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...All that is Virtual Bleeds into Reality

Gordon Fletcher
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'.

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)

The rise of the virtual

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 space.

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: 57, 175).

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…". However, 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.

References Cited

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