A Lost Socratic Dialogue: The Allegory of the Prisoners and the Cathode Screen

A Young Marketer Can't Understand the Sage's Insight That Truth Resides Not in Images but in the World Itself

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Archaeologists working in ancient dungeons of the Greek Advertising Association have found a previously unknown 11th book of "The Republic," in which Socrates has a dialectic with Digicon, a nephew of Plato and possibly a marketer.

Socrates: Picture people seated in front of a large screen, their legs and necks fettered since childhood so they're unable to turn their heads or move away.

Digicon: A strange image you speak, but it sounds like a great marketing opportunity.

Socrates: See also that they can manipulate the shapes and sounds that appear before them, but have no concept of how those images are transmuted to the screen, let alone know what the items are.

Digicon: So they're programmers, not consumers . . .

Socrates: Tell me, do you not think they would suppose that in naming the things they saw on the screen, they were naming the objects themselves, and not just a representation of the objects?

Digicon: Sure. It's called branding.

Socrates: Then, such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the images they saw.

Digicon: You're describing advertisers and marketers, aren't you?

Socrates: Consider then, if one was freed from those fetters and saw the rest of the world in person. Do you not think that this person would be at a loss, and that he would regard what he formerly saw on the screen as more real?

Digicon: Yes. The screen reveals things in their true light and allows people to interact with them, as well as with each other.

Socrates: But wouldn't the freed prisoner soon realize the reward of effecting change in the real world, which is where truth resides? The screen acts as but as a mirror to the truth.

Digicon: I find your conclusion perplexing, my dear sage.

Socrates: All the prisoners can see is the screen, so its reflections and phantasms are the only truth they know. You could prove to them that those images are an illusion by dragging them away to the light of the outside world.

Digicon: You mean to say that they would forsake the clarity and beauty of their images?

Socrates: Yes, what a strange fantasy, don't you think? Imagine how such freed souls, armed with the truth, would contend with the perpetual prisoners who were still happy to stare at images on the screen.

Digicon: It's clear to me that you don't understand the first thing about the marketing communications field.

Socrates: Young Digicon, perhaps I should try a different analogy. Consider the prisoners living in a cave and seeing only the shadows of a fire reflected on a wall. They can make and move shapes before it, and make sounds along with it; the shadows are many and marvelous to behold. But they have no ability or desire to manipulate the fire that burns just beyond their reach.

Digicon: And your point?

Socrates: Maybe the prisoners need to stop trying to make pretty shadow puppets and build a bigger, better fire?

Digicon: I don't know. I think the screen idea has more legs. Could we go grab a cocktail and continue our chat? By the time we're done, you may want to try this new drink. It's called Hemlock.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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