Watching Shadows: Media and Plato’s Cave

A cave, a Greek philosopher, a blazing fire and your newspaper. All are interconnected in a way. If you think you think you have a grip on the world out there, if you think you are well informed because you watch the news and if you think you can distinguish reality from a mere projection, keep on reading.

Let us do a little thought experiment: imagine you are tied to a chair in a cave, with your head fixed to one spot and nowhere to look except to the wall of the cave you are sitting in. Behind you a blazing fire is burning and adjacent to you are other people in the same situation you are in. Now let’s say there are people walking between you and the fire, holding up objects which cast their shadows on the wall. You, the prisoner, have lived in the cave for your entire life, meaning that all you have ever seen and all you will ever see are mere shadows of reality. However, to you and the other prisoners, the shadows become reality and you live your life memorizing, discussing and appreciating the shadows that you see, oblivious to the fact that there is a real world out there. That is pretty scary right? You must be happy that you are lucky enough to live in the real world, or are you?

A staggering 90% of the total media output is controlled by six corporations

As you may or may not know, this allegory was originally described by Plato, who would then argue that philosophers are like prisoners who are freed from their shackles and go out to see the real world outside of the cave. However, what Plato did not know is that almost 2400 years after he had written the Republic, this allegory would still be relevant. What if I told you we are constantly sitting in Plato’s cave unknowingly, whilst the media creates realities for us as we comfortably sit in our fixed position?

Please consider the following facts: in America –and bear in mind that this impacts other continents as well- a staggering 90% of the total media output is controlled by six corporations. In 1983, this was 50. The vast majority of news agencies receives their information from a handful of corporations. It is clear then, that there is a thicket between what the corporations know, and what they distribute. Moreover, due to time and financial restraints new stories are often highlighted in the same way and from the same perspective. Stories are spiced up or toned down, this is often the case with demonstrations. Sometimes, there is a conflict of interest when the profit-seeking media conglomerate is faced with information that has a negative impact on their business, as did happen with Rupert Murdoch and his decision not to publish East and West, a book which might counter his Chinese broadcasting interests. Then there is bias, ignorance, deliberate and accidental misinformation and tons of other variables which impact the way news is projected to us.

Then what about us? What is real? The French Postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard has constructed a term for this situation, the concept of Hyperreality. Baudrillard argues that the more stimuli we receive, the more blurred the lines between reality and fiction become. This inevitably leads to a situation where the simulacra, the image, substitutes and replaces reality.

There is no denial that the media has an influence on the way we perceive the world and subsequently what we identify as reality and fiction. The only way to minimize the consequences is to stay critical, educate ourselves with news from different angles and hope that one day we can stand up from the chair, leave the cave, never believing in shadows again.

Photo by Katy Stoddard

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