Obsessions: Plato’s Cave

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South by Southwest

Apologies for last week’s radio silence—the Adobe CS5 Review was my priority for the week. Back to SxSW for a bit longer. As I promised, we’re looking at a panel about the effects of our mediated world around us. This panel was called “Swarming Plato’s Cave: Rethinking Digital Fantasies,” and was based around Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

In this allegory, Plato tells us of a group of people whose lives are lived chained in a cave, facing a wall. They see nothing but shadows from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and ascribe form to those shadows–the shadows become their reality. Plato explains that a philosopher, one who interprets the world with a clear mind, is like a freed prisoner who has come to see that the shadows his fellow prisoners are not reality, but an interpretation of reality.

This panel was, overall, pretty simple in structure; more of a discussion really. We looked at the Allegory of the Cave, and then we extended the analogy to ourselves so that we, as modern audiences and consumers of media, are the same as these prisoners—watching a constantly constructed reality. The point made was that modern media, as much as we would like for it to be real, is not reality. It is a projection, an interpretation of reality.

This was extended to the web’s current movements in a few different ways. First off, the web is imploding a lot of what we used to know to be true about the world because suddenly, we are not only watching the narrative—as has always happened throughout history—we are telling it ourselves. The media and audience are converging. We, as an audience, are now shouting back into the same stream of events with updates, commentary, and fact-checking. The past few years have very nearly destroyed what we know about our social order, because the media is no longer our most trusted source of news in every case. One-way media—author to audience media—is not reality, it is the official version of reality, and we now have the tools to audit and edit that history as it is being told.

Another notion was brought up, specific to the construction of the web versus the consumption of the web. Amanda French stated that those of us who code have seen a realm of pure logic that non-coders have not. This means coders experience yet another release from chains that readers cannot know—they understand the basic limitations and weaknesses of the web as a mechanical structure. In my experience, this makes us know more and trust less of what actually happens on the web, not to mention trust less in the basic social principles underlying them. Commenting identities, illusions of privacy, notions of personal property on the web are all constructed, and to me, inherently false.

Another speaker, John Jones posited that our media world was just as much a part of reality as nature—a method of making sense of what could be madness. In my mind, there is an inherent emotional usefulness to interpretive media; it gives us a way to create emotional structures to make the world around us less insane. Talking about things renders them much less frightening, and mediation can be just that—a way to explore a frightening world, safely.

If you’d like to read more about this discussion, here’s an archive of the Twitter discussion we were having while the panel was going on—a sort of silent class discussion happening as the material was being presented. (I’ve left a lot of pieces of the panel out of this to concentrate on what I think is relevant to the design professions.)

If you still want more, here’s the mediated version of the panel. Ha.