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The Mobile Cave

Catalin Partenie

An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mr Zuckerberg,
The hero of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), is a young man who goes to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to visit a relative. That is a strange place, because patients never check out. There our hero gets a respiratory infection; the chief doctor tells him he may have tuberculosis and urges him to remain at the sanatorium. He does so, and the sanatorium is like a magic mountain: once on it, you can’t leave.

You made me think about that novel because what you have given us is, if I may say so, a Zuckerberg, a sugar mountain, which is no less magical. Sugar tastes so good; it’s magic: once you’re into it you can’t leave. Sugar is a metaphor here of course; a metaphor for an essential feature of Facebook: sharing.

“Sharing? But sharing is good, any way you look at it.”

In fact, it’s e-sharing. Wasn’t it you who invented it? Anyway, now everyone does it, and not only on Facebook.

“So? It’s fun, easy, and you’re among friends. And now you can do it anywhere, because it’s all in your pocket.”

Yes, and it can prove very helpful; in emergencies, for instance. But it’s addictive; like sugar. You might think that I would now move to another Thomas Mann novel, Doctor Faustus, but I won’t (and let me state from the beginning that I don’t believe you wished any harm to anyone). However, since I am a bookish person, I’d like now to bring up another story, a very short one, which occurs in the middle of Plato’s Republic. It is usually known as “The Cave”. Imagine, says Plato, a group of people in a dark cave: their necks and legs are fettered, and the bonds with which they are fettered do not allow them to move around and turn their heads. They can only look in front of them at some moving shadows projected by a fire; they don’t do much, they just sit there and watch those shadows. Suddenly, a man approaches them and frees one from his bonds. The freed prisoner walks around and realises that what he’d believed to be real beings are mere shadows. Then the man who freed him drags him out of the cave and there he sees that the real light comes from the sun and that real life is there, outside the cave. Now, after having seen all this, he descends back to his former fellow prisoners to free them and guide them outside the cave. But back in the dark, out of the bright light outside, his vision becomes dim, and now he doesn’t even see the shadows very well. He looks like a fool, and in vain he tells the prisoners about the sunlit world outside; they don’t listen to him.

It’s a cavernous story, but Plato tells us what it is: an allegory of education. Education, he says, is not what many people believe it is, namely inserting vision into blind eyes. No. We are not blind. We see, but we only look at what’s in front of us. Education, says Plato, is first of all an attempt to disrupt our familiarity with things, to dislocate us from the comfort of our purview. That’s difficult; and to do it, we need the help of someone who is not like us.

To go back to e-sharing. It’s easy, fun, and we’re among friends, but the whole thing is like a magic bond that doesn’t let us do other things, especially if they’re difficult, abstract or involve people who are not like us. You see, Mr Zuckerberg, students are more and more alike, all over the world, and their phones have become their purview, and we teachers can’t dislocate them anymore from their purview. We just can’t. Even when they put their phones into their pockets, their minds are still watching their screens.

“Hey, you’re a Luddite, right? And you’re against mobile technology. Well, since you seem to like puns, I’d put it this way: you think this mobile technology has made our minds sedentary, because now everything is just one click away; and soon enough, one blink away.”

I’m not a Luddite, but you have to admit that technology should stop making our life easier and easier; otherwise, our very being will one day become unbearably light.

“So, what do you want, slowness and ignorance? Look, all this technology, it was bound to happen. It’s nobody’s fault.”

Do you remember Kubrick’s famous cut in 2001, where we get from a bone rotating in the air (the first tool) to spaceships waltzing in space to “The Blue Danube”? I can’t think of anything more off the wall than “The Blue Danube” to use in a scene introducing our life in the future. But it makes sense, since the path from the bone to the spaceship is like a river. Something that can’t be stopped, that is. Yes, technology seems to be our destiny. But we teachers haven’t lost our hope. There’s hope even in Kubrick’s 2001.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

I do so because I know you’re a nice person and I have a favour to ask. It’s very unlikely that I will ever have the chance to speak to powerful politicians; but you will; I’m sure it won’t be long until you see them again. Well, remind them of Plato’s Cave; it makes a very good point, and it should make us think: what will happen when our caves become mobile? I hope a dialogue will kindle between you and those powerful men and women, and, who knows, maybe you will come up with something.

It would be a great privilege for me to meet you one day, Mr Zuckerberg.

With all good wishes from a sunny Bucharest,
Catalin Partenie

1/9/2018

Catalin Partenie is associate professor of philosophy at the National School of Political Studies and Administration, Bucharest and editor of Plato: Selected Myths (Oxford University Press) and Plato’s Myths (Cambridge University Press).

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