real world” is now something of a cute, sentimental phrase issued almost mockingly.
We refuse to leave our digital enclaves and instead accept our state of being shackled to our smart devices, TVs, computers, and other screens—in our dark, damp, shadowy, lonely caves. We’re checking our phones hundreds of times a day and spending the equivalent of a 40-hour work week on digital devices every week. Call it convenience, familiarity, addiction, or anything you like, but since the advent of smartphones, we simply aren’t experiencing reality like we once did.
If Socrates’ conclusion was that the men in the cave needed to courageously and boldly unchain themselves to pursue an enlightened life, then the key to modern enlightenment is touching grass or hugging a tree. Really.
While not quite a modern Socrates, Ferris Bueller said it best: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
With the advent of a new year, now is a particularly good time to evaluate where you can—and should—cut back on the digital world and step outside to experience reality as God intended for us to.