Holly Richardson: Plato’s cave-dwellers in the age of the internet

We as human beings fear change and we crave the comfort of the familiar (even if it’s not good for us).

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Plato’s allegory of the cave is a well-known story that uses powerful metaphors to convey a message. It describes a group of people who have never seen the light, but who have lived in a deep cave. These people are bound so that they cannot turn their heads, but can only look straight ahead. Behind them are statues and a fire, which throws shadows of the statues onto the far wall, the one that the prisoners are facing. The prisoners, knowing nothing different, think the shadows of statues are the real thing — people, horses and trees are dark and wispy.

One prisoner is freed and then forced to look at the statues and the fire. He realizes that these are real, more real than the shadows he previously looked at. Then, he is dragged out of the cave and up into the outside world. The light is so painful to his eyes that at first, he can only look at shadow, then at reflections, then the “real” objects — trees, flowers and people. He realizes that now these are more real than statues, which are more real than shadows. Finally, he looks to the sun and realizes that the sun is the cause of everything around him. The freed prisoner returns to the cave to set the others free, but they do not believe in the existence of an outside world and threaten to kill him if he tries.

Phillip Pouyioutas wrote a paper on Plato’s allegory and the age of the internet. He writes: “The emergence of the Internet and later of Web 2.0 has broken the chains of space and time that held us ‘prisoners’ for so many years to our own cave of restricted access to learning.”

The internet changed far more than just access to learning.

Tori Morrison filmed a modern-day version of the cave a few years back and interpreted the allegory to mean the “prisoners” were bound by their own life, in this instance a life of poverty. One of the points J.D. Vance makes in his book “Hillbilly Elegy” is that “his people,” the Appalachian poor, did not know there was another way — another way to live, another way to eat, another way to find a job, another way to do relationships.

Too often, it seems, our culture is intent on “pulling down” those who want to change their status quo and do things a different way. Alcoholics who want to get sober might need to get an entirely new social network. People trying to shed some pounds might not be able to convince their families that they are serious about a new lifestyle. Even something as simple as technology might be frightening to those who are not early adopters. I may or may not have said texting was a tool of the devil when I was introduced to it. Um, hello, Holly the Luddite.

Generally speaking, we as human beings fear change and we crave the comfort of the familiar (even if it’s not good for us). We seek out the like-minded, online and in person. We look for people who agree with us that those shadows on the wall are the real thing. When something has the potential to shake our world, we often look for reasons to explain it away, we attack the messenger (“Fake News,” anyone?) and thus we remain in our caves. Comfortable, but not truly living.

We may even decorate the caves really nicely, posting cave pics on Pinterest and shadow selfies on Instagram, believing the other carefully posed pictures of decorated caves and Photoshopped shadows are the real deal. Or, we can take the red pill offered by Morpheus in “The Matrix.” “This is your last chance,“ he says. “After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

“It’s time to wake up.”

Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, is spending lots of time in nature this summer, where she knows for sure what is real.