What is Virtuality?

"Virtual \Vir"tu*al\ (?; 135), a. [Cf. F. virtuel. See Virtue.] 1. Having the power of acting or of invisible efficacy without the agency of the material or sensible part; potential; energizing. 2. Being in essence or effect, not in fact; as, the virtual presence of a man in his agent or substitute."
Hypertext Webster Interface (http://c.gp.cs.cmu.edu:5103/prog/webster)

Cyberspace is a virtual space. But what does 'virtual' mean anyway? The Hypertext Webster site defines virtual as the ability of a thing which has no physical form or presence to still affect people. My desk-bound Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary notes the word's Latin root, virtus, as referring to strength and virtue. Virtual here refers to the strength of a non-physical thing in light of the fact that such things can affect people deeply. Virtuality is a word used to refer to a thing that is virtual. It is an adjective used to describe the ability of a non-physical (even metaphysical) thing be it a god, a UFO, a book, or the Net. All of these things are real simply because they affect people.

It is interesting that the Net is called a virtual space. Long before computers were ever invented, art, literature, music, and other imaginative products were all called virtual spaces. This is so because reality is re-presented in other forms, just as the Net is doing. And, like the art, the Net is developing its own genres, themes, criticisms, and styles of representation. They both contribute to a kind of virtual (sub)culture through the expression of humanities felt reality in an 'unreal' space.

Susanne Langer, a philosopher and psychologist, talks about representation in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967). For Langer, representation is a device rooted in the imagination and involves spatial properties which are not necessarily geometric in nature. Such spatial properties can also be also dynamic and cohesive simply because the space they organize is not actual space. Artists express an idea - perhaps as a way of conceptualizing human feeling - and in so doing gives this expressive character to the virtual space they create by filling it with 'appearances'. (97) These 'appearances' give a virtual space life, they are what gives a object of art, or theology, or the Net itself the character of virtuality of being 'real' enough to affect people. Thus virtual spaces become part of our reality.

But what is the internal structure of this virtual space? The interior of a statue is either marble or includes the visceral aspects of bones and arteries. That is, a statue is either a hunk of stone or it has the character of being real, viz., virtual. As Langer points out elements in a virtual form grow out of one another just as do elements in an organic form. It is describable as an embryonic process. (160) Our imaginations look at that hunk of stone and sees something else. Our imaginations take in more of that statue than it's exterior. The human imagination spontaneously "fills in" the suggested, virtual space with what is 'supposed' to be there.

The human imagination deals with physical and social reality in much the same way. We all subsume reality into our world simply by naming things. Once we call a tree a ‘tree’ it is no longer just a thing existing in the physical world. It is also a thing existing in the human, imaginal world, and now has a virtual nature coinciding to its physical nature. Trees in physical reality just are; trees in human ‘reality’ are what we make of them - as furniture or as metaphors, they are virtual.

The Net is like the ‘tree’: it exists in both a physical and a imaginative way. Most of us would be hard-put to understand the physical reality of the Internet, but the human, imaginative, reality of the Net is what we experience daily when we surf the Web. The Internet exists because it has been subsumed into human reality. Even if we only know of the Net as a virtual presence, it can and does affect people deeply. As a virtual space, however, it is somewhat different from more traditional virtual spaces. The Net is much more expansive, it has multidirectional communication, an interactive community of perspectives. It potentially allows for every imaginative person to participate in actively constructing it's virtuality.

It is imagination that gives us the means of expressing our feelings and it is the products of imagination that invokes feelings in us. Web sites, whether used for business or personal biography, must have one thing in common: they need to provoke an emotional response in their audience. A good Web site is art, because art invokes feelings. If a site can actually gets someone to re-live a moment from their childhood, for instance, it’ll put it’s audience in a playful mood. The nostalgia evoked will ensure a sense of connection to the work itself. Once connected, people will want to continue to participate. They will want to be able to return to this virtual space and re-experience those feelings that only the imagination can bring. Just as in the creation of the virtual worlds in books or paintings or music, the ‘killer application’ of the Net is the imagination.

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Copyright © 1997 Marc Fonda. All Rights Reserved.
Last updated: April 9, 1997.