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Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2001 / 29 Kislev, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Its own reward -- MOST vogue words aren't recent inventions -- they're old words that are pulled from the chorus and thrust into a starring role. Take virtual, which has been doing solid journeyman work in English since Chaucer's time. It's related to virtue, of course, but not in the Bill Bennett sense of the word -- it's derived from the old use of virtue to mean "essence" or "capability," a sense that still survives in the phrase "in virtue of." So virtual means "in essence if not in fact" or more roughly "for all practical purposes" as when you say that so-and-so ruled as a virtual king.

Virtual's recent run started with a walk-on part in the information revolution, when engineers found it a useful term to describe the computer's ability to create simulations. Virtual memory is a way of faking RAM that you don't actually have, and a virtual machine is the kind of system that lets your Macintosh pretend it's a PC or vice-versa. But those are technical usages that don't really stretch the original meaning of the word. The adjective didn't capture the public imagination until the late 1980's, when the term "virtual reality" was coined to describe systems that simulate various kinds of sensory experience. The basic technology may have been old hat, as such things go -- NASA had been building digital flight simulators since the 1960s. But the use of virtual had a trippy allure that wasn't present with its rival artificial, which figured in phrases like "artificial intelligence." Artificial just referred to the computer's ability to simulate off-line reality, with the implication that life was elsewhere. Whereas virtual suggested that the machines could not just imitate life, but create an alternate reality of their own. It was an appealing notion to a public that had been primed by video games, by the cyberspace novels of William Gibson, and by the 1982 movie Tron, the first of that world-in the-computer genre that would reach its full flower in movies like The Matrix and in all those Intel Inside commercials.

That was all it took to open the floodgates. Look at the way people are using virtual now and you have the sense of a vast phantom world that's assembling itself on the other side of the screen. There are virtual banks full of virtual money, virtual universities full of virtual classrooms, virtual malls full of virtual stores with virtual shelves and virtual shopping carts, virtual libraries full of virtual books published by virtual publishers. The virtual police are tracking down virtual rapists and virtual trespassers. You see references to virtual sculpture, which usually involves computer renderings of three-dimensional objects, and to virtual poetry, which I have some trouble distinguishing from the old-fashioned sort. And people even talk about "virtual facsimiles." When I first saw that one it had the sound of a major metaphysical breakthrough -- it was a little disappointing to realize it just refers to a fax you send via your PC.

The striking thing about virtual is the way it slips between the real and the fictitious without tipping its hand. Sometimes it just depends who's uttering it. When the techno-enthusiasts use an expression like "virtual voter" it probably refers to real voters who use the Internet. For them, it's just one of the new categories created by the technology that are going to transform social life -- virtual communities, virtual town halls, or the "virtual commons," a kind of general assembly area for the republic of pixels. For critics, though, the phrase "virtual voter" is more likely to be a phantom voter created by computer fraud. For them, the adjective usually signals the technology's ability to create deceptive simulations and illusions. The point was put succinctly in the title of one recent book -- Resisting the Virtual Life. And in a still broader sense, the word has become a kind of stand-in for the artifice and factitiousness of the modern age. The lead article in The Nation the other week was called "Our Virtual Primaries." I figured this one would be about the use of the Web for fund-raising, or maybe the Alaska experiment in Internet voting. But it turned out to be simply about the way the media were manipulating the public perception of what was going on.

In fact neither side uses the adjective according to its traditional meaning -- for the enthusiasts it no longer suggests any reservation about truth or actuality, the way virtual does in a phrase like "a virtual cure for the common cold." And for the critics it doesn't have the implication that the virtual is a effective or practical substitute for the real. But there's a common thread in the way everybody uses virtual, too. Whether the things you're talking about are are real or factitious, the adjective always suggests a kind of digital exceptionality -- the idea that the effects of the technology are so unprecedented and so powerful that we need a new word to describe them.

There was a striking example of this in a recent story about the young man in Florida who was arrested for sending a threatening message via an Internet chat group to one of the survivors of the Columbine massacre. According to the young man's lawyer, his client was intending to plead that he was the victim of an addiction to the Internet, and claim that his message was a "virtual threat made in a virtual state of mind." That seemed something of a stretch, even for a word as elastic as virtual. But then, why not? It's seems a natural extension of the frenzy for discerning new virtualities whenever a new icon pops up on a screen. You think of the way people were blaming the Littleton killings themselves on video games that promoted "virtual violence" or on Internet sites that had created a "virtual Munich Beer Hall" for disaffected teenagers. But it also rests on a more general assumption that everything that happens on-line is unprecededented, and answers to its own virtual logic. Virtual communities require a new geography, virtual companies require a new economics. So why shouldn't we make special allowances for the fantasies that people act out in virtual states of mind? It's a whole new world in there.

JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg, is a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University.The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


12/07/01: Community sting
11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2001, Geoffrey Nunberg