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The Real Vs. the Virtual

[This is an e-lecture from a university course about the net. Visit Netropolitan Life, the course homepage, for more interesting stuff about the Internet and virtual communities.]
The question of "real" reality versus virtual reality inevitably comes up when discussing virtual communities. We've already had discussions about the realness of online personae whether in a fantasy MUD or in an online classroom. There is, however, a broader social dimension to the issue. There are many who fret about our increased alienation from the physical reality around us as we retreat into virtual worlds. Many critics of online life feel we are becoming alienated from each other, from our community and from the natural world. Others feel the very notion of "real" is beginning to wither as we increasingly create worlds around us that cater to our fantasies and prejudices. Let us examine these claims to see how seriously they challenge the legitimacy and benefit of virtual communities.

We can distinguish between two prominent schools of thought which are often cited with regard to the fate of the "real" in the technological age. I call them the "alienationists" and the "hyperrealists". Alienationists tend to come from North America while the most celebrated hyperrealists are European. First the alienationists, of which Rheingold might be said to be one, in spite of his enthusiasm for the virtual world. Alienationists lament the loss of communitarian values in modernized societies. They mourn the fact that small-town-type communities where everyone knows each other, are friendly to each other and always willing to lend a hand, have become almost extinct. Instead we have urban isolationism and suburban insularity. Neighbourhoods are now bedroom communities where you watch TV and then go to bed. Fences go up around back yards and nobody sits on the front porch anymore. The result, many critics think, is the deterioration of the quality of life. It may be easier to retreat to the back porch and to the cosiness of the interior, but who's now watching the street? How well do you know your neighbour? How much solidarity do you have as a community in order to protect that community? We are left vulnerable to criminals and city planners while we enjoy our comfortable and isolated "haven in a heartless world".

Many today are trying to revive a community solidarity--the recent rise of urban residents associations may be an indication of such a trend. But is it any use as technologies give us less and less incentive to value our immediate surroundings? How much will we care about community life when our community is in cyberspace, a place where it is easy to solve problems of infrastructure, crime and other social problems by simply reprogramming or moving out at the click of a mouse? Soon, won't we be able to work, shop and order food through our computers? Won't video-on-demand make going out to a movie theatre a thing of the past? (Look at what the video market has done already). And, of course, what about that most fundamental human drive of them all, the one many think we'll always be willing to go "out there" for? That's always the first one they satisfy with any new technology (Remember: porn drove the video market at first, is driving the CD-ROM market, and will probably do the same for the Web). Isn't it so much easier to choose in the comfort of your own home what you will consume, with whom you will associate, or with whom you will have sex, than going out in the messy real world where you have no control over anything and have to accept what's given to you?

We've already come far enough toward such a scenario that it is not difficult to imagine it getting worse. Go to a country like Turkey or Ecuador, or almost any third world country where people still seem to enjoy each other and rely upon one another. Get on a bus heading out of town and watch where people sit. Almost always they sit beside one another and seem to have no trouble striking up unselfconscious conversations with strangers. Then get on a local bus in any modernized urban centre and watch how the seats fill up as people carefully avoid physical contact and proximity. Where has our sociability and conviviality gone? Has it gone online? People do seem much less afraid to approach each other and express all kinds of emotions in virtual communities. Of course, it's a hell of a lot easier when you don't have to actually deal with anyone's full presence and can simply log off, or tell someone off, without fear of suffering the consequences. But, as Rheingold notes, the virtual world can be used as a launching pad for new RL (real life) friendships. Many virtual communities stage face-to-face gatherings as a logical next step and the reports just keep coming in about married couples who first met online.

How do you explain this? It's simple really. Being online is like being at a Hallowe'en party. It's so much easier to socialize when you feel you're covering up your real self. Is it healthy when all our social life becomes like Hallowe'en? Even in emotional online encounters, we are able to tightly control our personae through the careful choice of which words should represent our mental state. Further, in some IRL gatherings of online acquaintences, real names are not used and online personae are maintained. This makes Rheingold, a promoter of virtual communities, equivocal. He says, "Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall. Or perhaps cyberspace is precisely the wrong place to look for the rebirth of community, offering not a tool for conviviality but a life-denying simulacrum of real passion and true commitment to one another." By simulacra (or simulations), he means a cheap imitation that we all agree, perhaps through subtle deceit, is the real thing, even though it lacks something essential which the original possessed. But what if there is no longer an original? What if, by mental trick, these simulations are deemed more real than the reality they are ostensibly re-presenting?

Confused? That's understandable. Nonetheless, these are the questions two European thinkers, Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard, have pondered. In his travels through America, the Italian Eco marveled at the capabilities of technology to make some experiences more real than the so-called real thing. Disneyland is the classic example. Take a virtual riverboat ride down the virtual Mississippi and virtual alligators and virtual jazz bands will appear on command. Isn't that more like New Orleans than New Orleans? Isn't the way Disneyland simulates all kinds of experiences a bit like what stepping into a virtual world will be like in the future? Let's take another angle. I once read in the travel section of the paper about an American couple who wrote in the guest book at a Zimbabwe safari resort, "This is really Africa!" So what, exactly, is Africa, New Orleans, Paris? Is it the picture we have in our heads or is it the place itself quite separate from our gaze and our tourist dollars? What happens when the places themselves change in order to meet the expectations of wealthy tourists? Don't want to disappoint by giving them too much reality, do you? They'll never come back again! This is hyperreality, and it is still in its infancy--there is still lots of "reality" out there, getting in our way, giving us stress. But what kind of real things are going to exist, what points of reference are we going to have, when all experience is manufactured in Disney-like virtual worlds?

Let's back up a bit. There is, of course, a real world and always will be. What we are losing grasp of is the nowadays rather suspect notion of authenticity. Was the OJ trial real? Yes it was. Was it an authentic murder trial of the defendant OJ Simpson? Debatable. Yet we can't talk about what happened without talking about the so-called real events of the trial. We can't say the whole thing was a fake, that, in fact, the only news event was the fact that it was on TV news, because a real murder took place and a real verdict was given. Welcome to the world of the hyperreal! That's what hyperreality does: it's a murder trial but it's not, it's Africa but it's not, it's community, but it's not. The trick of technology is to simulate an experience to the extent that the words you use are inadequate to separate out the real from the simulation. You might be able to say "a simulation of a murder trial" but that still only alienates you from the reality of the murder, the reality you wish to uphold as "authentic", your point of reference.

Let's take another example from the art world. Rene Magritte was a Belgian surrealist painter. One of his most famous works is called "The Treason of Images". Underneath in French it says "This is not a pipe." Why not? Because it is a "picture of a pipe"! It's the map, not the territory. Until now we've always had the brains to distinguish representations from the real thing. We could casually look at a picture and say, "That's a pipe" without thinking about the preposterousness of it because our representations weren't so powerful that they numbed our perceptions. Today, most of us live in almost totally mediated urban environments where signs and symbols, representations and simulations, constantly bombard us. By bringing this previously taken-for-granted matter to light, perhaps Magritte was anticipating the age of hyperreality (the painting is dated 1928-9). Are our representations becoming too real?

Another way to understand hyperreality is to separate three concepts: reality, the map of reality, and the map as reality. Maps aren't just paper representations to geography. We can think of them as the store of theories and assumptions we use to guide us through everyday life. Once again I remind you of the relevant passage in our email e-lecture. Our assumptions about what the world is like are the abstract maps which we are constatnly adjusting when reality throws us a new curve. To use the appropriate psychological term, we apply schemata to real situations which, through a process of trial and error, are adjusted to come into conformity with reality. Our attempts to do media taxonomy are just that: to use and explore a medium until our most mistaken prejudices and projections are rejected and we have a reasonable grasp of what new "species" of media we have before us. Fine and dandy. Now imagine situations where there is no reality to adjust your maps to. In fact, the biggest entertainment corporations (Disney is one monster corporation I expect will do quite well into the next century) have specialized in selling you just what your psychological predilections, your schemata, demand. They've been doing it for decades now. No more messy reality to deal with, no more mistakes to learn from, just the nice warm bath of narcissistic reflection of the interior of our minds. Everything we always wanted, right?

Further Reading

Required reading: Umberto Eco, excerpts from "Travels in Hyperreality" (Go down to section titled "The City of Robots" (a word-search will do it for you quickly) and read from there.)
Rheingold, The Virtual Community, pp. 297-300

Also Helpful:

  • One of the most prominent critics of the loss of the real to emerge lately is Mark Slouka. Go to Feed to hear what he has to say about virtual communities.
  • John Perry Barlow's "Is There a There in Cyberspace?" is a good perusal of the issues surrounding the "alienationist" take on the problem of cyberspace. Barlow, unlike most academic critics, is an online veteran and can therefore be forgiven his lack of "academic skills". His insights are valuable.
  • Synthetic Pleasures is a movie that adopts the question of real versus artificial in its look at tech and virtuality.
  • Michael Heim's article in CMC Magazine, titled The Nerd in the Noosphere sort of combines the American and European approaches to the reality crisis.
  • Here's a web site on net.addiction
  • Here is an interview with Baudrillard from CTheory titled Vivesecting the '90s
    © 1995, 1996, 1997 by Paul J. Kelly

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