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The allegory of the iCave: social media, political campaigns and Obama

By Hugh Jorgensen - posted Friday, 12 February 2010

“Imagine once more, I said, such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?” Plato in The allegory of the cave.

As politicians flock to the fountain of social media, Facebooking their inane observations on radio and television scandals and tweeting for help on policies like the Emissions Trading Scheme (à la Joe Hockey), all as a means of campaigning for our attention in an increasingly fragmented news environment (where almost a quarter of young Americans glean their knowledge of politics solely from comedy talkshows, it is prescient to ask if the “mass media revolution” has genuinely enriched the conduct of electoral campaigns.

In Plato’s Allegory of the cave, a group of men spend their entire lives chained underground, nurtured into believing that reality consists of flickering shadows on the opposite wall. One prisoner manages to escape, only to discover the shadows he’s been watching his whole life are in fact, nothing like reality. Upon returning to free his fellow prisoners, they are so fearful that the world to which they are accustomed might prove false, that they murder him.


So as we move to ensnare our politicians in an electronic stream of twitterfied consciousness, encouraging them to only produce noises and images that make us feel better about ourselves, are we simply building a giant electronic cave of political myth, where any would-be leader who knows anything about success, will hide from us, at all costs, what we don’t want to hear?

And how does a candidate elected on a wave of popularity achieve anything in office, when their entire political mandate is built around a few glib slogans?

I might borrow a concept from Marshall McLuhan, who himself can be reduced to the slogan: “The medium is the message.” Essentially, McLuhan argues that the prevailing medium for communication is itself a guide to how society operates. Consider the era of “books”, which are themselves linear and have an inherent purpose and direction. A leader who has grasped the medium of the book knows that like a good introduction, so too, do they require a political mandate through which they can justify and fulfil their political intentions.

Contrast this with the internet and television, two non-linear mediums geared towards instant satisfaction, spectacle-based entertainment and that are overloaded with useless information.

Indeed, the internet is so overloaded with information that, in the words of playwright Richard Foreman, we are being turned into “pancake people”, “spread wide and thin, as we connect with that vast network of information access at the touch of a button”. We think we know a bit about everything, even though we really don't know much about anything. Yet in an attempt to master the fragmented environment fostered by the internet, there has been a gravitation in politics towards the sensory “spectacle,” that papers over our weaknesses in dealing with the complicated discourses that flourished in the post-printing press Enlightenment.

Take the Obama phenomenon. How on earth did a first term junior Senator with no executive experience, not yet 50, in only his tenth year of politics, manage to climb to the highest political office in the world? Was he really the most qualified, knowledgeable and able of candidates within the Democratic field? What was so “courageous” about standing for “change” and “audacious” about believing in “hope” that inspired the largest voter turnout in four decades? He made us feel good, but what did he actually want to do?


Obama may genuinely be one of the most intelligent and politically aware presidents to have occupied 1600 Pennyslvania Avenue, but when reflecting on the 2008 campaign, to which actual policy platforms can you recall Obama subscribing, beyond a commitment to verbs, that were particularly unique in the context of previous Democratic campaigns? Any? So just why was he so damn popular?

In terms of analysing the Obama campaign, one can’t help but note that it demonstrated the power of celluloid over and above any affirmation of a coherent political philosophy. Indeed, if we conceive of the 2008 US election in cinematic terms, which isn’t hard to do given the number of celebrities involved, rather than the classical framework of clashing party ideologies, it was only ever a one horse race. The mismatch of a stylish, slim, slam-dunking African-American, grandson of a Kenyan goat herder, pitted against a balding elderly man, unable to raise his arms and pottering about the country in an oversized straight-talking Winnebago, was like watching an epic Jerry Bruckheimer box-office smash compete against a depressing arthouse documentary - showing only in selected cinemas - about an old man slowly slipping into senility.

While rhetorically powerful in the immediate moment, whether Obama stood for any tangible policy program seemed irrelevant, as he achieved something much more powerful; he tapped into the modern preference for politicians with an explosive personal narrative in the mould of the popular underdog blockbuster epic: “Obama the Ubermensch”, a bona-fide log-cabin to White-House odyssey. The McCain film went straight to VHS.

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About the Author

Hugh Jorgensen studies Politics and Economics at the University of Queensland, where he is an active member in a range of student organisations. He blogs for the dunce confederacy (Dunce1) with a fellow serial procrastinator, and is THAT student who puts his hand up in lectures.

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