The Multiple Meanings of ‘Virtual’

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What might a blog called “The Virtual Space Theory” actually be about? The range of expectations raised by such a name is extremely wide: The Internet? Computer technology? Social networks? The growing culture around them? Online 3D worlds? All forms of 3D graphics? Imaginary worlds in general? The realm of human imagination? Human perception? Human consciousness? Collective consciousness?

Mix all of the above and you get a rough idea of the problematic common notion of the ‘virtual’, as well as an overview of some of the topics that are confounding contemporary civilization – all strangely expressed in one vague multi-purpose word. The aim of The Virtual Space Theory, then, is to try to bring clarity to this field and to propose a particular understanding of it.

If we observe the matter closely, we find that most of the uses of ‘virtual’ fall under a few specific categories. Furthermore, we discover that most of these categories actually have an existing word that conveys their meaning much more clearly and consistently. This will help us narrow down the possible meanings of ‘virtual’ in search of the essence of what this term might most accurately be used to refer to.

Virtual as meaning ‘digital’

Computers. Digital devices. Internet technology. Online services. In such contexts, referring to anything as being ‘virtual’ is usually just a way of saying that it is created and facilitated by digital means. As detailed in a separate post, this is not what this blog is about. Besides, the term ‘digital’ addresses such cases much more directly.

Virtual as meaning ‘metaphysical’

Non-real. Non-existent. Abstract. ‘Virtual’ has become a blanket term for referring to all kinds of phenomena and ideas that somehow seem to exist, though on some other level they actually do not. This is quite a complex matter which is discussed in a separate post, and much better covered by the term ‘metaphysical’.

Virtual as meaning ‘mental’

The human mind. The imagination. Dreams and visions. We can visualize them, we can experience them, but they are not part of the world ‘out there’. It is a topic thoroughly discussed in my book “The Architecture of Virtual Space”, and mentioned also in an article derived from it. In short, the point is that calling them ‘virtual’ is rather inaccurate – the term ‘mental’ captures their essence far more precisely.

Virtual as meaning ‘perceptual’

This is a much more elusive use of the term ‘virtual’, since it seems to combine several of its common uses into yet another distinct meaning. In that sense, it is a way of referring to things that may have an independent existence of their own, but used when we wish to express how the particular way we experience them might be different from what they actually are. This is the topic of a current research project of mine which will be published in the future, and which the term ‘perceptual’ covers with much more accuracy.

Virtual as meaning ‘what we perceive through pictorial images’

3D Worlds. Video games. Film special effects. 3D graphics creation tools. In that sense, ‘virtual’ is used to describe what we see in images of a particular kind: These are images which present pictorial content, which were produced and presented digitally, which we experience as presenting things that are outside of our immediate world, and which are often the product of their creators’ imaginations.

And yet there is something ‘virtual’ about them beyond any of the meanings of ‘virtual’ discussed above: It is not only ‘digital’, it is not quite ‘metaphysical’, it is not just ‘mental’, nor is it ‘perceptual’. Rather, it is the experience that what we see through such an image is not merely a flat pattern of light and color – but a living, existing, and visually accessible place.

The Virtual Space Theory, therefore, proposes that the key to clarifying the term ‘virtual’ is to arrive at an understanding of it as meaning ‘what we perceive through pictorial images’. And to achieve this, the inevitable path goes way beyond digital techniques, and requires a thorough exploration of the experiences given by former techniques and the traditional theories that support them.

For this reason – and despite the multiple meanings typically associated with ‘virtual’ – the central themes of this blog are pictorial images, on one hand, and the use of architecture as a means of creating an experience of place through them, on the other. The common uses of ‘virtual’ will obviously still remain – at least metaphorically – but The Virtual Space Theory complements them with a coherent, systematic, and well-defined meaning as a proposed point of reference.

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