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The topic of reality is one that has been highly discussed in the discipline of philosophy. From the extensive discourse has generated a litany of postulations pertaining to the nature of reality. A natural corollary of examining reality is the extent to which our perception of reality is a delusion. How do we know what we believe to be real is truly real?  This is a daunting question that humans have been grappling with since the days of  Greek antiquity. No other than the philosopher Plato. Plato provides a firm demonstration of the illusory nature of reality in The Allegory of the Cave [1].

 

In a nutshell, The Allegory of the Cave details a group of people held captive since infancy in a cave. The only visual stimulus they have “shadow puppets”. Produced by the fire-light silhouetted hand gestures of their captors. The prisoners only know the forms of our world through these two-dimensional figures projected on the cave wall. As we all know from our own experience with shadows they lack texture and detail. Only provide a general outline of the for of an object. One day, one of the prisoners breaks free from their shackles and decides to leave the cave. That prisoner was in for a shock.

Blinded by the blaring sunlight the prisoner’s eyes adjust to the lighting of the external environment. Then realizes the true vibrancy of the world outside of the cave. The prisoner comes to the realization that the “shadow puppets” projected on the cave walls were only a caricature of the true objects. For example, a shadow puppet of a tree does not convey all of the veins in the leaves or the crevices and grooves in the bark.  Upon this monumental discovery, the prisoner comes back to the cave to announce his new findings to his captive peers. Unfortunately, they were not receptive to this new perspective of the world. The looked at him as if he was crazy. Defended the validity of perceiving the world as depicted on the cave walls. They continued to intently watch the motions of the shadow puppets on the cave wall.

 

The Allegory of the Cave demonstrates some important points about human perception. Clearly, the shadows simulating the animals on the cave walls are not an accurate representation of their actual forms. We can believe that we know the true form of the depicted animals, however, due to our faulty perception, we do not have an accurate account of their essence. The prisoners believe that they were seeing a dog, however, it was merely the shadows being formed by their captors. By referring to the shadows as a dog does not mean they truly comprehend the essence of a dog. What a dog truly is. It is possible to gain knowledge through perception. However, there is a gulf between our perception and truth [2]. Meaning there is a giant gap between true knowledge and illusion.

 

Illusion tends to be a problem that has continuously plagued humans in the pursuit of truth. On a biological level, we are susceptible to optical illusions.  This is a by-product of evolutionary adaptions that help facilitate easier navigation of our environment. The human mind has a limited capacity for sensory input, therefore our eyes are designed to operate on preassumptions.  Hence, why we tend to enjoy looking at the Impressionist paintings of Claude Monet. We are reading into the painting with our perceptual assumptions. His painting is comprised of a myriad of loose, formless, and broad brush strokes. Anyone of us would swear up-and-down that we see a sailboat or a springtime picnic. In reality, our brain is imposing that form on the sensory input. Such misconceptions are innocent in terms of visual aesthetics. In areas where moral considerations are more pressing, this can be dangerous.

 

Throughout Machiavelli’s flagship book The Prince there are multiple references to perception being more important than reality. He clearly asserts that appearing to be righteous takes primacy over actually being so (Machiavelli, 1532, Transl. Mansfield, 1985, P. 62) [3]. This sentiment is quite often reflected throughout modern society. The idiomatic statement “fake it until you make it” a perennial favorite of every aspiring salesman. Above all, this reflects a dishonest mentality and a facade that cannot indefinitely be maintained. Due to our strong proclivity towards a plethora of biases, we will continue to trust those exuberating confidence over people who are competent. At least until charade starts to unravel. Needless to say, we are wired to fall into the trap of faulty perception. If we are easily tricked by smoke-and-mirrors it is reasonable to question the validity of our perception.

 

While Plato may have used The Allegory of the Cave as an abstract model it still has countless potential for real-world applications. One of the best examples is social media. I really could not even fabricate a better example of a metaphorical cave. The emergence of the occupation of social media influencer has only compounded the extent to which reality is distorted. Even for the average social media consumer you only get a brief glimpse of their life. Often it only details vacations, happy hours, good times with friends, and rarely displays hardship. This brief snapshot of your friend’s life is somewhat illusory. It only illustrations only a fraction of the story. It does not detail the mundanity of day to day life or family disputes.  As people we all have struggles. What those struggles are and their magnitude is what varies. No one has a perfect life. Therefore, I would suggest stop looking at the exploits of your Facebook “friends” with envy. Realize that odds are their life isn’t much better than yours.  In fact, theirs could be worse. Hence, why they are putting up an impenetrable front.

 

In the instance of social media influencers, this effect is only compounded. They are frequently paid to promote a service or product through the channels of social media platforms. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. I am a proponent of capitalism after all. It should be noted that many of these influencers are also paid to embellish upon their lifestyle. Make it seem as if they have more freedom, wealth, and sex appeal than what they actually possess. Ultimately, a great lifestyle is the best selling point for a product or brand. Regardless of the truth of the matter. This contrived lifestyle does not convey the actual truth of the influencer’s lifestyle. You do not see the behind the scenes pressures of appeasing a brand’s aggressive marketing department. Nor do you see the pitfalls of fame. Fame brings a level of Scrutiny that few mild-mannered people can adequately weather. This was the same point that Adam Smith illuminated in his book Theory of Moral Sentiments. The trapping of fame often comes with profound drawbacks. The lavish life portrayed by the kings and queens of  Snapchat does not include the bad and the ugly aspects of their lives.

7 thoughts on “Social Media – A Virtual Cave

  1. Wow, another beautiful blog post! The comparison between Plato’s Cave and the banality of most forms social media is spot on. But what if Plato was wrong about the value of leaving his metaphorical Cave? What if there is nothing worth seeing outside? (I don’t hold that view, but I am left wondering if the material comforts and relative safety of the Cave are to be preferred to the epistemological dangers and uncertainties of what lies outside …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It goes back to the notion of “ignorance being bliss”. If we know how the sausage is made ultimately it will be less appetizing ( for most people).

      There is a lot of comfort in ignorance. Because in my instances, we even unaware of what we don’t know. Making it paradoxical and impossible to be concerned with.

      Having a firmer understanding of the world comes at a cost like anything else. Typical the trade off is more knowledge for being less carefree. I have noticed that oftentimes adults like to romanticize the lackadaisical ignorance of their youth. General in retrospect we are better off with the knowledge we have acquired over the years.

      Social media, the more I think about It is a little different than the cave. The cave served as a shield to the prisoners, insulating them from the harsh facts of reality. While the distorted reality perpetuated by social media causes distress. Both give us an unrealistic lens for looking at the world. One elicits comfort the other causes unnecessary emotional turmoil.

      Liked by 1 person

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