Escape from Virtual Reality


These days television has more than its share of critics. The tube, they tell us, imprisons us in an unreal, virtual life. It presents the “news” in sound bites that give equal time to children starving in Darfur and the rise and fall of hemlines. For 6 or 7 hours a day it seduces us into a fantasy land of soap opera heroes, vamps and villains, cop shows, sitcoms with canned laughter, cartoons about sadistic woodpeckers and galactic shootouts. Commercials ad nauseum promise us happiness and freedom from pain if we take the right pills, eat the right cereal, drive the right car or drink the right beer. Its unreal. We are entertaining ourselves to death, participating vicarious in the lifestyles of the rich, the famous, and the violent. With scarcely a protest we are becoming passive consumers of prepackaged meanings and simplistic solutions– a manipulated mass.

The critics are right enough, but they miss the real issue by a country mile. Our danger lies less in the virtual world that engulf us, than in the failure of individuals to think about what they are shown. To gain perspective on the problem of image and reality, I suggest we consult Plato, a philosopher who practiced the art of social criticism and the critique of images in Athens 23 centuries before television was invented.

In the parable of the cave Plato suggests the human condition is like the situation of men who have spend their lives in a cave chained in such a way that they can see only the dark wall in front of them. In back and above them a fire burns. Between the fire and themselves is a walkway with a parapet that hides  performers who carry artificial objects, such as figures of men or horses made of wood or stone, that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. Since the prisoners have never seen anything except these shadows of imitations of things, their opinions about “reality” are nothing but illusions, but they, of course, do not know this. Imagine what would happen, Plato says, if one of the men should manage to get free and turn around and see the artificial objects. At first the light from the fire would blind him, but then he would be amazed to see the “real” objects and would know that his previous opinions based only on the shadow images were mere illusions. Suppose, further, that someone were to drag this man out of the cave into the full light of the sun and there, for the first time, he saw living men and actual horses. He would now know that what he previously supposed to be real objects were only plastic copies of “real” men and horses”. Finally, suppose this man, now partially enlightened, were to see in his mind’s eye a vision of the essential natures of manhood or horseness. With what clarity he would finally understand the difference between illusion and reality, the images and the things themselves.

Plato’s parable shows us it has always been difficult to separate shadow from substance, propaganda from reasoned conviction, data from meaning, opinion from wisdom. Every culture has had its image smiths, propagandists, myth makers, and newsmen. The first storytellers sitting around ancient fires fascinated their audiences and convinced them without evidence that floods were a sign of the wrath of god and rainbows a symbol of divine favor. In Medieval times the perils of sin and the pleasures of the good life were advertised for all to see in the stained glass windows of cathedrals. Crusades and holy wars were promoted by song and sermon long before the printing press invented yellow journalism or television helped politicians convert a struggle between haves and have-nots into a battle between heroes and evil empires. The manipulation of public opinion is as old as civilization and as inevitable as the lust for power.

The mark of a free mind and a free society is the ability to question authorities, be critical of institutions and resist the seductions of propaganda and advertisement. Every citizen has a moral and civic obligation to reason, deliberate, weigh evidence,  evaluate and make informed judgments. Ergo: it is the task of education to teach the skills of visual literacy that help us  understand how we are manipulated by images and seduced by media generated virtual worlds that increasingly inform our perceptions and values. Newspapers and television could do a better job of presenting us with information and a variety of opinions, but they can never do our thinking for us, make our decisions, or choose the values by which we will live.

A wise old man once told me: “Never go to sleep immediately after going to bed. Simmer. Lie quietly and review the events and experiences of the day and sort out what has been important and what has been trivial. It may be the best advice I ever got. Our society, already flooded with information, might act with greater wisdom if we developed the habit of simmering.

At the end of every day, turn off the television, put the newspaper in the trash and return to the sanctuary of silence within yourself. Quietly, without distraction, sift through the images and experiences of the day and judge for yourself what is real, what is important, what is true. Plato knew better than our modern critics that without silence and time for deliberation we are condemned to live in the darkness of the cave, to be imprisoned in a virtual reality not of our making, without the guidance of private reason or enlightened public opinion.