Below is an expanded and revised version of the talk I gave at the South by Southwest Interactive panel Swarming Plato’s Cave: Rethinking Digital Fantasies on March 16th, 2010. Talking with some folks at SXSW both before and after the panel definitely helped my thinking; thanks to all of you, not least those of you who twittered so well during the panel. Thanks also to William Burdette for putting together the panel and for putting up related links on the Mediated Humanities website at www.mediatedhumanities.org/sxsw.
Plato’s allegory of the cave is an extended metaphor put in motion for the purpose of convincing us that everything we perceive and believe may be no more real than a shadow. It is an explanation of why regular people think philosophers (e.g., Plato and Socrates) are crazy: the regular people are stuck on the notion that what they think is real is in fact real, they can’t appreciate the reality that the philosopher appreciates, and the philosopher finds it very hard to explain this other reality to them and anyway is not very motivated to do so. The allegory of the cave is a thought experiment, a parable, a myth, and a theory about the nature of reality, and it’s also just an enduringly intriguing scene to try to visualize, as the terrific short film we’ve just watched shows.
But it’s also a story, a narrative, and as such it has a form, a structure: that two-thousand-four-hundred-year-old structure, I’d like to point out, is an extremely common one in the contemporary genre known as fantasy. And, of course, if that structure is common in fantasy, it’s common in science fiction as well.
When you think about it, it’s a bit odd that bookstores lump together science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction is very much about technology, and generally involves the construction of a future or alternate world whose chief characteristic is advanced technology; the accompanying narrative usually explores the problems and opportunities of that technology. Fantasy, in apparent contrast, involves the construction of an alternate world that more or less resembles the Middle Ages, a world entirely without technology. The universes of the fantasy genre, however, have magic, and, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said in his 1958 work Profiles of the Future, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The common factor in fantasy and science fiction, of course, is that creation of an alternate world, a world that is recognizably not this one.
Plato’s allegory of the cave, like science fiction and fantasy, also posits an alternate world, a world that is recognizably not this one. In its narrative structure, there are two worlds, and the hero is the only person (or almost the only person) who can travel between those two worlds. I have named these worlds World One and World Zero, names which correspond to the visible world and the invisible world. We need to avoid the term “the real world,” because it’s often precisely the question of which world is more real (not to mention which world is better) that is at issue. In Plato’s allegory, the dark cave with its flickerings is an image of World One, the visible world, the world of limited ordinary perception; while the dazzling world of sunflare and shadow is World Zero, the nonexistent, absent, invisible world, the exotic extraordinary other world of pure thought, which the philosopher hero tries and inevitably fails to describe to the chained inhabitants of World One.
There are plenty of sci-fi/fantasy narratives that have exactly this structure: ordinary World One, exotic World Zero, and a hero who travels between them. I’ve listed some, but I’m sure you can name others.
In these narratives, the alternate world might be an island, say. Or it might be another planet. Or it might be an alternate dimension accessible through a portal in this world. Or it might be an alternate time, either in the present or the past. Or it might be a spiritual realm. Or it might be a dream, or an illusion — this often turns out to be the case for narratives in which the hero is a woman, as for instance The Wizard of Oz and (the original) Alice in Wonderland, stories in which women can have adventures only if they are not real adventures. World Zero, in short, is a secret or hidden or inaccessible or invisible world constituted by its apparent non-existence. Some sci-fi/fantasy narratives not listed here, of course, simply set up an alternate World Zero and allow whatever world actually surrounds the reader or audience to serve as the visible World One, and we ourselves become the hero who has experience of both. But here I am concerned primarily with narratives that explicitly represent two worlds and are explicitly engaged with the contrast between them.
So if that’s the case, if Plato’s allegory is in many ways a sort of proto-fantasy/sci-fi story, what does it all (as they say) mean?
Well, one question worth pursuing is this one: Which world is the digital world?
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes worry that I spend too much time looking at screens: computer screens, smartphone screens, TV screens, movie theater screens, and (of course) screens on which slides are projected. Am I cutting myself off from the real world? Am I insufficiently mindful and overly mediated? Am I, in short, watching “shadows of artefacts” all day long, just like the prisoners in Plato’s cave? There are plenty of people who would say Yes, yes you are, you and all those other SXSW attendees. Get out of the dark cave of your parents’ basement, nerd, and get some sunshine. Stop with the fantasy already. Writers like Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr and (most recently) Jaron Lanier bring us a version of this message, a version which is often more complicated and careful and sometimes even caring than I’ve made it sound here, and their books do well here at SXSW. These thinkers seem to fit neatly into the role Plato ascribes to the philosopher: he who stays with the cave-dwellers in order to do the hard work of convincing them to cease investing so much in mere shadows of artefacts, the hard work of “turning the mind as a whole away from the world of becoming, until it becomes capable of bearing the sight of real being and reality at its most bright” (Waterfield 245).
Yet Plato’s allegory of the cave need not be a touchstone only for anti-mediationists. That philosopher figure, trying vainly to explain the workings of the unseen world to those who do not understand, is also a highly resonant figure for the technologist. Anyone who’s done even the mildest form of tech support can relate to the communication barrier that Plato’s philosopher experiences, that sense of trying to explain sunshine to the benighted, whereas even the Luddiest Luddite can’t accuse any of the screen people of never once having experienced the Luddite version of unmediated reality. But if you’ve coded, you’ve experienced a world of pure logic that others haven’t. Similarly, a Twitter fan like me certainly feels that there’s a reality to that world that people who “don’t get” Twitter (and have therefore never used it) have no access to. Plenty of popular World One World Zero narratives simply scorn the Muggle World One and meander through the luxurious specs of its own particular techno-magical World Zero.
World One World Zero narratives, including Plato’s allegory of the cave, often turn out to be perfectly flexible on the “is tech good or is it bad” question. The most popular and enduring narratives are always those, I verily believe, in which we get to have it both ways: we get to enjoy our technology and our fears about technology at the same time, just as, in the Wizard of Oz, we get to enjoy Dorothy’s adventures while ultimately being assured that her true place is at home. Anything else is probably too simplistic to hold our interest for long. Only those who might arguably be spending too much time with screens are interested in horror stories about spending too much time with screens.
Some of the most quintessentially geeky fantasies have an apparently anti-fantasy moral, The Matrix being certainly a much more interesting example than Surrogates. In his talk yesterday, Jaron Lanier recommended a 1909 sci-fi story by E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” as a story with exactly the same message: it is bad to live in the mediated world, however pleasant: it is good to live in the real world, however difficult. (This, by the way, is not precisely Lanier’s argument in his recent manifesto You Are Not a Gadget: he is, after all, the father of virtual reality. Much of his concern about today’s Internet is that it is insufficiently fantastic, that it lacks the fluidity and weirdness it once had, that the mediated world is now a suburb where it was once a phantasmagoria.) It’s always remarkably easy for fantasy to be anti-fantasy without, apparently, causing us much cognitive dissonance. Plato’s allegory of the cave, that remarkably imaginative story, is only one small part of the utopian narrative The Republic, elsewhere in which Plato famously banned the poets, the dramatists, the imagineers from his ideal community.
Similarly, James Cameron uses famously advanced cinematic technology in order to create narratives that apparently warn strongly against technology. Historically, the moral of the unsinkable Titanic has always been that man puts too much faith in technology, but the meta-narrative of Cameron’s movie Titanic is as technologically idolatrous as ever — so long as that technology is used in the service of storytelling. The story of Avatar is the story of a man who abandons a familiar modern mechanistic world in order to wear a loincloth and fly dragons, and yet surely not a single person who saw the film (3-D or otherwise) failed to discuss the film’s inviting technological innovation and exciting technological expense. To traverse the green jungle of Pandora is to become a part of the computational sublime. Stories such as Avatar and Dune and Star Wars (I’m talking about the original, the New Hope, here) that narrate a competition for protagonist mindshare between the futuristic technology of science fiction and the primitive mysticism of fantasy inevitably come down on the side of the spiritual, the ineffable, the magical. Neo discovers that he is the One. Luke turns off his targeting computer and scores a bullseye by trusting the Force. Jake Sully transcends the turbocharged tanning bed that puts him into the body of his avatar with the help of a mystical tree. It doesn’t matter. Through the power of metaphor, when magic wins, technology wins. It’s not so much that the technology is indistinguishable from magic as that the magic is indistinguishable from technology. For this reason, I think, even these apparently anti-fantasy, anti-mediation, anti-technology stories are beloved by we screen people, we people of the screen.
I am going to go out on a limb here (though not literally, like Jake Sully), and say straight out that Avatar is a bad movie. It was fine, it was entertaining, I enjoyed it, I went to see it with my brother and enjoyed spending that time with him, but without getting solemn or hysterical about it, I’ll still propose that it is a bad movie. It is a bad movie because it goes a bit too far over that “having it both ways” line, that line that separates the paradoxical from the hypocritical. Put it this way: if I take Jake Sully as my model, what sort of real-world action or belief does that translate into for me? Pandora’s jungle has a sort of real world visual equivalent in, say, the disappearing Brazilian rainforest, but Avatar is clearly not recommending that we go primitive. On Pandora, all creatures are designed with organic USB cables, and Pandora itself is repeatedly troped as a network. (“It’s a network,” explains Jake Sully.) The harsh truth is that computers are not at all “green” (Google the carbon footprint of Google sometime), and that by participating in the network we know, we are putting our own planet’s lush jungles in danger.
Better versions of the World One World Zero narrative have a legitimate and balanced argument that stands up to scrutiny once we strip out the allegory, the metaphor. Plato, for instance, is arguing both that regular people should trust philosophers when philosophers say that there’s a different way of looking at things and that philosophers should keep on striving to explain their different way of looking at things to people who have good reason for their lack of comprehension. That remains good counsel both for people who call tech support and for people who provide tech support.
But it’s not just a problem with Avatar; it’s a bit of a problem with the binary structure of the World One World Zero narrative itself and the egocentrism involved in relating to the single hero (or elite few) who can travel between those two worlds. The best science fiction and fantasy narratives, whether on screen or in print, often refuse or alter or complicate (or we might say, “deconstruct”) this compelling structure, just as Randall Bennett’s xkcd comic famously shows us the limitations of The Matrix‘s logic.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, not only alters the gender of the hero, but also makes sure that the narrative and the meta-narrative are in sync: we’re never allowed to forget that the Buffyverse is above all allegorical. The ordinary world and the extraordinary world are the same, in other words, not opposed at all. The demons, Joss Whedon repeatedly makes clear, are Buffy’s demons. We do enjoy it on the literal level, of course: there are literally kick-ass martial arts fights. But Whedon entrusts us to remember the metaphor, so that watching Buffy is always to be aware that you are watching a story that tells you baldly, if allegorically: women are strong, in all possible ways. The episode of Buffy called “Normal Again” posits with unsettlingly convincing logic that Buffy may simply be psychotic, schizophrenic, that the demons she fights are simply the product of her own disordered brain. But, ultimately, Buffy the heroine and Buffy the series firmly refuse the “it was all a dream” gambit that made the turn-of-the-century Wizard of Oz and Alice and Wonderland safe for popular consumption. And the series ended (at least on television, though it continues as a graphic novel) by happily robbing Buffy of her superhero singularity, distributing the special abilities normally reserved for a protagonist to a whole passel of potential heros.
Any why only two worlds? Why not many? The structure of the classic Star Trek posits dozens or hundreds or thousands or millions of different worlds, not simply two. Moreover, of course, it was a multiethnic team who visited these worlds: the clear allegorical meaning of Star Trek was always that different cultures are to be explored and understood, not demeaned and demonized. My housemate in graduate school was a linguist in the Anthropology department, and he often taught the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Darmok,” in which Picard attempts to understand the language of a radically different culture, a culture whose elliptical language could only be understood by learning their history.
Or why have a single hero at all? Why not many? If you like science fiction and fantasy, as I do (which I hope is clear), you may well love postmodern novels, some of which use the conventions of science fiction and fantasy but play with narrative structure. I highly recommend David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for instance, which consists of six separate interwoven stories. As soon as one narrative is half-told, it breaks off and another begins. We begin by hearing the story of a doctor on a nineteenth century sea voyage to Malaysia, go through several almost unrelated stories until we arrive at a typically sci-fi dystopian future in which a slave clone tells the story of her spiritual awakening. Only then do we begin to get the end of every story in reverse chronological order, until finally we’re back in the nineteenth century, understanding at last just how all six of these worlds and their six trapped heroes are connected.
Or consider David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a novel that has a well-deserved reputation as a difficult masterpiece of postmodern literature, but which is also a highly readable tragicomic piece of science fiction set in a dystopian near-future America with herds of feral hamsters and giant fans blowing airborne pollution north to Canada. Infinite Jest‘s structure is famously complex, which is part of the fun of reading it: Michael Silverblatt once hesitantly remarked to the author that the novel seemed to him to be “written in fractals,” to which Wallace replied, “I’ve heard you were an acute reader. That’s one of the things, structurally, that’s going on. It’s actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidal fractal.” James Cameron’s movies pretty much suggest that mechanical technology (ships, tanks) is totally harsh while narrative technology (CGI, 3-D) is totally awesome, but David Foster Wallace’s writings suggest, much more delicately and persuasively and fractally, that narrative technology might be a bit of a problem — all narrative technology, up to and including the most basic gears and pulleys of narrative itself. To put it bluntly, Infinite Jest makes you desperately want to find out what happened and then refuses to tell you what happened. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick has put it, Infinite Jest strongly hints that “whatever answers we’re seeking won’t be found in the text, but in the world beyond.”
The world beyond: whichever world that may be.
We create worlds and universes so easily now: the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, Oz, Narnia, Middle Earth, Pandora. That term “information superhighway” sounds quaint these days at least in part because a highway traverses at the very most a continent, a laughably small territory to ascribe to the Internet. There are never only two worlds and there is never only one hero who has lived in both: that was as true for Plato as it is for us, if we can only remember it.