Plato’s Echo Chamber
Before writing this originally I heard a glib comment on Radio 4 that the internet had created an infinite echo chamber, rather than enabling us all to be better read, more rounded individuals with wider knowledge. This focused a feeling I’d struggled to express before.
Groups of friends share opinions, colleagues talk about the views they share, readers subscribe to newspapers that provide the type of information they want — or think they want. A lucky number work for organisations that share their values. Isn't it a goal to live in places that mirror our aspirations?
I look at my bookmarks bar. The internet can be less an infinite universe of possibilities than a self-constructed mirror of my own thoughts, the life I lead, the things I like and the beliefs I hold to. When was the last time I read all of an article I disagreed with? When did I last seek one out?
I am an echo victim. I have hunted for commentaries stressing the things that, in my soul, felt right and provided answers to questions which tormented me. Answers which have allowed me to move on, which I could base my beliefs or feelings on, which I could return to for affirmation.
In darkest moments I've adhered to depressing, cynical and hopeless newspaper articles about rapes, murders, corruption, complaints, whinings, mud-slingings, griefings. I've fabricated a world around me which echoed my mood and which maintained the mood I was in. A negative comfort zone.
These things shore up the beliefs I hold, but where did these beliefs come from? When a contrasting belief comes into contact with mine, can I reach for my own faith or will I discover this has been replaced with someone else’s? And if my belief is constructed of the beliefs of others — the echoes in the infinite chamber — what exactly am I left with?
Plato’s Cave imagines prisoners who exist in a cave facing a blank wall. Behind them is a fire. The fire’s light projects shadows onto the blank wall, shadows of objects which pass between the prisoners and the fire behind them. The shadows of the objects are as close as the prisoners ever get to the reality of the objects, and so to them the shadows are reality.
For Plato the philosopher is a person who is freed from the cave. He sees the shadows, the objects, the fire, the prisoners and their false view of reality. He bases his reality on the objects themselves, rather than their projections as two-dimensional shadows on the wall. And his job is to reveal this truth to the prisoners.
Online everyone can philosophise. The internet illustrates a ubiquitous love of talking, a love of being listened to, a love of sharing opinions and theories. The love of being agreed with, agreeing with others, finding a likeminded group, a tribe, a shared ‘feeling’ or belief.
I’ve seen the fire. I’ve known the objects. But I’ve returned to the blank wall full of self-assured belief that I have seen reality and ‘how it really is’, intent on exposing everyone still staring at shadows to their plight. What did I expect? Think of it like this:
Having spent their life knowing only shadows, having built their understanding of reality on shadows, it is revealed to the prisoners that what formed their reality are merely shadows of real objects projected in the light of a fire. How could they comprehend any new actual object reality without using their shadow ‘reality’ to do so?
That is, any understanding of object reality would be tainted by the experience of living in a ‘reality’ of shadows. In the same way that someone from an everdesert waterless world who is entirely without the word ‘snow’ must surely base their comprehension of ‘snow’ by discussing how it is totally unlike their desert home.
A prisoner facing the fire, then, sees the fire and the objects and might at first only see how they are not the shadows they previously believed in. In doing so they may have ‘seen’ reality yet can only comprehend it as the root of their previous ‘reality’, that the real fire and the real things created the ‘real’ shadows.
So an American sees the Stars and Stripes and perceives America. But although they perceive America, the real complex America, they don’t see it without first seeing the Stars and Stripes, through which their interpretation of America is coloured. The freed prisoner sees the real objects but cannot forget their shadows.
In this understanding/notunderstanding of the fire and the objects, our freed prisoner returns to the wall and the shadows and the prisoners as a self-proclaimed philosopher, to reveal that the shadow ‘reality’ is only a projection, an interpretation, and that if the prisoners turned to the fire their beliefs would melt away in the face of actual object reality.
But here the problem is compounded. A self-proclaimed philosopher who comprehends the truth only by how it contrasts to that which is accepted by the prisoners, who have no understanding that there is another reality beyond that which they see in the shadows projected on the wall.
And as much as the philosopher cannot understand the revealed reality except through how it underpins their previous ‘reality’, the prisoners would only be able to understand a discussion of object reality, the real, by discussing shadow ‘reality’, the unreal.
Plato himself explored how a man who was dragged from shadows into reality might feel, and how those left in the cave might react were he to return and attempt to reveal to them an unseen, incomprehensible reality. This is where Plato’s Cave becomes the Echo Chamber.
Online we can all philosophise. Hundreds of thousands of freed prisoners have glimpsed the fire. They’ve seen the real objects. And they understand them as the root of the shadow ‘reality’, not as reality in itself, and have rushed back to the wall. To be ‘First!’.
Philosophers outnumber the prisoners. And the philosophers have rushed back without fully comprehending the reality of the fire and the objects. There many different ways of explaining how reality is not ‘reality’, always with an urge to be uncompromised, to be right. There is a clamour of philosophers, a chaos of ideas and a host of incompatible expressions of reality.
In such noise the prisoners still have only one reality they truly know. The philosophers confuse them, and the philosophers are confused. And the prisoners can no longer see the shadows without hearing the philosophers explain what the shadows are not. There is no shadow ‘reality’ any more, only an uncomfortable void where reality ought to be.
So prisoners gravitate toward philosophers who salve this discomfort. Toward speakers who are easiest to understand. Toward interpretations of the fire and the real objects which they find possible to grasp. And toward the echo chamber where all they hear are the things which fit with how they have learned to cope with a vacant ‘reality’.
Philosophers struggle to span the two worlds, the reality and the ‘reality’. They grapple with explaining reality through what is unreal to prisoners who only know the fire and the real objects through the expressions of the philosophers, who all the time are defending their own interpretations from the voices of competing philosophers.
And defending an interpretation of reality based only upon what ‘reality’ is not causes discomfort. Because a philosopher who accepts the interpretation of another is compromised, and must accept that their interpretation may be incomplete, and that further thought is needed. And where does it end?
But compromising brings awareness. The shadows haven’t been escaped at all. The philosopher knows too much to go back to the ignorant life of a prisoner, but they are imprisoned just the same through understanding merely what the shadows aren’t. The only choice is to turn back to the fire, to the real objects, and to understand them for what they are.
Philosophers who refuse to accept that their interpretation is incomplete refuse to be compromised by returning to the fire and the real objects — because to do so would be acceptance that other interpretations were possible. So even philosophers pursue those voices who do not challenge them to challenge themselves.
But philosophers must go back to the fire and to the real objects and stay until they understand reality without ‘reality’. They must be able to discuss the real things without discussing them as ‘those things which the shadows represented’. The desert-dwellers must learn what actually snow is, and not to need to discuss the desert in order to do so.
Except such philosophers, open thinkers, cannot return. In Plato’s Echo Chamber there are only prisoners and philosophers in self-selected bands who have even closed their eyes to the shadows, hearing nothing but themselves and the interpretations which match theirs.
To these closed-eye prisoners and philosophers the interpretation they accept and which echoes around them has become the fire which projects the shadows they remember. Every echo makes the fire stronger, the shadows more defined. Even a discussion of the shadows on the wall is impossible without open eyes.
An open thinker cannot engage an Echo Chambered prisoner or philosopher in debate about the shadows or of the interpretation of those shadows and the real objects they are projections of. The closed-philosophers discredit those they perceive as compromised. The prisoners can no longer even see the shadows.
The internet provides an infinite level of positive noise (what I believe) and makes it incredibly easy to silence negative noise (what makes me uncomfortable or challenges what I believe). It is the perfect echo chamber.
Does it really matter if the content of my web mirrors only my own beliefs? Am I diminished by not being open to other interpretations? Of course I am. Intelligence is never the result of not asking questions, and learning is not possible without accepting that there are things unknown or not understood.
I have wilfully blindfolded myself in the past, enjoying the reassuring comfort of not thinking, not questioning, not doubting. Of living inside Plato’s Echo Chamber.
Originally I believed the task of open thinkers was to call over the noise of the echo chamber, to challenge those inside to open their eyes, to not let the echoes stand uncontested. Now I feel differently.
My only task is to leave the cave, stand in the sun and see what lies beyond. And to allow others to see what they will.