Rob Shields on 'the virtual'

Read "The Virtual" by Rob Shields this week-end. In 230 pages or so, Shields interestingly debunks the notion "virtual" that pervades the discourse about technologies. Although, the book is made of 9 chapters, it's definitely the first three chapters that I found the most interesting. He basically starts by discussing how 'the virtual' became a metaphor that moved from the digital domain to being an organizing idea for companies and government policies, with, as a corollary, unrealistic and exaggerated expectations that technologies will solve social problems. Getting back to earlier instances of 'the virtual' ("If cyberspace is a consensual hallucination in the words of the novelist who coined the term, William Gibson, then cave paintings might well count so"), Shields shows how virtual space has a long history in the form of rituals and in the built form of architectural fantasies such as trompe-l'oeil simulations. Today's definition of the virtual, as well as its interconnection to digital hardware and software can be considered as a new form. Some excerpts of these first chapters that I found important:

"The virtual is often contrasted with the 'real' in commonsensical language by many writers who have not paused to examine the implications of the terms they are using (...) we routinely deploy the word 'virtual' as a place-holder for important forms of reality which are not tangible but are essential and necessary to our survival. (...) the 'virtual' is imagined as a 'space' between participants, a computer-generated common ground which is neither actual in its location or coordinates nor is it merely a conceptual abstraction, for it may be experienced 'as if' lived or given purposes (...) Virtual spaces are indexical, in the sense that they are interstitial moments."

I voluntarily skipped the part about disambiguating the terms 'virtual', 'actual', 'real', leaving that to another post. This is then followed by a description of 'digital virtualities', a summary of the existing systems and their cultural underpinnings (how they are influenced by cyberpunk novels, heterosexual visions of sex, mechanical dinosaurs, euclidean geometry to ease users' adoption

Why do I blog this? the whole book is very insightful but it's certainly these first chapters that I found the most relevant to my research. Being interested in digital space, I tend to avoid employing the term "virtual" because I find it too fuzzy and confusing. Most of the time, 'virtual' is used instead of 'digital' or '3D' and I find it quite limited. Shields' discussion is of considerable important to put things in context about this issue.

The quote that I emphasized in bold above is also very important to me considering how digital space is explicitly referred to as a "common ground" in some research about CSCW (computer-supported collaborative work).