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 thing as a
"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 setscuriosities 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
singularitiesas 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 majoritythe 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
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
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 ruleit turns out that the correct meaning
of the expression "virtual reality" is not given, even today, in
terms of two sorts of things in relationreal things set off
against unreal thingsbut 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
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
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.