Sometimes it’s hard to put oneself in a twentieth century mind-set and remember who we were. As individuals, we sometimes like to think we’re still the same people we used to be, but we are simply not. 1999 might as well have been a hundred years ago when you think of all the changes that have taken place. Smart phones, tablets, broadband internet, streaming video, useful digital cameras: they were all still dreams in the 20th century. They haven’t just changed our lives. They’ve changed us. Recent studies show that our interaction with this technology is actually rewiring our brains. In more ways than one, we have entered our “brave new world.” The world is not really new though. Only our perception has changed.
In the fall of ’99, my girlfriend and I were perusing the video store for something to watch on a Saturday night. All the good movies were gone as we were there about two hours after most people had settled on their evening of entertainment. Funny to think how common that was back then, and how sixteen years later I can’t remember the last time I was in a movie rental store. “What about this one?” she said, holding a copy of The Matrix. I reluctantly agreed and we took it back to my apartment. Little did I know, it would become one of my favorite movies. In my abundant ignorance, I also didn’t realize that it would be a primer to a lesson in philosophy that I wouldn’t better grasp until many years later.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is the basic outline of The Matrix. For the unfamiliar, it was the philosopher’s explanation of the difference between perception and reality. In the Allegory, people are chained in a cave as infants, forced to look only at the shadows of things going on behind them. They do not know what creates the shadows, or that the world includes anything other than what they see. If someone was freed from this false reality, the philosopher argues that they would at first reject the light of day because it would be a new and painful reality. It would take some adjustment. After realizing its superiority to a life confined in the cave they would want to free their fellow prisoners and show them the goodness of the world. Not understanding, and not wanting to endure the pain of the light outside the cave, the masses would reject the real world. They would prefer to remain in the darkness to which they were accustomed. The reality they knew would be preferable to the uncertainty outside the cave, so they would kill anyone that tried to expand that reality.
Human interaction is governed by the golden rule. No, not that one; the other one. “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” The gold holders control the media. They always have. They have used it over the course of history to start and end wars, to destroy reputations, and generally to do whatever they want. The internet threatened that hegemony for a time, but it is now coming into an age where it will be able to fulfill its original intent. Now that everything online is beholden to Google and Facebook, algorithms can be written to steer people to and from content. What was once a vast wilderness of ideas is being tamed and refined to where it too can be controlled by those in seats of power around the world. Modern media is the current incarnation of Plato’s fire; casting shadows on the wall we constantly watch. We are chained in place, despite our perceived freedom of motion, by our smart phones, tablets, etc. If we don’t know something we Google it. If we can’t find something we Google it. If we want to know what’s going on in the world, we turn on Fox News or CNN. Have a question about science? Go to NASA’s website or your government schoolteacher. Every avenue from which we derive our “knowledge” about the world is controlled by someone richer or more powerful than we are. If a view contradicting the mainstream is espoused, one can expect to be labeled a denier, extremist, conspiracy theorist, or the somewhat kinder, skeptic. Those firmly ensconced in the cave and bombarded with its imagery don’t want to be separated from it. This stifles conversation. Like Neo in The Matrix, many sense that something is off, but dare not verbalize that for fear of the repercussions. This fear perpetuates the suppression of real knowledge, and we drift on in our dream world with no Morpheus to guide us out. Some notable physicists have opined that we may actually be living in a computer simulated world like The Matrix. Seriously! I would posit that even if we are not, we may well be! Follow the white rabbit. Knock, knock.