The word “virtual” is meaningless

When I was at Foo Camp last summer, I heard Philip Rosedale, the founder of the 3-D virtual world Second Life, describe how this community has not only virtual newspapers to serve its citizens, but paper versions too. They were handing out free copies copies. I picked up a tabloid that advertised stores and tourist traps that existed only in the electronic ether.

Moving in the other direction, which is to say a real reporter in a virtual world, Reuters recently announced that it will be assigning a regular correspondent to a Second Life beat.

“As strange as it might seem, it’s not that different from being a reporter in the real world,” Adam Pasick, the Reuters correspondent who will serve as the virtual bureau’s first chief, said in a Reuters report. “Once you get used to it, it becomes very much like the job I have been doing for years.”

So my question is: is it silly to put real person on a virtual newsbeat?

This leads to the question: what does the word virtual mean, anyway? And the answer is: nothing. Wherever you see the word “virtual,” strike it out and you’ll have a more compact phrase that means the same thing. Virtual newspapers are newspapers. Virtual neighborhoods are neighborhoods. Virtual economies are economies. A lot of money changes hands in Second Life, and the taxing authorities are starting to notice.

It’s always been troublesome to define a word like “virtual” because it describes something that both is and isn’t real. But increasingly it simply means “what you said, only on a computer.” I was curious to see what dictionaries are saying about the word these days. Sure enough, the dictionary entry has a long digression on this very topic.

Here’s my interpretation of the word virtual. It means “I’ve just removed from X something formerly considered an irreducible quality of X, and yet its X-ness is intact.” It is a linguistic onion peeler. You thought it was necessary to print a newspaper on paper, so you called my paperless newspaper “virtual”. But somehow its paperness remains intact. That which remains is nessful. That which was virtualized away is nessless.

5 thoughts on “The word “virtual” is meaningless”

  1. I heard an interview on NPR a while back, and the Uber Geek who was being interviewed about advances in Virtual Reality, kept referring to the real world as “real reality’….as opposed to “virtual reality”.
    Hey Pal, it’s called REALITY.Sheesh!

  2. I’ve heard the term retronym used for neologisms that are coined to refit old words that have since become ambiguous. In the aerospace business, the word “aircraft” used to refer uniquely to planes you see at the airport. But they had to start calling them “fixed-wing aircraft” when helicopters (“rotorcraft”) came along. Sounds stupid though. “Does your aircraft have fixed wings?” I sure hope so.

  3. On a semi-related side note, I recently found out that the “real” world is now being referred to as “meatspace”, which I find quite endearing in a Neuromancer sort of way.

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