What will it be like never to have to step outside the door, never to have to see, hear, or touch a real person? Today’s technological wizardry lies in digital communication that is available 24/7. How is it transforming the way we live in society? And at what cost to human contact?
Imagine the abode of the future – house, apartment, hotel room, log cabin, prison cell – equipped with a “plasma wall” incorporating all the telecommunications interfaces that enable social and cultural activity. Each wall would integrate computer screen, television, telephone, surveillance system (security and emergency), art and photo gallery, digital concert hall, memory and other personal devices. Something like the one imagined in the 2002 film Minority Report and which is already technologically feasible.
E. M. Forster’s prescient 1909 short story, The Machine Stops, describes such a scenario:
“Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk – that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.”
In 1949 George Orwell published his novel 1984, featuring “telescreens” – television and security camera devices used by the ruling Party in Oceania to keep its subjects under constant surveillance in order to forestall conspiracies. Telescreens also regularly broadcast false news reports about Oceania’s military victories, economic production figures, spirited renditions of the national anthem to strengthen patriotism, and a two-minute film extolling freedom of speech and the press, with which the citizens have been brainwashed to disagree.
Two thousand three hundred and twenty-nine years earlier, in The Republic written in 380 BCE, the Greek philosopher Plato put forward the Allegory of the Cave. In a fictional dialogue between Plato’s teacher Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon, Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners chained up since childhood. Not only are their arms and legs bound, but their heads are also held in place so that they are compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them.
Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway along which people are carrying “figures of men and animals made of wood, stone, and other materials” on their heads. The prisoners see the shadows cast by the different people, not knowing they are shadows, and listen to echoes of the noises coming from the walkway. Socrates suggests that the prisoners take the shadows for real objects and the echoes for real sounds, since these are all they have ever seen or heard.
How good an image is this of today’s society? Mentally and imaginatively chained to computer screens from childhood and linked to enormous numbers of “friends” through social media, today’s prisoners take digital images and sounds to be the real thing, digital acquaintance to be the same as live encounter, digital gossip on microblogs and Twitter to be genuine exchanges of meaning. The ability – and perhaps even the will – to think socially are being enervated, enfeebled, enslaved, and enshadowed. What will become of us?