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.

Not a Blog about Computers

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For many people, the word ‘virtual’ instantly brings computers to mind, and the term ‘virtual space’ conjures images of a vague mix of the Internet, cyberspace, and Virtual Reality. Indeed, computers have introduced countless abstract and intangible phenomena into our lives, and the media hype around them has stirred our imagination as to what they might mean, and what the future may bring. In such discussions, the word ‘virtual’ tends to come up quite often. And yet, this blog is not about any of these. In fact, the common linking of virtuality to such phenomena is precisely one of the views that this blog sets out to challenge.

What this blog is about are pictorial images. From paintings and drawings, to photographs and films, to video games and the unending new technologies, The Virtual Space Theory proposes an alternative way of seeing what pictorial images are. This is clearly expressed in its sub-title ‘an alternative theory of the pictorial image’.

The Eiffel Tower, ParisAccording to The Virtual Space Theory, whenever you look at a pictorial image of any kind, your eyes may be looking at a physical object in the physical world, but what you are seeing through this object is not part of the physical world. For example, when you look at the photograph on the right, your eyes are staring at your computer screen and its colored pixels, which are part of the physical world in which you live. And yet, the tower that you are seeing is not in the physical world: Even though there may be a tower just like it which is physically built somewhere, the particular tower in front of you at this moment does not occupy physical space in the sense that it is hovering behind your computer screen. So, where is it then?

The Virtual Space Theory proposes that what you see in a pictorial image is located in a space which we could call ‘virtual space’. This virtual space is not just the space of that particular picture, but rather the overall space of all pictures, and of all pictorial mediums. This is quite a far-reaching idea, and it is the task of this blog to address the multiple aspects of this idea and the questions that it brings up.

When adopting such an interpretation of what pictorial images are, one of the topics that naturally comes up is the role of computer graphics technologies. So in that sense, yes, absolutely, computers will be mentioned in some of the posts: One of the categories that are already planned for this blog is called ‘digital technologies’. Yet the central topic of the blog remains pictorial images themselves, and the space that is made available to us through them.

Not a Blog about Metaphysics

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For many people, the word ‘virtual’ stands for anything that is seemingly unreal, elusive, or intangible, yet maintains some kind of existence on some other level of reality. In other words, it is something that exists on a metaphysical level. This can be related to the idea of alternative realities parallel to ours; or to the view that the world in which we live might be nothing more than a figment of our imagination; or to any of a series of philosophies that question the way we understand the world.

Many of the other uses of the word ‘virtual’ have a somewhat metaphysical sense as well. For example, ‘virtual’ is sometimes used to describe the level of existence of things that are experienced through sound, or the type of reality we experience when we read a book. In quite a similar way, ‘virtual’ is commonly used to describe our experiences when we browse the web, send an email or a text message, or even speak on the phone.

In all these cases there seems to be some other dimension in which the contents of these experiences exist – beyond the vibrations in the air, the printed letters on the paper, or the electric signals running through computers – and we don’t quite have a name for it. So the word ‘virtual’, with its inherent ambiguity, often satisfies us as a faint replacement for a more accurate description of what is actually going on. This is how the whole notion of the ‘virtual’ ended up being entangled with both computers and metaphysics, and how computer technology became perceived as the source of yet another metaphysical phenomenon.

While all these topics may be related to the discussion of virtual space, they are not at the core of what this blog is about. What this blog is about are pictorial images.

The simple fact that we can look at an array of pixels on a screen (or blotches of paint on canvas) and see a visible world through it is already an astonishing phenomenon in itself. It is precisely that phenomenon that The Virtual Space Theory considers to be the essence of virtuality. By using the term ‘virtual space’, then, what is referred to is the notion of an overall visible space that is created by the sum of all pictorial images, of all mediums.

Some readers might feel that this very definition of virtual space is in itself already a metaphysical statement. Maybe. But I doubt that it will grant me admission into the Metaphysicists’ Club. ;-) After all, for a metaphysical idea, its contents are too empirical, too measurable, and too tangible. Yet that is exactly what The Virtual Space Theory is proposing: Let’s bring the idea of virtuality out of metaphysics, and let metaphysics deal with metaphysical ideas.

A Blog about Pictorial Images

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The Virtual Space Theory proposes a whole other way of seeing pictorial images. It may seem quite complex at first, but it is in fact extremely simple. It is a way of seeing which might take a while to fully get, yet it eventually becomes so natural and intuitive that it just seems obvious.

We are used to approaching images in one of a few ways. Sometimes we identify them with the visual content that we see in them or what they symbolize, sometimes we consider them to be physical or cultural objects, sometimes we think of them in terms of how they were made. Depending on the context in which we come across them, we usually pick the most convenient approach without even noticing.

The Virtual Space Theory takes the view that pictorial images are not defined by their content or meaning, that they are not necessarily important as objects, and that the technique by which they were produced is irrelevant. Instead, it proposes that a pictorial image is just a means of seeing space where in fact there is none. Then, it tries to understand what the nature of this space might actually be.

Indeed, if we think of any pictorial image we can see – a painting on a wall, a photo in a magazine, a program on TV, or a video game on our computer – and shift our focus only to the space that we see through them, we would realize that fundamentally, it is the same general space in all of them. We could then consider that what makes images different from each other is simply that they are presenting different segments of this larger space, and that what makes mediums different from each other is simply that they are allowing us different degrees of accessibility to this space. Yet as an overall phenomenon, it always remains the same space. It is this space that The Virtual Space Theory considers to be ‘virtual space’.

From there on, The Virtual Space Theory extends to address the whole range of questions that naturally arise once this interpretation is introduced: How does this space relate to the physical space we inhabit? How does it differ from the mental space of our imagination? What kind of technologies do we have for producing such a space and for providing access to it? What are the rules that govern this space, and what internal structure might it have? How would we design places for this space, and how would they affect our experience of it? What is the history of making places in virtual space, and what is being done nowadays? How does this way of seeing images contribute to our understanding of present and future media? How does this theory extend to other fields, and what else could it be good for?

That is what this blog is about.

A Blog about Architecture

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For most people, whenever the word ‘architecture’ comes up, the first thing that comes to mind is buildings: Apartment blocks or luxurious villas, seats of power or places of worship, public monuments or hang-out places – along with any other kind of man-made place that makes up the physical world in which we live. Additionally, for anyone who is somewhat familiar with this field, the word ‘architecture’ also stands for anything that has to do with the process of making such places: The mental search for ideas, the experiments in sketches and scale-models, the production of plans, sections, and elevations, and the visual expression of the resulting vision in the form of pictorial images.

These, however, are not the kinds of architecture that this blog is about.

There is a whole other kind of architecture that is hardly ever discussed. That is the architecture that generates and inhabits the space we see through pictorial media. It is the kind of architecture that is to be found in images that are totally unrelated to the process of planning, building, or discussing physical architecture. It is a kind of architecture that is very familiar to most of us, except that we seldom stop think of it as being architecture.

At first glance, it might seem that to consider buildings in pictorial images as forming a distinct kind of architecture is a bit of an exaggeration. After all, if we look at the history of art, for example, aren’t the buildings we see in paintings nothing more than a copy of the buildings that the painter saw right in front of him?

Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street, Rainy Weather, 1877.

The above painting by Gustave Caillebotte is surely architecturally rich, but isn’t the architecture in it actually a documentation of a particular place in 19th-century Paris? The mere posing of this question expresses our romantic notion of the painter standing in front of an easel somewhere in the outdoors with a brush and palette in his hand. However, from a historical perspective, this way of perceiving art and artists is less than 150 years old: It is a legacy of the Impressionist movement, of which this painting is a prime example.

Up until that time, painters were mostly confined to their studios, laboring at the creation of images worthy of the revered title of ‘Art’, and guided by a set of high ideals and accepted principles for achieving it. It was precisely the Impressionists who urged painters to go out into the open air and simply paint what they see. For centuries before that, painters usually had to generate the space of their paintings and their visual content completely on their own – including the architecture in them.

Alessandro Botticelli - The Story of Lucretia, c. 1496-1504

For example, the above painting by Sandro Botticelli is surely rich in architecture, but you would be hard pressed to find the particular place seen in it anywhere in Italy. Not because it has not been preserved through history – but because it has probably never even existed in the first place. Some of the architectural elements in it may be direct copies of existing physical places, but others are merely a free variation on a physical place, and some are altogether invented for the sake of the painting. They were then all joined into a single composition, designed as a suitable setting for presenting the story the painter wanted to depict. In the creation of this place, therefore, Botticelli was not only its painter, but he also assumed the role of its architect.

While this point was demonstrated here using the case of paintings, the idea that is proposed by The Virtual Space Theory is that the same applies also to any other type of pictorial image – photography, film, computer-generated imagery, and so on: The places that are seen through them, in many cases, could very well be considered to be works of architecture in and of themselves. After all, in order for us to even be able to perceive them in terms of space, such places must have first been mentally envisioned, carefully planned, and meticulously executed.

That is the kind of architecture this blog is about.