Shadows Upon Shadows, Light Over Light: Bots, Trolls, And Plato’s Enduring Allegory

Tell me — do you think that these men would have seen anything of themselves or of one another except the shadows cast from the fire on the wall of the cave that fronted them?

    —  Socrates, Book 7 of Plato’s Republic

Plato’s allegory of the cave is perhaps the only philosophical doctrine to achieve the status of a cultural cliche. This easily generalized account of a deeper, more fully real world beyond the deception of common experience has resonated across the centuries with a variety of audiences, ranging from medieval Christian mystics to alienated participants in the shadow play of postmodern digital culture.

The myth has endured because it as at once imaginative as well as analytical.  Plato binds together the central questions of his emerging philosophical inquiry into a story readily grasped by a child. As a myth, it demands our creative response as well as our technical critique — it is meant to be neither accepted nor refuted, but incorporated in a progressively richer dialogue with its readers. It was on account of this cross-generational inspiration that philosopher Alfred North Whitehead termed the history of Western philosophy “a series of footnotes to Plato”.

Traditionally, the Western tradition encouraged Plato’s (quite literal) quest for enlightenment in an upward ascent from the cave. Better and more refined viewpoints are higher than those which merely trace incidental, lower order phenomena. Yet even as I write this sentence, I recognize its terminology as somewhat archaic. I wish to argue that the technological and technocratic trend of our time, ranging from Big Data to AI, have rendered such Platonic distinctions obsolete in the modern mind, much to its detriment.

To put the issue in more popular terms, a recent Atlantic piece lamented that we are approaching an era of more and more convincing fake video technology, which may result in a “collapse of reality” which makes today seem like an “age of innocence”.

Yet if we return to Plato’s original metaphor for the human relationship to reality, we may adapt it to our condition.  If modern culture has constructed the perfect cave of shadows, we can profit from this example to better understand true enlightenment. The intensification of the real is the true value of simulation.

China’s social credit system, in which the government rates individuals based on their participation (or lack thereof) in activities it considers pro-social, has recently become a model case for Western critics and commentators concerned with the growth of technocratic controls in our own society. This kind of uniquely comprehensive social control is now possible under the tyranny of algorithms, as John Harris phrases the threat in The Guardian.

Besides the specific violations of civil liberties which such a system can enable, the project is even more notable for the theory of human nature it implies. As Orwell demonstrated through his insight on the psychology of totalitarianism, the 20th century tyrannical Party demanded, above all, an endorsement of their ideology, an essentially personal and intellectual agreement with the state’s goals. This was the world of manifestos and loyalty oaths. In contrast, the tyranny of the algorithms makes almost the precise opposite assumption about human nature — that ideas, and the complex of emotions and motivations associated with them, are basically irrelevant in the proper governance of society.

To take an example  — there may be someone living in a social credit society who scores well on the algorithm, but has absolutely no real attachment or interest in the society as such. They may have completed a prestigious educational program, donated a good portion of their salary to charity, and taken care of their elderly parents, yet harbor a quiet grudge against society and its norms impossible for an algorithm to detect. It is obvious that such people exist, otherwise those who have achieved high respectability would never suffer from disgrace. To state two rather obvious recent examples, what would be the social credit scores of famous actor Bill Cosby or successful real estate investor Stephen Paddock?

As the trials of the rich and famous demonstrate, a basic distinction between appearance and reality lies at the foundation of all jurisprudence. It would be wrong to acquit or convict people on the basis of hazy shadows — circumstantial evidence — without there being a full, coherent account of their actions.

Yet this is not to fully deny the reality of the shadows, as has been the temptation for particularly transcendental commentators on Plato. There was a certain reality in how Bill Cosby and Stephen Paddock presented themselves in public, just as there is a certain reality to artificial sugar and Facebook profiles. Yet like all shadows, they inevitably dissipate with time. Accusers come forth. The body’s metabolic system suffers in processing a pseudo-sugar. People don’t really like you as much as the thumbs-up button would indicate. We can see that they were never real when they become clearly incoherent.

What the Chinese government is really doing with its social credit system, then, is not enforcing an ideology but enforcing an anti-ideology, a world of appearances above and beyond any sense of mental conviction. A system like this, which demands only conformity to external, measurable standards, essentially creates trolls, who game an algorithm ill-suited to any true judgement of their motives. It becomes a society in which important life decisions like who to marry, where to work, and how to spend money are made in the same spirit as when we unnecessarily use credit cards to build a credit score.

You are a high school teacher, and there are two students in your classroom. We will call one “Carla” and one “Eleuthera”. Carla maintains an A average in all her classes, while Eleuthera is a B student. When you assign a paper, Carla is the first one to request a rubric, and follows it with exquisite technical precision, right down to the exact number of suggested sentences in a paragraph. Eleuthera is more inconsistent in her work patterns, sometimes producing good work when engaged, at other times blowing assignments off. Carla never asks off-topic or divergent questions, while Eleuthera will ask comparative and sometimes irrelevant questions.

As a teacher, you are supposed to give both of these students a numerical value that may determine if they ever find sufficient employment or not. As an operator in our technocratic cave of shadows, you are really quite forbidden from rising above raw data to form a more organic judgement of these students. In a data-driven world, it would be heresy to express your honest assessment of the two students — that Carla is basically a high-class credential troll with little independent motivation or curiosity, and Eleuthera, while an imperfect student, seems to be more authentically engaged in her education. We need not be final or harsh in this judgement: Carla is, after all, simply responding to the incentive structure that society has laid out for her, and may really wish to take a more authentic approach like Eleuthera. Nonetheless, when education takes place in Plato’s cave, the educator must clap for the best marionette and grant them the rewards in the high-stakes game of employment modern education has become.

The drive towards a data-driven society places us all in the position of this educator to varying degrees. A small etymological note may be clarifying here. Data — from the Latin verb do, “to give” — is simply a set of values we have been given within a given paradigm. Note the passivity in this verbal construction. A world run by data is basically a passive world, governed by a fatalism whose intellectual sophistication masks its essential superstition. It is not really the data itself that is significant, but the active inquiry or operation that “gave” us these results. Meaningful scientific data comes as the result of some kind of active, controlled operation, an experiment. Likewise, the educational data of grades and outcomes comes from the controlled experiment of formal education.

The cult of data encourages to fixate on the epiphenomenal images dancing in front of us rather than on our active participation in society and in the systems that generate the parameters for this data. When we are data-driven, we reverse the cause and effect, and act as if data is something more than a reflection of our active construction and execution of a particular cultural program. To return to Plato, we fully and enthusiastically and enthusiastically embrace the shadows on the wall and not the puppeteers who frame and define them. Science becomes an apologia for whatever program the stage managers prefer.

The Telegraph reports that many top firms are now using AI robots to conduct preliminary interviews with candidates for lucrative positions in banking. Given the failure of chatbots to detect flagrant internet trolls, we should not be surprised that the goals of this interview experience are very modest and superficial. The AI aims to “pick up what kinds of words or phrases you are using, how concisely you present your arguments, and how confident you sound”. In short, the AI judges applicants exactly as a Athenian Sophist would conduct a case in court. The interior qualities of a personality which a good interviewer draws out —  its consistency and subtlety —  can be set aside and covered up by a loud, direct voice that speaks in short sentences. Just as in China’s neo-authoritarian regime, the human mind is also irrelevant in the centers of global capitalism.

Most discussions of AI lay stress on its intelligence, but there is little discussion of how it remains artificial in spite of its apparent capabilities. Again, the metaphor of the cave can help illuminate the question. AI is obviously not completely fake, or fully unable to complete the tasks it advertises, just as the shadows on the wall are not wholly unreal. Like the shadows, AI is a limited simulation of a far richer cognitive process, on which it wholly depends. The executives at Goldman Sachs have decided, for whatever reason, that staccato speech is a desirable quality in an applicant, and so they have deputized their bots to try and find humans who meet this criterion. These job applicants are wholly absorbed in the puppetry before them — if Goldman Sachs decided tomorrow that they want to hire applicants with a non-committal drawl and discursive speech patterns, lazy and leisurely speech would suddenly come back into style for the nation’s young and ambitious. 

A non artificially-intelligent interviewer would have some degree of self-awareness of their own biases, and strive to correct them, or at least bring them in line with a broader organizational vision of a proper applicant. In AI, on the other hand, there is the possibility of programming a monster that executes nothing but pure bias of a kind that we would never accept in human beings. The clean efficiency of task masks the general inappropriateness of what it is actually accomplishing. If human beings had started manually recording applicants’ interview answers and running them through a long-form series of statistical tests, we would likely have thought the procedure to be bizarre and retrogressive. The hiring manager would be fired as some kind of eccentric.

The statistical test of interview answers was never an organic human problem just waiting for a technical solution. Yet within our new embrace of the cave of shadows, strange and unnecessary processes seem like di ex machinis, suddenly and effortlessly marshaled to solve problems we didn’t know we had. It all makes sense only so long as you stay glued to the screen.

To blame this cultural situation on the technology itself is to be so stuck in this cave of shadows as to not acknowledge the puppeteers above. But they too do not deserve blame. Rather, I thank them for turning our lives into a fascinating thought experiment. The traditional interpretation of Plato’s cave through the ages was too limited, as it never considered the possibility that the puppeteers might abandon the crude method of imprisonment in a cave and instead set out into the wider world, confusing and eliminating everywhere our natural distinction between appearance and reality. We are always both in the cave and outside of it. The shadows are always our first guides to truth. 

It is not longer for a privileged few philosophers to leave the cave and see things in their entirety. When reality has broken down, we are all disturbed and agitated spectators, needing to examine sources and structures to make sense of fractured scenes. The philosopher no longer leaves the cave, but walks down an endless hall of mirrors, in which philosophy itself may become just another reflection.

To restate Plato’s famous allegory:

Imagine that they have known only screens for their entire life, so that nothing feels real to them anymore. And imagine that they are all dissatisfied with this state of affairs, and begin to study philosophy on their screens, so that they may learn to be content within themselves.

But then suppose that philosophy itself also then becomes a topic on the screen, and all the great thinkers are reduced to a handful of quotations. The philosopher and the sophist alike mix wisdom and deceit in an endless flux.

They still use the language of light and dark, for this was the language of old, but they do not realize that now, in this illuminated flux, light can darken our vision. The hologram reduces the person. The genetic code overshadows the individual. To see is no longer to perceive, and to perceive is no longer to recognize. The philosopher has escaped the cave only to suspect that the world of Ideas above is itself a kind of hologram.

And how will they escape this world, even if they suffer? Will they not be like confused children, always excitedly believing their truth to be final just as it is cruelly snatched away by bigger bullies, projecting their own screenplays and defining this world, at least for a time?

While I cannot claim to have an answer to this new Socrates, I know that every glittering shadow in this cave has its counterpart, one not seen but detectable through philosophical reflection. When we are lost in shadows on the wall, we should think of the light behind. When the world is full of trolls, we may throw up our hands at the end of reality, or we may learn to find what lies behind the troll. Depth is the only antidote to the emerging society of surfaces, populated by attitudes and personalities easily mimicked by algorithms.

Famed internet troll Ken M., who has built an entire persona offering fake, provocative opinions in online fora, once revealed why he decided to begin trolling on online news sites.

When I slowly realized it was such a futile effort to try to have a rational discourse, I suddenly decided to make it as irrational as possible.

When I saw this, I immediately thought that it was one of the most disheartening things I had ever heard, and yet one of the most meaningful. This penetrating insight into our cultural condition comes from someone who has, by all appearances, embraced the flux. For Ken M., it is not reality that has collapsed, but our mutual confidence in each other as interlocutors. Presenting earnest opinions, our views may be caricatured and appropriated. Suspecting trolls, we may become trolls ourselves.

A commentator to Plato once wrote: The cosmos is a dialogue, and the dialogue is a cosmos. What feels like an apocalypse is really just the end of a conversation. It is the struggle to move to a higher order of discourse where the noise and nonsense dancing on our feeds, on the walls of our caves, can be identified at their source.

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