Focus group in Plato's cave


TC HERE is a parable of the near future, to illustrate the degree to which we may be enlightened or unenlightened by the information superhighway, a thoroughfare that promises to bring interactive technology into every living room.

Enthusiasts claim that it could revive the Socratic dialogue and the Platonic ideal.

Will it?

Let us see. Imagine that for some years a group of men and women is forcibly locked inside a Home Theater.

What happens to them?

They are bombarded by Surround Sound, diverted by video games, amused by the Cartoon Network, dampened by the Weather Channel, blanched by the Horror Channel, intimidated by the Crime Channel, elevated by the Self-Help Channel, appalled by the War Channel, harangued by the Political Channel, educated by Whittle, informed by CNN, roped by the Western Channel, raped by Madonna.

They order goods from the Avarice Network, rent videos without leaving their couches and belong to interactive Focus Groups, which allow them to converse with newsmagazine editors before the stories in those periodicals are printed.

I can imagine it.

What is that peculiar sound?

My flesh always does that when it crawls.

There the viewers sit, transfixed by the most influential quartet since the Beatles: Remote, Keyboard, Cursor and Mouse.

They rave about their choice of channels, up from 20 to 5,000 (even though at any given time, 2,500 of those channels are showing reruns of "Murder, She Wrote").

No one seems to notice that the 24-hour day has not been similarly expanded.

Because the large screen is all that the prisoners see, they come to recognize as reality nothing but these artificial images.


Now suppose a man and woman among them were to be dragged forcibly out into the sunlight. First they would make out shadows and then the true images of their surroundings.

Very true.

In time they would be happy about the change and feel sorry for those still inside. For in the outside world they would have found great literature, live theater and music, oil paintings and bronze sculptures.

They would have browsed through publications that did not interact with readers in order to please them and or appease the advertisers. They would have gone into stores and felt real fabrics and inhaled authentic scents.

Even without the Discovery Channel, they would have discovered each other.

What would happen if the man and woman visited their former prison?

Walking in suddenly out of the sunlight, they might take some time to get used to the dimness. While they waited they would speak of delightful back roads, well off the Information Superhighway.

Places where people actually gathered in the agora, where menus listed delicious entrees at restaurants, not the choices offered by personal computers.

No doubt.

Their old companions would shake their heads. They would conclude that the couple had returned with their sight damaged and their souls despoiled. The pair would be considered dangerous.

It is a haunting picture of the future. Stranger than anything in the classic sci-fi films.

Then something must be done. Let us begin with a Socratic dialogue.

Fax me. Right now I'm off to select one of 75 dates on the Love Channel. After that I plan to watch a festival of "Murder, She Wrote."

Each episode allows me to talk back to Angela Lansbury and choose from 30 different endings.

I never miss it.

Stefan Kanfer is author, most recently, of "The Last Empire: DeBeers, Diamonds and the World."

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