Plato’s Cave: A Story

Written for a college class, and published in my college’s arts magazine.

Please read my usage policy before asking for permission to use this piece.

Back in the old days (before the invention of color, he liked to think), all web pages were gray. One dull shade of watery mouse-gray, black words in silver tables, and all surrounded by oceans of gray.

It looked as if those days were returning. He stared at his monitor, its metal-gray square of a screen reflected in his eyes.

The depressing feeling of loss seemed out-of-place, considering that he was already beginning to forget the event. What had happened?... He had to rack his brain, fumbling through the Ritalin-induced gravity that weakened his already slothful mind. Nothing seemed coherent now; the code of his site had been order and past and future, and with it went whatever little world his inner self had built. The code… Oh yes, the site. His site. It was gone, destroyed, taken down. And now everything was gray, and he couldn’t seem to remember what the colors had looked like, even when he squinted at the screen. It bothered him that he couldn’t remember it. It bothered him even more that he was so bothered. The removal of his website had, after all, been a necessity; the government had given fair warning of its intentions. He saw the point; with the Anarchist hackers running wild these days and the Pentagon files hacked only last week, it was, as the Feds were saying, a matter of national security that all personal opinions be pulled from the ’Net to erase any chance of covertly transferring secret information through codes and signals. Yes, he told himself, his site’s demise had been necessary. But still he squinted at the screen, the faint memory of color etched on his retina.

The War had never hit this close to him before. Oh, he’d heard what they were going to do, all right; last night he’d even approved, watching the Quicktime of the President’s speech while simultaneously talking to his online friends. Kill the Anarchists, keep the nation free, remember the government loves you. Stoic, patriotic words; the chatroom he had been in erupted again and again into digital applause. Watching the fast-scrolling conversations and comments, he could not help wondering how many of the chatters were Feds, planted in the room to monitor the activity and turn the conversation back to appropriately patriotic topics when it wandered too far. He had sat motionless and stared at the screen (Was he remembering all this? Could his mind really go back this far?), black words striping the bright white background. Could you tell by the structure of a sentence who was who? Some might even be Anarchists. The thought intrigued him for a brief flash of a moment; then the habitual unease came over him, the same as it always did when the Anarchists came into his mind. Deep down, he felt no real fear of the group; he was not very clear about their actions or principles. But the government hated them, and all Americans must hate what the government hated. Vaguely disturbed, he had left the chatroom and surfed alone for awhile. No — not alone, never alone. Always they were watching, following, investigating. Instead of the patriotic comfort he usually took in the fact of their observance, he had felt strangely distressed.

Before the War, the Internet had been free. Or so he was told; he himself, being only thirty-four, could not remember a time without the constant lurking presence of the Feds, watching over every aspect of American life like over-protective parents. “The Eagle protects his young,” they liked to say, and indeed they were like hawks, sharp eyes peering into the darkest corners of the country, crooked claws ready to tear the corrupting influences away from the healthy world. He, like most of his generation, was so used to being watched that it no longer bothered him. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to fear.

Or so he used to think. Now, staring dully at the Zen calm of the pixels before him, he wondered. His eyes rose to the webcam perched on his monitor, its tiny black eye staring implacably at and through him. What, he wondered, were the Feds thinking now? Who had been assigned to watch him tonight, to gaze at the telemonitor and wonder why he sat so still? He stared unblinking at the black lens. Everything was black and gray now. They’d even taken the colors away.

No — not all the colors. There was red and white and blue — but nobody really thought of those as individual colors anymore. They were always used together, never alone; they were the exclusive property of the government and graciously lent to the groveling people, ever so mindlessly happy to show their patriotism by splashing them around their cyber-society in every possible place they could find. As a child he had wondered what would happen if the colors ran together, white into red into blue. Would they turn black and grimy, the way the world would if countries were allowed to blend? Or would they form new colors, perhaps even brighter and more vibrant than the old?

But he had grown up, settled down, stopped wondering such things. It was not appropriate to wonder; it was not appropriate to think. Something in his brain stirred feebly at the words, like a cat flinching in its sleep. Was he thinking? He honestly couldn’t tell; years of disuse had left his brain as flat and empty as a used balloon.

The Anarchists; now there was an example of thought being used as a weapon. But a weapon against what? Against the government, apparently... but why did they hate the government? How could you hate such a loving, watchful, protective parent? His brain stirred again, already tired of musing. Maybe, he thought, maybe that’s why the Anarchists hate the government so. He was suddenly disgusted with it all, with the slowness of his brain and the government that promoted it, with the implacable webcam perched smugly, unblinkingly atop his computer. Traitorously, he thought of the Anarchists, defiantly urging them onward in his mind. Let the webcam see that.

There must be a place where he could learn about the Anarchists. He had heard of a site, where the Anarchists shared information, a place where you could post and chat and speak your mind without praising the country every few sentences. A site with actual pictures of actual people, a list of addresses where you could go to speak face-to-face with a real live person, someone you could touch and smell. The idea was tantalizingly foreign; he plowed back through his drug-hazed mind for the address: U-S-A-dot… what? He concentrated, visualized, succeeded.

His hands rose like a marionette’s, hovering on invisible strings over the shiny black keys for a long, long moment before moving slowly away and down, back into the safety of his lap. In the dim gray light of the monitor, the lens of the webcam twinkled in satisfaction.

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