The Great Flattening: The 2D World of Our Digital Screens
Our 3D lives in two dimensions
Posted Dec 02, 2019
As far as we know, we live our lives in three dimensions of physical space. Yet, much like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, our lives are unduly influenced by two-dimensional (2D) projections. In Plato’s famous allegory, prisoners are chained in such a way that they are only able to see 2D shadows of actual 3D objects projected onto the cave wall in front of them. As a result, the prisoners are lulled into various misperceptions about the nature of reality and their own existence.
Though we may lament the fate of Plato’s prisoners, over the past century we have become content settling for 2D relationships with the 3D objects of our lives. For us, however, shadows on cave walls have been replaced by the digital images on our rectangular LED screens.
What are we losing in the great flattening of 3D objects into 2D space? Consider the Rubik’s Cube:
Like all cubes a Rubik’s Cube has six sides, and when solved it shows a different color on each side. In looking at the picture of the Rubik’s Cube above, you can only tell with confidence the color of the side shown in the picture (in this case, green). If I were to suggest anything about the other sides of the cube—e.g., that they were solved and that I knew what color was on each side—there would be no way for you to know if I was telling the truth: You would either need to take my word for it or admit you couldn’t confirm whether my suggestion was true.
However, if instead of seeing a 2D picture of a Rubik’s Cube, you were able to hold one, in all of its 3D glory, you would have the opportunity to examine it completely and see for yourself whether it was solved, and what colors were on each of its six sides.
Virtually every child who has achieved object permanence understands that when we flatten 3D objects into 2D spaces we lose valuable information. Unfortunately, this is something that we adults continue to forget.
Over the past century our lives have become increasingly dependent on digital rectangles: TVs, computers, smartphones, etc. To be sure, these rectangles hold great power and potential. But we seem to forget that every experience we have on our rectangles has been carefully curated for our consumption. In the same way that we crop our photos on Facebook to remove any unflattering body parts (for me, it’s my gut), those who provide the content we consume on our rectangles edit their content so that we are most likely to perceive it in the way they intend.
In the free market media landscape we inhabit, everyone providing us with the content on our rectangles has an agenda. In many cases, the agenda is raw sensationalism, which tends to be quite profitable. When sensationalism is the goal, the most extreme events get disproportionate attention, and usually in a way that exaggerates their most controversial features, with details that might otherwise provide context or nuance getting cropped out.
In journalism there are several aphorisms that reflect the culture of sensationalism within the industry, such as: "If it bleeds, it leads"; "A man bites dog story is more interesting than a dog bites man story"; and "You never read about a plane that did not crash." The more we are exposed to sensationalism on our 2D rectangles, the more likely we are to believe that low-probability events are much more common than they actually are.
Sensationalism biases have the capacity to affect our mood and significantly alter our behavior. When we believe that plane crashes occur more frequently than they actually do, the increased anxiety leads many people to avoid flying and miss out on myriad life-changing experiences. Similarly, when we believe that the world is more violent now than it ever was—a perspective that Steven Pinker has tried to rebut with his research in The Better Angels of Our Nature—it makes us all more cynical, more abrasive, and less trusting.
As a psychologist, one of my duties is to help people examine the validity of their beliefs and provide added perspective so they can make the healthiest decisions possible. In our world, determinations of what is safe and what is dangerous, or who is a heroine, and who is a villain, are dependent on which side of the cube you are shown. Thankfully (tongue planted firmly in cheek), we have our favorite cable news outlets—on the left and the right—broadcasting only the side of the cube their viewers most want to see, at the exclusion of all other sides.
Apropos of this, is it any wonder that a recent AP-NORC/USA poll found that nearly half of those surveyed admitted that they “struggle to know if the information they consume is true”; and about 60 percent say they “consistently see clashing reports from different outlets about the same set of facts?”
In light of the distortions of our rectangles, I offer a few antidotes to those who aspire to psychological well-being. First, try to limit your rectangle exposure to only that which is essential. By their very nature, our rectangles flatten the world into 2D projections, forcing us into the role of spectator, where it’s impossible to have a dialogue with content providers to get clarifying context about things presented to us.
Second, for whatever content you do consume on your rectangles, suspend your judgment until you get additional layers of confirmation from your direct, personal experiences. Remember that all of the content we receive on our rectangles has been curated with the goals of sensationalism and stoking emotion. Hence, reflect on what details may have been cropped out of each story or picture you see (including this very article), and never stop asking yourself: “How do I know this is actually true?”
Finally, consider spending more time in 3D relationships with the humans in your life. Though not all of the information you get from people in the real world will be true, these interactions will at least help you acquire the contextual cues and nuances necessary for making the most informed decisions possible.
In the end, we may never get to see all sides of life’s cube, but stepping outside of Plato’s cave more often will help us to better understand our 3D world in all of its glorious complexity.
American Psychological Association (2018). APA Dictionary of Psychology (online): https://dictionary.apa.org/object-permanence
Pinker, S. (2015). The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York, NY: Penguin Group USA.
Plato. Grube, G.M.A. (trans.); Reeve, C.D.C (ed.) (1992). Republic Book VII. Cambridge, MA: Hacket Publishing Company Inc. pp. 186–212.
Riccardi, N. & Fingerhut, H. (2019). AP-NORC/USAFacts poll: Americans struggle to ID true facts. Associated Press (online): https://apnews.com/c762f01370ee4bbe8bbd20f5ddf2adbe