Plato’s parable of the cave imagines a place where humans have been imprisoned all their lives. The cave is all they know. As prisoners, they are forced to stare at a wall – unable to see each other, or anything else. Behind the men burns a fire, and between the men and the fire women walk carrying items. All the men can see is the shadow of the objects on the wall.
That is all the men know.
Then, one prisoner is set free.
He leaves the cave. Slowly seeing the reality. Seeing the sun, seeing the world, his world would be shaken.
Everything would slowly dawn on the man, and he returns to the cave. Unable to see in the dark, the other men – who seeing his blindness, refuse to believe his tale- and vow to kill anyone who would try to free them.
What if Plato saw us today? What would he think? We live in our siloed lives, often detached from society – but linked by shadows on a screen of an online social network. We live in a deeply divided society. It feels at times we live in overlapping but separate universes. The shadows on our screen are of sometimes biased and partisan voices – and we believe the shadows. We don’t turn around; we don’t see the world beyond the cave. We are prisoners – and are unaware. We self-select the media we consume, and we pick the media that reflects our bias and beliefs. So anger, fear, paranoia and mistrust are reinforced and we lose the ability to understand the other side, or find a common ground.
Plato’s parable of the cave is about human perception. Knowledge amassed through the senses alone is no more than opinion that is subject to our biases. In order to gain real knowledge, we must get it through philosophical reasoning. But media is congealing around philosophical camps, excluding major news stories from around the world and the country in favor of shock and scandal. We see the shadows and want them to be real.
In Plato’s tale, the cave represents people who believe that knowledge comes from what we see and hear in the world. The cave shows that empirical knowledge is trapped in a ‘cave’ of misunderstanding. As newspapers decline, as biased non-journalistic websites grow, as foreign and domestic troll farms thrive, as Facebook data is misused, the parable of the cave is coming out of the shadows.