Virtual/Real/Virtual (1)

(This is a written version of a speech given in Toronto in October at DIGIFEST)


The age of virtualization is changing. When the digital adventure began in the early 1980’s, the future of computers and hence the digital age was unclear, even fuzzy. Today, after 30 years of experimentation it is pretty clear that there have been some tremendous successes and also some clear failures.

I want to approach the issue of virtualization with great care. And, my approach will be framed by a deep concern for what is happening to our learning environments.

So, let me start by talking about space, that is, architectural and public space. The recent and continuing protests that began in New York and have spread worldwide are important indicators of what is happening to the generation that has been most influenced by the technologies we now take for granted.

Keep in mind, that technologies that virtualize break down as many barriers as they build up. So, when protestors get together in a park and create a variety of methodologies to develop consensus, to manage their affairs, to provide services, they are engaging in the type of face to face contact that completely transforms not only their perceptions of each other, but also their perceptions of the world. Virtual encounters inside and through screen based technologies permit exchanges of a similar sort, but these are qualitatively different from what is happening in Zucotti Park or Vancouver or Toronto.

The need to explore embodied relationships suggests that the increasingly complex mix of the virtual and the real will be measured against our experiences of each other in the real world and not vice versa.

The protestors in New York and elsewhere are using what to them is a novel approach to the discussions that they are having with each other. In a version of broken telephone, they are communicating their ideas to each other through individual repetition. People are transmitting the core ideas behind the protests using an oral tradition of storytelling. This is being done to strengthen their resolve and to personalize the relationships that they have with each other, but also to transform each conversation into a memorable one. In a period of history when conversations are fleeting and efforts to hold onto our memories are dictated by reminders, phones and computers, orality is both central and ephemeral to these protests. 

So it is ironic that in the Facebook age when short form communications dominate, that the protestors have turned to oral traditions that are thousands of years old, a mixture of the Greek polis and the Roman square.

Virtual communications have always seemed an efficient way of promoting interactions across numerous boundaries and this has challenged conventional forms of communications. The irony is that the virtual cannot exist without the real. The mistake we have been making has been to celebrate the virtual as an end in itself. For example, we talk about video games without talking enough about video gamers. We discuss Facebook through the interface and restrictions it provides and not about the potential shifts in human relations generated by  virtual interactions.

And, this mistake will not be very easy to overturn. Virtual spaces are just too attractive and the ease of use, the genuine feel and form of interactions, the potential to be a broadcaster with an audience, however small is a very powerful attraction. 

Part Two can be found here.