The Allegory of the Cave for the Digital Age

You remember Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. Plato invites us to imagine a cave in which prisoners have been shackled to a wall unable to move or turn their heads. On the wall before them are shadows that are being cast as the light of a fire shines on people walking along a path above and behind the prisoners. Plato asks us to consider whether these prisoners would not take the shadows for reality and then whether our situation were not quite similar to that of these prisoners.

So far as Plato is concerned, sense experience cannot reveal to us what is, in fact, real. What is real, what is true, what is good exists outside the material realm and is accessible chiefly by the operations of the mind acting independently of sense experience.

In the allegory, Plato imagines that one of the prisoners has managed to free himself. He turns around and sees the fire that has been casting the light and the people whose shadows he had mistaken for reality. It is a painful experience, of course, chiefly because the fire dazzles the eyes. Plato also tells us that this same prisoner manages with much difficulty to climb out of the cave in order to see the light of the sun and behold the sun itself. That experience is analogous to the experience of one, who through the exercise of reason and contemplation, has attained to behold the highest order of being, the form of the good.

The allegory of the cave, odd as it might strike us, memorably exemplifies one of Plato’s enduring contributions to what we might think of as the Western imagination. It posits the existence of two worlds, as it were:  one material and one immaterial, the former accessible to the senses, the latter not. In Plato’s account, it is the philosopher who takes it upon himself, like the man whose has escaped the cave, to discover the truth of things.

I thought of the allegory of the cave as I read about an online service I wrote about a few days ago, Predictim, which promises to vet potential babysitters by analyzing their social media feeds. The service is representative of a class of tools and services that claim to leverage the combined power of data, AI, and/or algorithms in order to arrive at otherwise inaccessible knowledge, insight, or certainty. They claim, in other words, to lead us out of the cave to see the truth of things, to grant us access to what is real beyond appearances.

Only in the new allegory, it is not the philosopher who is able to ascend out of the cave, it is the data analyst or, more precisely, the tools of data gathering and analysis that the data analyst himself may not fully understand. Indeed, the knowledge gained is very often knowledge without understanding. This is, of course, an element of the residual but transmuted Platonism, the knowledge is inaccessible to the senses not because it lies in an immaterial realm, unless one conceives of information or abstracted data as basically immaterial, but because it requires the encompassing of data so expansive no one mind can comprehend it.

Ad for Microsoft Band c. 2014

Arendt noted that the two-tiered Platonic structure was subject to a series of inversions in the 19th century, most notably at the hands of Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche. But, as she points out, they cannot altogether escape Plato because they are working within the tensions he generated. It might be better to imagine, then, that the two-tiered world was simply immanentized, the dual structure was merely brought into this world. Rather than conceiving of an immaterial realm that transcends the material realm, we can conceive of the material realm itself divided into two spheres. The first is generally accessible to our senses, but the second is not.

As Arendt herself observes, modernity was characterized in part by this shattering of confidence in our perceptive capacities. The world was not the center of the universe, for example, as our senses suggested, and it turned out there were whole worlds, telescopic and microscopic, which were inaccessible to our unaided perceptive apparatus. Indeed, Arendt and others have suggested that in the modern world we claim to know only what we can make.

We might say that border of the two-tiered world now runs through self. Data and some magic algorithmic sauce is now the key that unlocks the truth about the self. It’s knowledge that others seek about us and it is knowledge we also seek about ourselves. My main interest here has not been to question the validity of such knowledge, although that’s a necessary exercise, but to note the assumptions that make the promises of data analytics plausible. One of those assumptions seems to be the belief that the truth, about the self in this case, lies in a realm that is inaccessible to our ordinary means of perception but accessible by other esoteric means.

Regarding the validity of the knowledge of the self to be gained, I would suggest the only self we’ll discover is the self we’ve become as we have sought the self in our data. In this respect then, the Platonic structure is modernized: it is not ultimately about beholding and knowing what is there but about knowing what we are fabricating. The instruments constitute the reality they purport to reveal, both by my awareness of them and by the their delimiting the legible aspects of the self. The only self I can know on these terms is the self that I am in the process of creating through my tools. In some non-trivial way it would seem that the work of climbing out of the cave is simultaneously the work of creating a new cave in which we will dwell.


See also “Data Science as Machinic Neoplatonism” by Dan McQuillan.

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2 thoughts on “The Allegory of the Cave for the Digital Age

  1. Wow! Very interesting read. Thanks. I am wondering how we can reduce personality to a person’s data feeds on some social media platforms.

    Obviously our posts and responses to others’ posts do reveal something of our selves. But, do they reveal enough to make those kind of judgements.

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