This paper first appeared as
Fletcher, Gordon (1998) "All that is Virtual Bleeds into Reality", Proceedings of the Australian Sociological Association, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane
The 'virtual' has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion.
The 'virtual' has also become increasingly theorised. This paper
argues for an understanding of the 'virtual' as a primarily spatial
phenomenon. As elements of the 'virtual' impact upon different
aspects of 'real life' it becomes increasingly less useful to
focus research around general differences between the 'virtual'
and 'real'. Instead, a more specific mode of analysis is suggested
which reconnects spaces of similar or connected cultural and social
activity. This approach de-emphasises technologically determined
discussions of contemporary 'virtual' spaces in toto and
advocates a relative approach in which sociology is conducted
in the 'virtual' rather than of the 'virtual'.
The rise of the virtual
Cyberspace is what happens when you leave the landscape and move
onto the map. Cyberspace is any place where you can interact with
other human beings on any level without actually being in physical
proximity. Every one of your readers has experienced it because
cyberspace is where you are when you are on the phone. You could
stretch the point and say that literature is a form of cyberspace.
(John Perry Barlow, Cyber Cowboy Interview: www.iabc.com/cw/gerstner.htm)
This Saturday I went to (my first ever) hockey game, between the
LA Kings and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Every once in a while the following
text appeared on the large video screen over the hockey rink,
"KINGS IN CYBERSPACE! Follow your team on the internet: http://www.nhl.com/."
After they showed this in the first break the guy sitting next
to me says to his friend, "Cyberspace and internet... isn't
that the same thing?" The friend answers, "No. They're
different companies!" (Mikael Degermark: www.cs.ccsu.ctstateu.edu/~pelletie/humor/note3.161)
In contemporary culture, connection to the 'virtual' has become
synonymous with those social experiences enabled through the mediations
of information technology (Thrift 1996: 1464). Popular emphasis
upon the technology that enables navigation and access to the
'virtual' belies its thoroughly social foundations (Sheridan &
Zeltzer 1997: 86). Uncritical fascination with technical capacity
creates a coarse distinction between the qualities of an ill-defined
virtuality and the equally uncertain parameters of experience
within physical 'reality'. The boundaries between these territories
have, however, become blurred to the extent that social experience
readily flows between these spaces. In contrast, the boundaries
identified by concerns for gender, ethnicity or religion or the
distinctions of language continue irrespective of their experience
within a 'real' or 'virtual' provenance.
Technology-orientated presentations of the 'virtual' - in the
contemporary guise of cyberspace, the Internet or the World Wide
Web, have cast it as a panacea for the problems and experiences
of reality (Graham 1997: 41; cf. Stoll 1996: 10-11). IBM and Microsoft
promote their tools as the key to globe-spanning successful commerce.
In a similar vein some educational technologists hail the demise
of the lecture theatre (cf. Stoll, 1996: 146). Although these
claims solidify the 'virtual' as a definable social 'thing' and
as a space for social experience they do little to clarify any
distinction between 'virtual' and 'real' life. At an immediate
and sensory level the 'virtual' is present in disembodied contrast
to the 'reality' of physical presence. This is the distinctive
quality of social experience conducted within a 'virtual' provenance.
However, and of equal significance, those aspects of the social
that are conducted 'virtually' reflect and imitate the practices
of 'real life' (Whittle 1997: 12).
Experience of the 'virtual' is claimed in this paper to be social
and spatial. From this starting point, it is argued that analysis
which focuses upon universal distinctions between the 'virtual'
and 'real' overly privileges technologically determined discussions.
This dichotomy obscures the complexity and range of social experience
conducted within 'virtual' spaces. In contrast and outside the
limitations of binaries, social and cultural activity in the 'virtual'
can meaningfully be related to similar spaces of social and cultural
activity performed 'outside' the 'virtual'.
The 'virtual' as social space
If the 'virtual' is briefly considered beyond the scope of solely
technological definitions it is most consistently described as
a social space without physicality. Thrift (1996: 1465) cites
a range of conceptualisations of the 'virtual' that are all founded
upon spatially orientated definitions. Lefebvre's The Production
of Space (1991) is the starting point for many of these definitions.
Lefebvre argues (1991: 38-39) that social space cannot be directly
equated with physical space. He also cautions against the fetishisation
of space in itself (1991: 90). "Itself the outcome of past
actions, social space is what permits fresh actions to occur,
while suggesting others and prohibiting yet others... Social space
implies a great diversity of knowledge" (Lefebvre 1991: 73).
Wise (1997) reasserts the significance of Lefebvre's triadic conceptualisation
of space and the privilege of 'representational space' within
other discussions of social space. This understanding of social
space, Wise (1997: 78) claims, prevents the technological contributions
to the formation of spatial practice from being disentangled,
in a meaningful way, from the symbolic representations of that
The absence of spatial practice, in contrast, produces an echo
of the 'virtual'. The imagination of the 'virtual' within traditional
societies has often been understood by social scientists as a
venue for mythology or magic (Taussig 1993: 47-48). Contemporary
versions of the 'virtual' that are expressed through the Internet
and other electronically mediated spaces remain only pale imitations
of what has been imagined in these other 'virtual' spaces (Boyer
1996: 46). Despite this, or perhaps because of it, what is experienced
in the 'virtual' is built from a bounded range of possibilities
that commence with the reflection and imitation of experience
in 'real life'. Cross-cultural comparison to non-high-technological
versions of the 'virtual' potentially positions 'cyberspace' -
as a space that is by definition technological mediated (Whittle
1997: 7) - as the venue for the mythology of 'us'. There is already
an incipient pantheon and roster of human heroes that are at least
dimly acknowledged by 'non-wired' participants to contemporary
culture. Bill Gates, as a well-identified example, in Greco-Roman
style occupies a variety of positions within this mythology and
elicits the full range of human responses.
Defining the 'virtual' within a sociological framework should
not discard the technology that mediates the social experience
but neither should these approaches be driven by the presence
of this technology. Technology is intertwined with other social
phenomenon and contributes to the particularity of the provenance
in which social practice is found and shaped. However, the combined
emphasis that has been placed upon technology and its novelty
should be assessed critically as a subjective claim that supports
particular interest groups - and, it could be claimed, particular
interested corporations (Bereano 1997: 27). Similarly, claiming
the 'virtual' as spatial phenomena, as is done here, is not a
neutral claim and begs similar critical assessment (Atkinson 1990:
The 'reality' of the 'virtual'
For sociology, the immediate problem is to deliver a position
that acknowledges a 'virtual' provenance of experience without
automatically affirming the simplistic observation that everything
'virtual' is not 'real'. Sociology has expended considerable effort
tackling meta-issues regarding reality through works that have
entered the sociological canon such as those of Berger and Luckman
(1966), Arbib and Hesse (1986) and Foucault (1983). These analyses
suggest that the assignment of quantities of 'reality' to social
phenomena is illusory. Experience of the social in the 'virtual'
cannot be dismissed or disregarded solely because it lacks corporeality.
"Space is social morphology: it is to lived experience what
form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately
bound up with function and structure" (Lefebvre 1991: 94).
The boundaries to social experience in the 'virtual' are the consequence
of the complexities of specific provenance and not because the
'virtual' in total somehow lacks 'reality'.
The 'reality' of the 'virtual' accentuates the differences between
the space being observed to the space from which the researcher
is observing. This situation is reminscent of the ethnographer's
dilemma when they proceed among 'others' (Atkinson 1990: 106).
McBeath and Webb (1997, 258-259), however, argue for an emic perspective
on cyberspace, "thus, this space has no meaning as this
space, but rather has meaning for the cybernaut from its interior,
an interior of which the cybernaut is part
this formation potentially ignores the ways in which social experience
and understanding of the social world is multi-spatial. Soja (1996,
156) similarly argues that the Foucauldian approach to space centres
upon sites of action and the relationships between those sites.
A variety of 'net' activities indicate that the experience of
the 'everyday' continually reaffirms the 'reality' of the 'virtual'.
These experiences include significant stages of life such as marriage
ceremonies, malicious activities such as stalking and rape (www.acm.cps.msu.edu/~jangchyn/TC860_97/msg/23.htm:
1998) and various forms of consumption
including 'on-line' shopping and gambling. Experiences that cross
between 'virtual' and physical space, by relating 'sites' to one
another, further stress that multiple provenances of experience
combine to reconfirm the 'reality' of each space. The recent case
of a woman suing her 'husband' whom she had met through the Internet
and who subsequently was revealed to be a woman makes the certainty
of any 'reality' a tenuous social arrangement (www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/ct503.htm:
1998). Another example of these intersections between 'virtual'
experience and physical consequence is the case of the cyberstalking
of Jayne Hitchcock (members.tripod.com/~cyberstalked/story.html:
1998). During a two-year period this writer has had her named
used in fake ads for adult services, received unwanted mail order
goods and had fake letters of resignation sent to her employers.
The significance of these incidents is the manner in which the
specific qualities of multiple provenances of social experience
have been used to maximise the impact on each victim.
Graham (1997:41) indicates how urban provenance also impacts
upon 'virtual' experiences. He cites Davis's observation that
"South central LA is a data and media black hole without
local cable programming or links to major data systems".
At this extremity of experience the 'virtual' is unavailable to
the residents of South central LA because their urban space lacks
infrastructure and technology. Technology itself, however, is
not too blame. Systemic disadvantage cannot be used to support
sweeping arguments regarding the social inequity that technology
arguably engenders. These same residents also live in a "golf
course and country club black hole" and a "tertiary
education black hole". For the residents of South central
LA their inability to access any form of 'virtual' provenance
may be as much a confirmation of its inaccessible 'reality' as
it is a reconfirmation of economic poverty.
Technology re-enters the discussion at this point as the transitional
interface between physical and 'virtual' spaces. Information technology,
in terms of both its presence and absence, assists in the affirmation
of the 'reality' of the 'virtual'. However, experience of the
'virtual' does not directly equate with the experience of any
specific technology, software or hardware although it does impart
particular qualities onto that particular "representation
of space" (Lefebvre 1991: 38).
Sociology in the virtual
The difficulty for sociology conducted in the 'virtual' is the
authority of the binarism which determines the provenance of social
experience as either within a physical or 'virtual' 'reality'.
The scale and diversity of 'virtual' experiences and their impact
upon social relations makes this representation difficult to justify.
This is further weakened by the claimed presence of the 'virtual'
within urban space (Graham 1997:41-43; Thrift 1996: 1467). Oz
(1994: 12) takes this position further still by claiming that,
"cyberspace is any environment in which information exists
or flows". As the 'virtual' increasingly fractures the 'real'
so too the 'virtual' is itself increasingly fractured and 'discovered'
as an aspect of the 'real'. This is not, however, the direct result
of any specific technical advance or invention. The continual
bifurcation of the 'virtual' reflects its adoption and adaptation
to extend, complement and, in some cases, replace other spaces
of cultural activity. For example, tertiary education adds virtual
space to the existing complement of learning spaces while business
organisations seek virtual real estate to support their interests
(e.g. www.beef.com). As 'virtual' space is utilised to increasing
diversity its significance for critical inquiry is found as one
of the many provenances for comparable and connected cultural
activities. Identifying distinct activities that almost coincidentally
occupy a 'virtual' provenance is a less fertile, although still
valid, comparison that ignores Lefebvre's entreaties against the
fetishisation of space in itself.
The tendency for sociological inquiry to operate within categories
suggests the imminent emergence of a sociology of the
'virtual'. However, this 'new' sociology may rapidly become
a redundant focal point for the same reasons that sociology of
the 'real' or sociology of the physical are already. At the turn
of the millennium the 'virtual' provenance for inquiry is at its
most rudimentary stages - the equivalent of the 1950s edge-dwelling
'box' shopping mall. The agenda for sociology-in-the-virtual
is to appropriately locate other spaces of comparative and connected
cultural activity to consciously avoid its inquiry becoming 'of-the-virtual'.
While the specific qualities of these spaces form part of the
social activities that are under examination they remain only
part of the whole phenomenon.
While we remain in the box-mall period of experiential 'virtual'
space, interpretations of its impact has centered upon 'chunks'
of meaning that are delimited by current technology. This may
be in the short-term an inevitable methodology but it does bind
analysis to particular technological artefacts. The abundance
of articles that discuss web pages and web sites as the meaningful
level of study indicates the appeal for this form of analysis
(e.g. Rich 1998; Sclafane 1998; Cronin 1998; Smith 1998). However,
this approach equates a specific object, such as a web page, with
a wider series of cultural and social relations. In effect, analysis
of a particular artefact as a meaningful whole effaces its relationship
to social experience and recontextualises it as an artefact of
technology. This privileges the object with the 'voice' and power
of information technology and the status of data. The social meanings
that remain to be interpreted from this object are then mediated
initially through the wider social meanings of the technology
that created it. While this is an important avenue for analysis
it should not found all analysis of artefacts and actions found
in a 'virtual' provenance. Such an approach would similarly necessitate
every discussion of the telephone to be prefaced with a discussion
of telephony and media studies would be required to speculate
on the cathode ray tube.
Sociological inquiry conducted with a 'virtual' provenance clearly
presents the potential to inform wider sociological analysis and
practice. Inquiry that cannot proceed within the 'virtual' may
indicate the problematic nature of specific sociological methodologies
rather than an incompatibility with the space itself. In this
way, sociology-in-the-virtual presents the opportunity for an
increasingly reflexive and critical venue for the researcher and
the discipline - and a potential test-bed for more broadly implemented
projects. This is not because the 'virtual' is in toto
a distinct proposition from that of the 'real' but rather because
similar social experience have multiple provenances. This, however,
presents no greater advantage for research than already exists
at multiple 'sites' of physical 'reality'.
The fall of the virtual?
The 'virtual' is a conceptual position (cf. Whittle 1997, 42).
Distinguishing sociology-in-the-virtual from sociology-in-the-physical
may be as necessary in some forms of inquiry as the distinctions
between public and private. In other situations, the distinctions
may be as distinct as those between Sydney and Melbourne. The
sites of inquiry in either case do not determine the object of
investigation but, rather, assist in both defining and contextualising
the research problem. However, emphasis is currently placed on
the immateriality of the 'virtual'. This emphasis and the discussions,
which focus upon this quality, could readily disappear as the
primary rationale for analysis. As the experience of technologically
mediated spaces is increasingly juxtaposed with moments of reality
the need for 'meta-level' binaries becomes less significant. What
remains is what preceded. These are the concerns that haunt the
sociological canon and continue to occupy sociologists' time.
The 'virtual' - in the form of technologically mediated social
spaces - does not obliterate socio-economic status, gender inequality,
ethnic intolerance or other distinctions but provides another
space for their articulation and experience. For those who have
experienced the electronic articulation of racial hatred or sexism
the effects are equally 'real'. Utopian claims that the 'virtual',
as a consequence of being virtual, can obliterate social inequality
presents a potentially conservative position as it drives the
discourse that surrounds the 'virtual' away from the concerns
of social experience towards contemplation of how to 'wire' everyone
else (Bereano 1997, 31). There is a need to continue and further
the investigation of 'virtual' spaces as a provenance of social
activities. There is no need to throw away or ignore the epistemology
and methodological frameworks of 'real life'. Experience of the
'virtual' is not in itself an excuse to refashion sociology -
those efforts need to be pursued elsewhere.
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