The Matrix gave a generation or two reason to reconsider, or indeed first to consider, Plato’s allegory of the cave. That era-defining blockbuster’s cavalcade of slick visual effects came delivered atop a plot about humanity’s having been enslaved — plugged into a colossal machine, as I recall, like an array of living batteries — while convinced by a direct-to-brain simulation that it wasn’t. Here in real life, about two and a half millennia earlier, one of Plato’s dialogues had conjured up a not-dissimilar scenario. You can see it retold in the video above, a clip drawn from a form as representative of the early 21st century as The Matrix‘s was of the late 20th: Legion, a dramatic television series based on a comic book.
“Imagine a cave, where those inside never see the outside world,” says narrator Jon Hamm (himself an icon of our Golden Age of Television, thanks to his lead performance in Mad Men). “Instead, they see shadows of that world projected on the cave wall. The world they see in the shadows is not the real world, but it’s real to them. If you were to show them the world as it actually is, they would reject it as incomprehensible.” Then, Hamm suggests transposing this relationship to reality into life as we know it — or rather, as we two-dimensionally perceive it on the screens of our phones. But “unlike the allegory of the cave, where the people are real and the shadows are false, here other people are the shadows.”
This propagates “the delusion of the narcissist, who believes that they alone are real. Their feelings are the only feelings that matter, because other people are just shadows, and shadows don’t feel.” And “if everyone lived in caves, then no one would be real. Not even you.” With the rise of digital communication in general and social media in particular, a great many of us have ensconced ourselves, by degrees and for the most part unconsciously, inside caves of our own. Over the past decade or so, increasingly sobering glimpses of the outside world have motivated some of us to seek diagnoses of our collective condition from thinkers of the past, such as social theorist Christopher Lasch.
“The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety,” Lasch writes The Culture of Narcissism. “Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence” — wonders, in other words, whether he isn’t one of the shadows himself. Nevertheless, he remains “facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it,” and dependent on “constant infusions of approval and admiration.” Social media has revealed traces of this personality, belonging to one who “sees the world as a mirror of himself and has no interest in external events except as they throw back a reflection of his own image,” in us all. It thus gives us pause to remember that Lasch was writing all this in the 1970s; but then, Plato was writing in the fifth century B.C.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.