Plato’s The Cave, a brilliant and enduring masterpiece of philosophy, is an allegory that tells the story of people, identified as “prisoners” by Socrates the narrator, chained inside a cave facing a wall. The shadows cast on the wall by objects behind the prisoners and a fire acting as illumination are their version of reality – it is what they see, what they know, therefore what they believe, and by extension, that with which they are comfortable.
As he is discussing the allegory with his companion Glaucon, Socrates discusses the nature of learning by observing that, “whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being...”
In other words, Socrates was noting that learning, like seeing, is an experience, one in which all of the senses participate, and that our knowledge becomes our reality. The prisoners confined to the cave knew only the reality of the images cast before them, so despite the ability of their eyes to see, and their minds to grasp and comprehend the vibrant and colorful life outside the cave, their imprisonment in their own dull and colorless life was the existence they knew.
Socrates continues to suggest that a prisoner released from the cave would perhaps question the true reality – life and its associated images, colors, and shapes outside the cave – and instead insist that the monochrome and pallid life inside the cave was indeed reality – and perhaps preferable.
Upon reading the article in Tuesday’s Falmouth Enterprise and contemplating the unwillingness of local officials to embrace social media, brining citizen engagement and community outreach into the 21st Century, my thoughts drifted immediately to Plato’s great allegory. The reluctance noted in the article to use modern and effective tools like Facebook and Twitter to reach an intelligent and tech-savvy public, grounded perhaps in a cave-like fear and trepidation of a more colorful reality, demonstrates a thinking and a paradigm of a commitment to the tools of yesterday, that must be changed.
The recent blizzard is an excellent example of the value – and imperative use – of social media in today’s local government service delivery. During the storm, when widespread power outages negated the use of televisions, telephones, and most desktop and laptop computers, many (perhaps most) citizens had their smart phones as their only method of communication. Many towns responded with a barrage of updates through Facebook and Twitter, providing residents with regular and reliable information on power outages, shelter locations, warming centers, and other important information. The citizens were quite simply better served with a simple and efficient update through their most reliable source for information. In addition, social media has become a reliable and popular source of general information, providing update on public meetings, seeking input on policy proposals, and establishing outreach to a whole new segment of potential volunteers, activists, and leaders.
The reasons for not responding to the need for joining the modern era here in Falmouth provided by local officials in the news report simply aren’t compelling. Many towns have successful and vibrant social media outreach – with few problems and positive feedback. Our Falmouth officials appear to be chained in their own cave, trapped by the colorless images of local government displayed in their own fragmented reality.
Plato, through his narrator Socrates, concludes in his great work that, “You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler.” That concept, I believe, is the foundation of honorable public service. Our role as elected and appointed leaders is to work toward a better tomorrow for those who follow. Sharing information – and engaging the public who we serve – is an integral part of fashioning that better tomorrow, for it is the very people we serve who can then help shape their own tomorrow. Facebook, Twitter, and the vehicles for public engagement that haven’t been invented yet – are essential components to today’s government.
It’s time for our local officials to embrace that concept – that reality – and come out of the cave.