home > writings

...All that is Virtual Bleeds into Reality - Part II

Gordon Fletcher
Paper presented to "TASA 98" conference, QUT, December 1998.

If it isn't on my site,
chances are it doesn't
exist but you are more
than welcome to try out
these search engines

A description of a link on Sean Robertson's Website (http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/4225/frameset.html)

And a Unix User said...
rm -r*
and all was null and void

Geek T-Shirt (http://www.gaftee.com/pg.UNIX.html)

This paper is posed in a somewhat reflective mode. It is reflection that has been spurred by the availability of the conference proceedings, the shifting directions of my thesis over the past 12 months and the title of this session. It is also posed within this session with a certain amount of trepidation. Despite the title and a number of claims that I make in the printed paper, 'virtual' could mistakenly be read here as a synonym for the practices and procedures of information technology. This bald association does, however, highlight a key point I would like to make today: that information technology and electronically mediated space are the contemporary expressions of a more expansive concept that, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, can be identified in different cultures through, for example, the indigenous descriptions of mythology and theology. It is in this way that I would argue that the 'virtual' has been the provenance for a continuum of experiences and spatial practices that does not start with the consolidation of information technology.

The four tiered cosmology of the Yanomamo, for example, provides an alternative model of the 'virtual' which incorporates both everyday social experience, the ongoing experience of 'other' people including ancestors and 'semi-humans' (such as those of us here today) and the journeys of those with the capacity for multi-tiered travel. Similarly, I could point to Chinese geomancy as a philosophy and methodology of both 'virtual' and physical provenances that has, over the past 700 years (or so), attempted to produce a spatial understanding of the relationships between nature, the built environment, the 'spirit' of place, Chinese people, ancestors and a few others. I, however, stop short of claiming the 'virtual'/Information technology nexus as some quasi-theological 'other' place. I would suggest, however, that within the 'virtual'/information technology combination there is a contradiction of potentially theological proportions. Information technology's 'gift' of the electronically mediated'virtual' provides the illusion of ultimate social connection and accessibility. Embedded into this 'gift', however are also the seeds of inequality. Corporate agendas that adhere to a belief in the benefits of this gift as a consequence institute discriminatory practices founded on the spatial differentiation of opportunity and access. The inequalities described through the dichotomy of being information rich or information poor appear to be founded, however, on the premise that space is inherently public and pre-existent until it is 'owned' or somehow possessed and made private. Whatever the validity of this perspective might be for a space construed within a 'physical' provenance, space conceived with a 'virtual' provenance, I would suggest, is inherently private from its social conception until it is explicitly altered. If inequality is measured against one's quantifiable access to information then virtually provenanced spaces are constructed as both privileging and unequal.

I have tried, in various work, to tackle the significance, and even the meaning, of conducting a 'virtual' sociology and anthropology. Attempting to operate under this perspective has itself been a problematic juxtapositioning of conceptual frameworks which has been further troubled by the association of, at least, two separate meanings to the label of 'virtual' sociology, both as a methodological approach and as an interpretation of particular contemporary phenomena. This issue has accentuated some of the difficulties of working in this 'field' as the two 'meanings' are not entirely complementary. As a methodological approach, 'virtual' sociology looks towards electronically mediated means to facilitate various forms of qualitative and quantitative data gathering. This adopts a generally media orientated interpretation of the 'virtual' by implying that the 'virtual' is a direct conduit for the flow of information between the subjects and their researchers. In contrast, the 'virtual' sociology that seeks to understand the 'virtual' as the overarching description for a range of venues of spatial practice can offer critique on sociological inquiry which is conducted 'through' rather than 'in' the 'virtual'. This methodological procedure would be seen as treating the 'virtual' unproblematically as an unmediated, empty space - if that were ever possible This critique, however, also reveals the juxtaposed conceptual frameworks of 'virtual' sociology. In arguing for the 'virtual' as the provenance for spatial phenomena a 'virtual' sociology could potentially represent a examination of the social which fetishises certain spaces, and a particular provenance in preference to the development of understanding around particular social contexts or phenomena. This fetishising can, in itself, obscure the complexity of space as an artefact/practice/representation and prevent the disentanglement of provenance from space. This latter issue is particularly difficult as the language of space itself privileges materiality and implies an intimate relationship between the physical and reality.

What I am considering in the broadest sense, then, is the extent to which the 'virtual' provenance is significant as the rationale for study in itself. Could work orientated around a 'virtual' provenance, in fact, be compared to an investigation of people who live at number 17? Alternatively, instead of ignoring space, a charge leveled at 'traditional' sociology, should space become the primary focus for the study of the 'virtual'?

The explorative nature of these efforts are also revealed in comments I received from one reviewer for the paper in the proceedings. They argued that my paper was effectively an over response (or perhaps a hyper response?) to the claims of technological determinism that pervade current discussions of IT. And while this was clearly a piece of gentle criticism I had to spend some time thinking through why this may be such an apparently crippling aspect to the paper.

My approach to these issues has been to tackle the 'virtual' as a provenance for spatial practices and the stage for immaterial artefacts while abjuring the observable connections of the current versions of the 'virtual' with electronically-mediated spaces and IT systems. This is not an original approach but it does contrasts with interpretations which claim the 'virtual' as a media or, somewhat more obtusely, as a 'technological' thing. These 'other' interpretations, I would claim, represent the dominant understandings and representations of the 'virtual' yet they are also readily accommodated within claims for the 'virtual' as a provenance for social space. This perspective also constructs the inequalities found in IT use and 'virtual' spaces as multifaceted and multi-sited. Inequality is found interwoven into the contextual relationships between physical space and 'virtual' space in a manner which extends beyond simply the possession or otherwise of particular material culture. Similarly, the inequality of experience couched within the framework of IT assumes many if not all of the sociological classifications being worked through at this conference: gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality and age for example. This complex of inequality prohibits the application of 'simple' solutions that might be found by supplying computers and network access to those who do not already possess it. In many ways, the discussion of inequality in relation to IT assists in the perpetuation of a privilege currently ascribed to the artefacts of IT. This particular category of objects focusses the discussion upon IT rather than on specific social contexts and those who experience or perpetuate inequality. This centering of the artefact in a discussion which ostensibly regards immediate social experience could even lead to the suggestion that the presence of IT is the cause of inequality rather than a material component in a coherent series of meanings that reinforce and reflect particular social relationships and distinctions. IT - as an artefact - when it is cast into a central position in the discussion of inequality also covertly contributes to the complexity of the discussion by pitching a seemingly leviathan but singular 'thing' against the multiple and subtle forms of inequality that sociology has invested a great deal of time in identifying. These questions also raise the more problematic issue of defining what IT actually might be. Treated in isolation as either a category of artefacts or as a series of social practices the full impact and scope of IT within contemporary life is obscured. Similarly reducing the experience of the 'virtual' to a media (and mediated) experience simplifies the relationship of the 'virtual' to other modes of experience by constructing a binary upon which more 'classic' treatments can be laid: good & evil, real & artifical, authentic & fake and heaven & hell. This treatment operates to the detriment of those trying to locate a 'virtual' voice and equally obscures positive and negative aspects of IT. These combinations are found at finer levels of granularity which preclude dismissing or accepting electronically mediated 'virtual' experiences en masse.

As a way of proceeding I will make some bald statements that summarise these reflections on 'being' virtual. However, I do not want to assign the role of 'anti-hero' to IT or the 'virtual' in this paper, nor do I want to present a neo-Luddite view of the world. These simplistic arbitrations of the world do little for the understanding of the multiple contexts of the 'virtual' and obscures the potential advantages that may come from integrating a 'virtual' provenance of experience into learning, entertainment or other consumption opportunities. I would like to pose these issues instead in a more positive light by suggesting that the way in which the 'virtual' is conceptualised has a direct bearing on how it is utilised. A conceptualisation of the 'virtual' which can offer an understanding of its relationships to the 'physical' presents critical opportunities that do not require the the blind acceptance of the 'virtual' experience as an inevitable consequence of technological change or advancement. If the social sciences are to offer sustainable perspectives on the 'virtual' they cannot be directly tied to the specific technologies available in 1998 (and this includes the World Wide Web, MUDs or Email) nor, however, can they become ethereal philosophies. These extremes either over-contextualise the material culture and production aspects of IT or ignore its associations with, and foundations upon, more metaphysical positions which precede the availability of silicon chips and transistors.There are many potholes along this middle path, many of which my reviewer's identified in the first draft of the printed paper. This is, I suspect, in part the result of attempting to draw together material culture understandings with more ethnographic concerns into what is multi-sited research.

Mixed Provenances

A significant difficulty found in interpreting spaces of 'virtual' provenance is the attempt to understand the manner in which a particular space combines 'virtual' artefacts with contemporary social practices. This arguably drives towards the core set of problems that a 'virtual' sociology is attempting to understand. The social experiences that educators desire in 'virtual' classrooms, that capitalists seek in their virtual 'malls' and that dispersed groups are hoping to construct within 'virtual' communities combine familiar rationales, processes and ideologies with an unfamiliar artefactual reality. The various 'virtual' artefacts that assist in the facilitation of these spaces are often generic and derived from a starting point that is bound and mediated by the limitations of a particular technology. The most obvious example of this can be found with Microsoft. The range of products offered by Microsoft is small, the company offers, in effect, one word-processor product, one database product, one spreadsheet product and so on (although the 'in' joke of late has been that Microsoft's best selling database program is Excel). These offerings serve the purposes of millions of people to varying degrees of success. Yet, despite this focussed marketing approach Word, for example, has a range of limitations. Do you use the thesaurus? Does Word's dogged insistence on certain spellings annoy you occassionally? Instead of refining these capacities to produce something that could perhaps assist the writing process an increasing arrays of other 'features' are incorporated into Word. Does Object Linking and Embedding get us excited? Does inserting AutoText make your palms sweat with anticipation? Despite claims that the Microsoft Office suite is intuitive universities, coporations and other institutions spend substantial amounts on training services. This is a digression but nonetheless it highlights one of the interesting contradictions of IT discourse.

The intercession of corporate marketing and technical limitations upon the production and mediation of 'virtual' experience should not, of course, be seen as something particularly unique. In some respects, at this broad level of generalisation, these influences upon the articulation of experience and the meaning of things should be familiar to any student of contemporary consumer culture. The 'virtual' artefact, and I include 'virtual' space here, as with any artefact, is variously constrained and influenced by a series of interlocking demands. The distinctions between artefacts are found in these particular demands. Some of these demands are immediate responses to provenance, however, still others are the demands of production and consumption.

Positioning and Siting 'Virtual' Sociology

Where does this leave the actual 'doing' of 'virtual' sociology. My personal responses has been to contextualise and 'site' research within environments that incorporate multiple provenances. Two quite different opportunities have presented themselves to me recently. An explanation of which may assist in clarifying some of the points I have already made.

The first site is a learning environment, more specifically, the Logan campus of Griffith University which commenced teaching at the beginning of this year. This campus has been constructed literally from the ground up as a 'flexible learning' campus. While I don't have the time to explain what Griffith means by flexible learning it is not intended to be a distance education or computer based learning establishment. The intention of the campus is to facilitate positive learning outcomes by bringing together the educational advantages that can be found in either 'virtual' or physical provenances. The built environment, for example, has been shaped to reflect this mixed provenance and a learner-centred focus. Lectures don't exist at Logan. Each subject at Logan has some form of web site and each student is automatically issued with an email address which they are expected to use. There is also a high ratio of computer to student ratio.

It is within this environment that I am hoping to gain an understanding of the effect of a mixed provenance of experience upon a learning environment through a combination of material culture and ethnographic methods.

The second site, which is much more tentative, involves the Rotuma community. The Rotumen are dispersed through the Pacific and elsewhere to the extent that a majority do not live on the island of Rotuma itself. To redress the potentially damaging effect that this may have on the notions of community, tradition and association there is a Rotuma notice board currently hosted by the University of Hawaii ( At first glance this is a relatively unremarkable web site. However, closer examination reveals that this site has become one site for the enactment of the Rotuma community and its reassertion within a global context...or, rather, I should couch this in the past tense. I rechecked the site last night and discovered the a redesigned Rotuman community site that appears to be bereft of postings. The series of questions that this prompts are numerous but most seriously why has the use of this site/this space decline so rapidly? Can this change be understood by solely considering the virtual provenance or should it be contemplated as part of the spatial practices of the Rotuman community at large and as a result reflect a more significant change in that community?

My curiousity has been tweaked.