Welcome to the Real World
If you spend any length of time on-line, or read any of the popular
computer press, or increasingly any of the main stream press then you
will no doubt have come across the word "virtual-reality". Everything it
seems that happens on-line is "virtual". There are virtual worlds inhabited
by virtual people living in virtual reality.
So what is this word "virtual" all about. What does it mean? The
dictionary defines virtual as "so in effect though not in name". This
definition actually surprised me as to how accurate it then makes the
term "virtual reality", however in more general usage the term "virtual
reality" is used to mean "not reality". It implies that whatever happens
on-line is not real, and that the inhabitants of these virtual world are in
some way detached from the real world.
If you have ever seen the film Lawnmower Man, or read the book
Neuromancer, then you will understand what I mean. Both of these works
make the computer the environment. In some way the user of the terminal
becomes engulfed in the environment, transported away to this "virtual
world". This separation of what is real and tangible, with what happens
whilst on-line is what the term "virtual reality" means to me.
Is this concept true? Is what happens on-line really detached from the real
world, and what is the real world anyway?
Over the last year or so I have spent a considerable amount of time
inhabiting one of these so called virtual worlds. If you have found this
page then you will already know what virtual world I am talking about, but
just in case you need to have it spelt out, I am talking of the world of
For those of you who have never experienced CU then some of the
following will no doubt make little sense. For those who have experienced
it, you may see things in a totally different way, all I am doing here is
expressing my own views and experiences.
If I go look back at the time I have spent on CU, I can see that I was
initially taken in by the theory that whilst on-line, I was indeed in a
different world. The medium of CU itself adds to the sense of unreality,
most people use nicknames, when I started CU colour video was unheard
of, and even now most of the inter-activity is conducted in a primitive text
based interface. This is far removed from sitting face to face with a friend
having a chat over a beer.
However very quickly I became aware that the people on CU are indeed
I have seen on CU just about the whole range of human emotions. I have
seen people laughing so much that they cry, I have seen friendships
formed as strong as any made in person. I have seen arguments that
would surely have ended in a fight if those concerned were within reach
of each other. I have seen people talk about their innermost thoughts, and
their deepest secrets. Some people I am sure though do not appreciate
that the other participants on a conference are real people. I have seen
many crude, hurtful, spiteful, and vindictive things said.
It is partly this that convinces me that the world of CU is an integral part
of "real life". If I see someone on CU get offended or become upset by the
behaviour or actions of another participant then what have I witnessed?
Have I witnessed something real or not? My answer to this is of course
I have seen something real. CU is only the communications medium.
The people on it are real people with real feelings and real thoughts. I
have seen people who refuse to stay on the same conference as one
another due to them falling out over one thing or another. The opposite of
course is also true is that I have made friends via CU whom I would value
and trust as much as any I have made in person.
I have had evenings on CU that I would count as some of the most
entertaining experiences of my life, gone to bed grinning and still be
chuckling to myself the next day. Equally I have had many times when
I have left a conference in disgust at the behaviour of some of the
Another thought that occurs to me is what if you arrange to meet a fellow
CUer in person? At what point do they change from being "virtual" to
"real"? My answer to this is that they do not change at all. They always
have been real. The fact that their behaviour when you meet them in
person may differ to their behaviour on-line is irrelevant to me. There are
different standards of acceptable behaviour everywhere you look, at work,
at home, in the pub, with close friends, with casual acquaintances, with
your family, in front of the children, etc. etc. etc.
There are of course grey areas. CU has no tactile quality. Nor does it
have any aural content that is worth mentioning. Is it these things that add
to the sense of unreality? I am sure it is in part. But does this lack of
touch and sound focus the available senses even sharper? Is it this that
makes the words you use and the way you use them even more important?
This is a very difficult subject that I have thought about a lot. One problem
in trying to describe this subject is that the conventional usage of words
does not always seem to apply. The world of CU is still quite new; those of
us who are involved in it are very much in the minority. Although I would
not say that the things we experience are still unique, they are far from
common place. Someone once said that "Language expands to fit the
experience of the race" (Possibly a line from one of Robert Heinlein's
novels). This is very true in respect of CU. The way words are used and
perhaps the words themselves used to describe online events may not
So there you have it. My own personal opinion that CU is a real
experience experienced by real people. I always try and keep that in
mind when I am on the reflectors.
One last comment though, even my own opinions seem to change
regularly, so I will probably read this again in a month or so and
disagree with myself. If nothing else I hope that this has got you thinking.