virtualism in the print news

Within the scope of the
Journée d’études “Communautés virtuelles” just two weeks ago, on 09 November 2007, I presented a paper called “Material culture and social interaction online: The reality of the virtual” at the Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg. Besides other things I talked a bit about my idea of “virtualism“. Klaus Schönberger, who was in the audience and later in the day delivered a lecture himself, asked who in particular I thought the “virtualists” were. I refrained from calling names and tried to give an a bit abstract description as an answer. Now, Klaus, here is an example.

In yesterday’s issue of the Süddeutsche Zeitung—one of Germany’s biggest transregional print newspapers—there is an article which exactly illustrates what I meant. The article by Titus Arnu is christened Meine virtuellen Freunde [“My virtual friends”] and the overall topic is “Internet addiction,” and its psychological and social consequences. It is not on my mind to play down this issues, but much of the article’s phrasing is pure virtualism which does not at all serve an understanding of the phenomena in question, but only furthers xenophobia against online technology and its uses. Here is a sample of quotes from the article [my translation, put the blame on me]:

The 15 year old girl is proud of being able to count 286 human beings to the circle of her sympathizers. She only knows the fewest of them personally, Because they only have made friends with her virtually. […]

While she hardly speaks to her parents, she spends several hours per day in front of the computer in order to chat with her “friends”. Most of the girl’s social contacts are happening on the Net […].

The generation of the ten to 20 year olds since long lives in a parallel world. […] the most important social contacts are virtualized. This does not remain without consequences for the psyche—and in the long run possibly for society itself.

For those who were not present at Strasbourg, here is a “counter-quote” from my presentation [as soon as I get around I’ll brush up the French, English, and German versions of the paper and breeze them online]:

In front of the background of the majority of publications stemming from the social sciences and the humanities, which deal with kin and comparable phenomena, you are easily seduced to label the group which I introduced in the beginning as a “virtual community”.

[Before I talked about the seduction of labeling online groups as “virtual communities”.] Maybe because of the lack of physical territory and face-to-face encounters, and because computer mediated communication (CMC) and information and communication technologies (ICTs) play a major role. Because interaction is mediated electronically.

But hardly anyone calls the exchange of letters “virtual”—I am speaking about letters written on paper. Same with talking on the telephone or sending a Fax. But in all three cases we deal with mediated communication. Mediated via technologies and infrastructures the people involved neither overlook nor understand. But the occult, esoteric character of the factual functioning and of the backgrounds of this technologies are ignored, do not lead to the stance “a phone call happens in another world”. We all are highly accustomed to the telephone. Since I am able to think the telephone is a part of my everyday experience. Just as cars or the electrical light are. They are taken for granted, since long are parts of our sociocultural lifeworlds.

SMS, mostly sent from mobile phone to mobile phone, is a borderline case. In some academical papers the attribute “virtual” indeed is attached to SMS communication. The usage of the concept gets virulent when talking about e-mail, chat, websites, online forums, multiplayer computer games, persistent state worlds like MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), or platforms like “Second Life”. In short, as soon as we are talking about services running upon the technical infrastructure of the Internet, within the social sciences and the humanities very often the concept “virtual” surfaces. VoIP (Voice over IP) is an exemption, it is too similar to the telephone, hence seldomly labeled “virtual”.

Within the usual discourse “virtual” implies “not real”. But with all the mentioned possibilities of mediated communication and interaction that is not the case. For instance, when I am corresponding via e-mail, I am not communicating virtually, but in fact. That is true for all mentioned technologies.

By stating the factuality of online mediated communication and interaction I do not want to state that there is no difference to the more accustomed means of communication and interaction. There of course are differences, as every medium features particular properties and qualities. To fathom this qualities is not only interesting, but absolutely indispensable, because they have consequences for the social and cultural practices of usage.

My point is that within the social sciences and the humanities [and vast parts of public discourse] the distinction between “virtual” and “not virtual” very often is made because of being differently accustomed to different media, but not beacuse of systematical or conceptual ponderings.

Furthermore I claim that in the context of ICTs the concept “virtual” is misleading, even dangerous, as it implies that there are two different worlds, reality and virtuality, featuring not only different authenticity, but completely distinct ontological status. In analogy to Edward Said’s concept “Orientalism” I call this implicit intellectual practice “Virtualism”: The construction of a counter world on the basis of ethnocentrisms, lack of being accustomed, lack of enough empirical experience, lack of cultural understanding, maybe even xenophobia, and of “Othering” tendencies resulting thereof. […]

In consequence of all this I advise to use the concept “virtual” only in respect to simulations and emulations, but not in respect to communication and interaction media. For the latter the pair of concepts “online” and “offline” is way better suited, because thereby only the modalities of communicationn and interaction are described, but not misleadingly some kind of ontological status. That way we avoid the pitfalls of virtualism and are able to see online media as what they are: An augmentation of everyday life by means of a bundle of online mediated communication and interaction possibilities.