Allegory of the Cave
In the famous ‘Allegory of the Cave’, which opens Book VII of the Republic, Plato(1986) imagines a cave-like cellar with a long passage leading out, through which a faint sunlight shines. There are prisoners who have lived in the cave since they were children, their heads, necks, legs and feet bound, unable to walk or turn their heads, but facing the far wall of the cave. Far above them, behind them, a torch is burning. Between the torch and the men is a bumpy path and a low wall. Behind this wall, towards the light of the fire, were more people. They held dummy men or animals of different colours in their hands and lifted them high above the wall so that they could move; and these men sometimes spoke and sometimes they were silent. So the prisoners could only see the images projected on the wall in front of them. They will take these images as if they were real, and they will take the echoes as if they were words spoken by the images. At this point, if a prisoner is unchained and forced to stand up suddenly, he can turn his head and look around, and he can now see the thing itself: but they think that what he now sees is an unimportant dream, and that the images he first saw are real. And if someone had taken him out of the cave and into the sunlight, he would have felt the stars burst before his eyes from the excitement of the light, so that he would have been unable to see anything. He would then hate the person who brought him out into the sunlight, thinking that this person had blinded him to what was real and caused him pain. But Plato thought that his sight could be restored by a gradual process of acclimatisation, first perhaps seeing shadows most easily, then seeing the reflection of a person or thing in water, then seeing the thing itself, observing the sky at night, and then seeing the sun itself in the daytime. At this point he understood that it was this sun that was the cause of all things in the visible world, that caused the change of seasons and the cycles of the years, and that it was the cause of all those things that they had seen through a certain twist and turn. So he looks back on his cave dwelling and rejoices in his change of understanding, while at the same time expressing regret for his companions. Having seen things as they are, he would rather endure any suffering than live as a prisoner again. But if he were to return to the cave, not only would his companions not believe him, but they would think that he had gone up there and come back with broken eyes, unable to distinguish “images” as they once did. Not only did his companions not want to go out, they even tried to catch and kill the man who had taken him out of the cave.
In this parable, the first prisoner to emerge from the cave sees the sunlight and breaks the illusion of a world he never suspected before, and then tries to return to the cave with the truth about the world to tell his still blind companions, only to be met with strong resistance and disbelief. Let us try to apply this more than 2000 year old metaphor to our world today, where algorithmic recommendation mechanisms and media propaganda have created an illusion of the world for us, and we have treated this illusion as the real world, living comfortably in an information cocoon, until suddenly one day we are forced by some shock to break down the information barriers around us and see a completely different world. We feel dizzy and confused and start to really reflect on our lives and re-examine the world as we know it, realising that everything we once believed in is so one-sided and untenable, and then we are ridiculed and attacked for trying to tell our unshaken friends around us ……
In the information age, we are able to experience and perceive more than just the world around us, and our almost seamless access to news that is happening in real time on a global scale gives us the illusion that we are in control of the world. But if we think about it, this world is the world of Plato’s cave, where all the ‘events’ we are able to see are ‘news’ that has been carried and processed by others, and we take these ‘events’, which are inevitably subjective and even deliberately distorted for certain purposes, and we make them available to us. We take these ‘shadows’, inevitably distorted by the subjective will of others for certain purposes, as truths and realities about the world.
Political Propaganda and Commercial Interests: a Distorted Reality
When the internet first emerged, the debate was often optimistic, arguing that its decentralised nature offered a new opportunity for democratisation. Over time, however, the consolidation and consequent centralisation of social platforms has provided the state with the opportunity to use social media as a channel for its political propaganda, and authoritarian states have seized the opportunity to use data and algorithms for mass censorship and surveillance (Khamis, Gold, & Vaughn, 2013; King, Pan, & Roberts, 2017. Youmans & York, 2012). Most of the information that users receive at the end of the spectrum is already censored and includes media messages that have been carefully crafted for political and ideological purposes. In other words, the content that is easily accessible to us is often the content that the state expects us to be exposed to -and is already deconstructed and reshaped. In other words, what is easily accessible is often what the state expects us to access events that have already been deconstructed and reshaped.
Furthermore, no matter how much platforms claim to be merely neutral parties providing a service, they require significant capital to operate and it is unlikely that platforms do not consider their own profitability. Social media platforms derive their revenue mainly from advertisers’ investment, and users’ information data is a commodity for which platforms do their best to retain users, while content producers in the audience economy also derive their revenue from attracting users, so creating gimmicks and hype is a common tactic, with exaggerated headlines and controversial topics as bait to attract users, often very effectively. For the uninformed user, these statements become part of their understanding of the world.
Information Cocoon :a World in a Cave
As web technology advances and the amount of information available rapidly increases, traditional media distribution mechanisms are increasingly being overturned and algorithms can tailor a ‘personal daily newspaper’ to the user’s preferences and habitual behaviour on the internet (Cass, 2006). To illustrate, if each person receives tweets based on their personal preferences, then someone who is tweeted current news should be a current news follower, someone who is tweeted anime news should be a fan of ACG culture, and someone who is tweeted NBA games should be a sports fan. Taking it a step further, people who support the Democratic Party will be pushed to news related to the Democratic Party, and people who support the Republican Party will receive news related to the Republican Party. The push mechanism seems to help us quickly sift through a sea of information to find what is useful or interesting to us, and the feeling of being immersed in something we like and an opinion we agree with is certainly a wonderful one, and one that everyone is obsessed with and enjoys. This personalised pushing mechanism based on personal preferences reinforces our satisfaction as actors and allows us to indulge in this self-constructed information utopia, but on another level it insidiously denies us the right to see different voices, our opinions and ideas become more and more homogenised and our lives more and more programmed and stereotyped. We live in a cave of our own making and treat it as if it were the whole world.
Back in the Cave :the Polarisation of the Internet Community
At the end of Plato’s allegory, the man who tries to wake up his partner is met with ridicule and anger from his partner, just as on the internet you often invite abuse and attacks when you try to persuade someone to come out of their information cocoon. It is difficult to shake a person’s world; people are ready to believe what they believe. Social media is thought to be the cause of ideological polarisation, as its algorithms lead to filter bubbles that sift out different views while reinforcing similar political beliefs and opinions (Hong & Kim, 2016). Through algorithmic personalisation, like-minded content is elevated or filtered, amplifying the effect of echo chambers (Dubois & Blank, op. cit. 2018). The high walls that recommendation algorithms erect between people become more and more impenetrable, and the chances for people on the internet to interact with each other on an equal footing in a friendly dialogue become less and less likely.As atomised individuals become trapped in their own little caves, seeing them as the only truth, can we ever return to the caves with the sunlight of truth?
Out of the Cave :Reflections on Information Sources
When we realise that we are in a cave, how do we break down the information barriers around us and see the real world again? It is important to examine our sources of information, broaden our access to information, and be proactive in receiving and understanding a variety of different information and perspectives. In the polarised environment of the Internet community, it is important to use reason to guide our actions and to try to restore the Internet as a public sphere. Only when more people are aware and willing to make the effort will we be able to truly step out of the narrow space created by algorithms and understand and appreciate the real world.
Plato, The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1991)
Hildén, J. (2022). The Public Service Approach to Recommender Systems: Filtering to Cultivate. Television & New Media, 23(7), 777–796. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/10.1177/15274764211020106
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Dubois, E., & Blank, G. (2018). The echo chamber is overstated: The moderating effect of political interest and diverse media. Information, Communication & Society, 21(5), 729–745.
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