The link between Plato and tech that helps us better understand what is happening
I’ve been thinking a lot about Plato for these past few months. More specifically about his allegory of the cave (I’ll explain below, no need to look it up if...
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to introduce a whole new conspiracy theory about Plato being in fact Mark Zuckerberg who grew a beard and a conscience (sorry, not sorry), built a time machine and flew back in time to warn humanity for the times to come by means of an allegory. It’s tempting, considering the staggering amount of people who seem open to believing nonsense these days, but no.
The reason why this ancient story from around 500 BC is such a perfect allegory for what we are living through today, has to do with what Jeremy Lent wrote in ‘The Patterning Instinct’ (follow the nexxworks podcast on Spotify or Apple podcasts to be notified of our interview next week) and the fact that Socrates and his disciple Plato have been essential in shaping how Western culture regards and treats the world.
So it should be only logical that their dualistic world view resonates in how modern technology is shaped, and in how technology companies treat humanity.
From holism to dualism
According to Jeremy, about 2,500 years ago, a rift appears between the ways of thinking in East Asian cultures and those in the West.
In East Asia, nature was regarded as a kind of a harmonic connected web of life, where everyone’s actions ripple through the rest of the cosmos and impact one another. The consequence was that humans tried to harmonize as much as they could to resonate with those connected “vibrations” in the most successful way. This perspective was a logical and similar continuation from the hunter gatherers perspective who saw nature as a complex web, where everything was related to everything else.
But in the West, the ancient Greeks started to view the cosmos as split in two parts. One the one hand there was a perfect, unchanging and eternal heaven up above, where gods resided. And on the other, we had a polluted earth down below where everything was always changing. The best you could do in this kind of polluted area down below was to simulate, as close as you could, that perfection from up above. Even humans were seen as being split in the same sort of way, with a soul and a body: the body was polluted and the soul was this kind of seat of reason that connected us with divinity.
And this dualistic perspective in the West diverging from the more harmonic way in East Asia, triggered a very different path in both of our histories.
The destructive side of dualism
One of the biggest differences between both views, according to Jeremy, is that the Western dualistic thinking has some very destructive traits. “It resulted in humans being regarded as separate from nature. It led to anthropocentrism or human supremacy: this belief that the rest of nature just exists as a resource to be exploited by humans, resulting in overexploitation and environmental problems. Ultimately, it caused a sense of humans as being, not just separate from nature, but separate from each other. And this core, divided way of making sense out of things prompted hyperindividualism and capitalism as an economic system which hasn't just led to the vast destruction of our environment but also resulted in a terrible alienation between modern humans.”
You can listen to all of that in my upcoming conversation with Jeremy, but today, I’m taking a different turn here to talk about Plato’s allegory of the cave and technology.
If the latter is too far down the back of your mind: In the allegory, Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. Those people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners' reality but are not accurate representations of the real world. Here’s a simple refresh course if you need more:
The shadow is the ideal is the shadow is the ideal
What I have been thinking about for months now is this: for the past years, a ‘rift’ has appeared in our lives, too, just like in the cave story: on the one hand we have our actual lives and then there’s our ‘shadow’ life online.
When the internet first surfaced, we refused to view the online part of our lives as meaningful or even “real”. It was mostly a gimmick to us. After a decade or so, we started to see them as equally valid actions, conversations or transactions that just happened in different ‘places’. Our online life was a mirror of who we were offline. Today, however, more and more of us our seeing that our online lives are casting a shadow, not just on us, but upon society in general. The two worlds are just as real, but they don’t quite mirror each other. Yet they feed each other in a continuous and powerful feedback loop.
When I started to think about the analogy of our lives with Plato’s shadow and cave allegory, I was first convinced that the offline world was the real and ‘ideal’ one and the online world, the imperfect one. After all, we are so much more than the information we leave behind in ones and zeros, right? We are much more nuanced. And data can become old, obsolete and incorrect. Just think about those dreadful online recommendations you sometimes receive for something you just bought.
We are not the data we leave behind.
And yet we are.
Because our data is not just what we willingly share. It’s also all our other online behaviour that is hidden to our network of friends, family and acquaintances. It’s the profiles we go to and the pages we visit (without liking them). Or the long-time best friend whose content we have muted.
The online world, too, is split in two.
There’s what its users willingly show on the one hand. And then there’s what tech companies read in that combined with all the other things that our network does not know because we don’t share it. Everyone I know, including myself, is guilty of embellishing their lives on social media. We post the milestones. We post memes (Oh, how I love those memes!). We post our best pictures, not the ones where you can see our expanding waistlines or our double chin. We project an ideal life, and hide that we are frustrated in our jobs. That we’re not sure if our marriage will last. That the deepening lines on our faces sadden us. Or that we are scared that the lives we are leading lack meaning.
These are the untold shadow traces of our so called perfect lives that the tech companies are able to catch, but our surrounding often doesn’t. They know ‘the truth’ about us in ways that we ourselves sometimes refuse to see, let alone our personal network. Even worse, they use that information in ways that are often very harmful. It’s the reason behind Snapchat dysmorphia. Or why teenage depression and self-harm - especially in young girls - has been rising fast as of 2013.
But it goes even deeper. We are not the only ones to create a false reflection of our life. Social media and their filter bubble confront us with a highly fabricated ‘ideal’ world too. One that may seem perfect to us because it confirms what we know and feel, but definitely isn’t. It’s this soothing (and sometimes agitating) social media ‘voice’ that acknowledges that the world in the ‘cave’ of our heads is the same as the outside world, by mostly presenting us with posts and pieces of news (fake or not) that confirm what we believe. It makes everything simple and coherent. And we become convinced that all the others around us who think something else are wrong. Our world is the ideal one, and theirs the shadow version.
And so, for each one of us, the online life becomes a highly fabricated ideal world and our messy reality - with dissenting voices, situations, information and inventions - the shadow version. And we continuously strive to match that perfect online life. And it pressurizes us and makes us unhappy and angry and isolates us. And it closes us off from other views and realities. Just like the freed prisoner of the cave who returns to explain to the others that they were wrong and then they become mad and threaten him because they refuse to believe in a reality that is different from what they see.
You’re probably thinking by now: well now, which one is which then? Which one is ‘real’, and imperfect and messy? Which one is ideal? Well, both are both. Both project things. Both are real. Both are messy. Nothing is perfect. Everything has a shadow. Even Plato’s allegory has a shadow, because he would have us believe that reality and truth could be completely and objectively known, if we just use our rational minds.
What we need to do, is move away from that kind of simplicity and accept that everything can be everything. And that everything is connected with everything else.
The forces that led us where we are – starting from Greek times – are old and very powerful. Plato taught us that the world is split into a good and a polluted part. That something is X or Y. That it is one or zero. This perspective was brought through Christianity and even science to us. This “this OR that”, “one or zero” language has been flawlessly adapted by technology, too. And with such a dual language at its origin, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that it has further pushed this dualism to extremes. That it has been increasing polarization. That it has us believe - more than ever - that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. That things are quite simple in nature: good or bad, right or wrong, emotion or thought.
The real world is not built that way. Shadows are just moving parts of existing objects here. And those existing objects are not perfect and stable, either. They have beginnings and endings and continuously change along the way from here to there.
It makes me wonder sometimes, if the first computers, software, internet and social media had been invented by the more holistic, relationship driven cultures in the East, that it would have less stimulated polarization. I guess we’ll never know.
I’m afraid that I’m not going to conclude my story with a soothingly simple answer. We will just need to learn to accept that the world is complex, and messy and different than what we have in our heads. And we need to step away from Plato’s obsession with “OR”, and with perfection. He wasn’t exactly unbiased himself as the allegory of the cave was fabricated to show that philosophers – people like him – understood reality as it was, while others did not. In fact, we don’t even know exactly who said what, as Plato wrote the allegory as a dialogue between Glaucon (Plato’s brother) and Socrates and it’s not really clear if the latter said those things exactly like that or if Plato put these words in his mouth to make his own writings more credible. So even the lines between the student-author and master are blurred here.
Before we will be able to come to terms with our ultra-polarized, increasingly radicalized and individualistic world that created some very wicked problems like growing inequality, the erosion of democracy, global warming, our current pandemic, migration, drug trafficking, etc. we will need to put aside the ‘simplistic’ dual and binary world that Plato and Socrates triggered and that technology helped grow exponentially. We will need to learn to embrace complexity and messiness. We will need to accept that we are not always right and that others not always wrong. We will need to listen, really listen to dissenting voices and seek compromise, not ‘the truth’. Only then will we have the right mindset to start tackling the problems that we have created for ourselves.