January 5th, 2009


Plato's Wii cave

There is a madman in my living room, and the madman is me.

He stands in the middle of the room, and from his actions it seems clear that he believes he is playing tennis. He lunges and lobs, waving a stubby white racket handle in actions vaguely suggestive of "forehand smashes" and "backhand chips". He curses when he "loses a point". His whole attention is focused on the wall in front of him. He tells me his Mii -- a sort of alter ego resembling a younger, more fresh-featured version of himself -- has attained over 1800 points.

I have mixed feelings about this madman and his Mii tulpa. I am glad that he seems more animated than before. Before the delusion that he is playing tennis seized him, he was inclined to sit slumped in his chair, paying attention to something called "the web", which moves much more slowly than the Wii window, and hardly involves the body at all. On the other hand, his switch from the web window to the Wii window is clearly the transition from one illusion to another.

For all his modern technology, I believe my friend the madman is living in the cave Plato described more than two thousand years ago in his philosophical dialogue The Republic. Here, let Orson Welles guide you through Plato's parable:

Now, I've always had problems with Plato, and especially his metaphor of the cave. I mistrust the metaphysical impulse which leads philosophers and religious people to tell us there is a realm which is utterly real but absent and hidden. This formula -- "the real is elsewhere" -- is, in fact, exactly what worries me about the madman in my living room. Whether he's on the web or the Wii, I worry that he's elsewhere and not here. At least, though, the Wii involves his body.

It's not that "elsewhere" is a lie. There are real games of tennis, and the Israeli state is systematically killing poor people in Gaza. These events flood into the madman's living room via the web and the Wii. They have a reality, a force, an immediacy he does not doubt for a moment. He is not mad or deluded, merely given to metaphor and metonymy. For him, the part can stand for the whole. One or two (or two hundred) news stories can stand for "everything that is happening in the world at the moment". One sport can stand for them all, and a few gestures with a motion-sensitive controller can become participation in a sport. No doubt if he were able to lash around, Wii controller in hand, and watch his Mii smash the Israeli security barrier to the ground with a digital sledgehammer, he would do it, and feel somewhat better. And he would be happy to read, on the web, that eight and a half million networked Miis felled a representation of the illegal wall around Israel, and that the symbolic protest had led the real Israeli government to reconsider their actions.

I think my problem with Plato is that his metaphor is so dismissive of one of the two worlds he shows us. The world inside the cave is illusion, the world outside it is reality. It's too insulting, too reductive, too lopsided -- as unjust as the power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians. If Plato had said that both were real, and that one world was represented in the other, and that this representation was an important business conducted via metaphor and metonymy, I'd be much happier with his image of the cave. Then we'd be closer to the situation Kafka described: "We're each looking out at the world through a tiny peephole. Since this is the case, we should at least try to keep the peephole clean."