what's in a name?

"...a demotion for the darling concept of the real."
     Language does not always serve us well. The expression "virtual reality" is a case in point, since it suggests that there are two things, "reality," and "virtual reality," and that the second is somehow an imaginary, derivative, and essentially defective version of the first. 
     The adjective "virtual" is ordinarily used to draw attention to this sort of second-class citizenship in the noun it modifies, in order that the virtual entity never be confused with the non-virtual entity, or real thing. A physical body may be thought of as a point mass, for example, which is a virtual entity not to be confused with the physical body itself. There is no such thing as the point mass, but there is such a thing as the physical body. A convex mirror may be thought to focus light on points behind the mirror itself, which is called a "virtual image" because light rays can't get through the mirror to these imaginary points of convergence. There's no such thingas a virtual image. 
     "Virtual" always carries connotations of the unreal, or the imaginary. A virtual entity can stand in for, or pass for, a real thing, but is not to be confused with the real thing itself. 
     The way we use ordinary words thus invites us to think of a "virtual reality" as an alternative, perhaps useful, but somehow defective version of reality itself, with which it is not to be confounded, if we are to keep things straight. A hallucination would count as an example of such a virtual reality, where the adjective "virtual" is allowed to carry a pejorative, finger-wagging connotation. A mirage looks real, passes for real, and confuses people who should know better, but the road is in fact not "wet." It only looks wet. The hallucination is figmentary; the road is real (and dry). 
     Likewise, commonsense argues, for the so-called "reality simulator," and the external real world which it only mimics. The fugitive worlds created within the former are illusory; the latter is not. That's what "virtual" means. It indicates things which may look real, pass for real, and confuse people who should know better, but which are no more real than the wet spot at the end of the road. 
     However, ordinary language offers false wisdom whenever it reflects states-of-affairs, such as the current level of technology, which may be in a state of flux. What makes perfectly good sense today may not tomorrow. The reality chamber is a good case in point. Today, it's safest to say that there are no reality chambers, save for crude versions not much better than TV sets—curiosities discussed at cocktail parties and by the editors of avant garde science fiction magazines. Experiences of virtual reality are now very much the exception to the rule, and it makes good sense to identify them as singularities—as occurrences outside the realm of the ordinary and the run-of-the-mill. And, or course, that's part of what "virtual" means; the adjective singles out and identifies minority events and processes at the same time as it implicitly endorses the majority—the backdrop of normal occurrences against which the minority is recognized as such. "Virtual" is an adjective with an attitude. 
     However, whenever things change over time, as occurs when technologies rapidly advance, what is the rule and what is the exception to the rule change as well, sometimes reversing our understanding of the normal and the everyday, and hence our use of language as well. For example, it is commonplace to hear things like thoughts, moods and sensations referred to as "brain processes," although, on the basis of our private, first-person acquaintance with them, they are anything but brain processes. However, science has identified these two, very different things, and has called them one, and the use of ordinary language has followed suit. As a result, only a few people would see any contradiction in referring to this essay as a brain teaser. 
     Now imagine a world in which the vast majority of sensory experiences are artificially induced, in the manner contemplated by the authors of "virtual reality." Imagine in particular a spectacular application of this technology which, in creating sensations of sound and sight for persons who were formerly deaf and blind, would provide them for the first time with something like hearing and vision.1 What would it mean for these persons to learn that their world was only virtually real? What would the expression "virtual reality" mean in a world where it was the only reality? 
     Not much. The words would be intelligible, but would not convey a particularly useful distinction. They would mean much the same as the suggestion put to us, in our own current, everyday circumstances, that our world was nothing but an appearance, or a derivative version, of another more fundamentally real universe which we could never know. A metaphysical suggestion such as this has never been terribly useful for the man in the street. 
     The adjective "virtual" is not meant to apply to the mainstream of our present experience. It is designed to signal, and to mildly castigate, certain exceptions to the rule, instead. However, when exceptions become the rule, any early second-class citizenship is forgotton, together with the old rule. 
     Thus, predicating substantial changes in what may constitute normal, veridical experience in the centuries to come in consequence of our increased interactions with machines— in what may become the rule—it turns out that the correct meaning of the expression "virtual reality" is notgiven, even today, interms of two sorts of things in relation—real things set off against unreal things—but in terms of one thing. A new "reality," polyvalent in nature, which will be created in limitless quantities by mechanical devices. 
     This may represent something of a demotion for the darling concept of the really-Real, but it will be absolutely required if we are to better accommodate, understand and deal with the results of new technologies, particularly that cluster of technologies which may soon result in our complete control over perceptual environments. The lesson to be learned is that there is nothing derivative, defective, or provisional about these controlled environments, once these environments cease to be the exception to the rule, and that the old adjective "virtual" ceases under these circumstances to transmit any useful information, or to inform us as to any pecking order among real things. 
     We need a word which, in the tradition of good, Idealist thinking, will draw attention to the fugitive, tentative nature of all realities, not just of those realities we happen to make and control. 
     A hasty use of language is easily forgiven, particularly when there is exciting work to be done, and when there are new concepts beckoning us forward in time. 
     Virtual reality is such a concept, despite the false start given to us by the words we use. 

1See the following essay, Being-here, now... for a more detailed discussion of virtual presence. 

© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle. 

E-mail: philo@passports.com

 


 All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.