The distinction virtual is directly related to the shift from physical to mental and this is one clear way to describe being virtual.
Being physical is not simply about physical labour versus a labour of thinking, it is also quite literally a shift from products that have physical qualities that can be touched, poked, prodded or held in the hands; to products that are impossible to grasp in this way.
A further way this shift is manifested is in our relationship to location and therefore distance. The distinction location specifically relates to physical location dependence. A good example is the traditional factory workers who needed to be in the same location as the production machinery to be able to perform their role. When you shift from the physical to the mental, you also cut the ties that bind you to that location.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan became famous for his aphorism The Medium is the Message and his work is being revisited with the arrival of the Internet. I believe McLuhans work was often attacked because his critics did not understand his fundamental premise. They tended to attack his content rather than his core ideas. Ironically, in my view, this merely strengthened his key distinction which can be summarized in this quote:
"The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance."
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, Page 18.
Simply put, McLuhan suggests that the primary effect of technology is to alter our perception and this occurs in the two primary domains of life: time and space.
The Motor Car
If we were to pick one product that epitomized the Industrial Age, it would be the motor car. It has all the primary qualities of being:
- Physical it can be touched, prodded and poked
- Mechanical full of moving parts
- Work and Power related the pumping of the pistons in the motor directly move the car either forward or backwards
- Standardized each car is mass produced
- Location based - the purpose of a car is to make it easier for you to shift your location
There is also little question about the physical impact of motor cars simply look out your window next time you fly over any city if you need a reminder.
At a perceptual level, cars have clearly altered our perception of space and distance (and the time it takes to travel). To test this for yourself, consider how far you travel in a typical day. Id suggest a typical commuter travels between 5-10 kilometres (3-6 miles). Compare this to the distance you would comfortably travel if you had to walk or ride a horse to your workplace.
If I was to pick one product that epitomizes the Information Age, I would suggest it will become the internet. It has all the primary qualities of being: ( for more, see: The Seven Design Principles of Every New Product)
- Information based
- Location independent
At a perceptual level, the Internet is clearly in the process of demolishing many of our existing preconceptions about time and space. To test this out for yourself, visit a chat room and have a real time conversation with someone on the other side of the planet that you dont even know!
Personalized Virtual Travel
Television has a lot to answer for. Someone once described it as an armchair to the world where you can simply sit back and watch the world go by. The live television coverage of the Gulf War by CNN celebrates the power of the television medium to have you travel around the world without leaving home.
On the Internet front, this trend is continuing with an added twist your virtual travels can be personalized.
There are two obvious paths to consider here. The first is the virtual reality example of having the equivalent of a movie screened before our eyes such that we think and feel that we are walking down the Champs Elysee when we are merely pacing about our bedroom. This view has been paraded before us in various sci-fi movies, usually with goggles, sinister overtones and an action-packed climax.
As a more mundane adventure, personalized virtual travel may include having Christmas dinner with your extended family every year or every day if youre really keen.
Christmas is a celebration for a lot of families. For our family, it is the one time each year when we all get together in the same place for a meal. The downside is that this takes so much planning and effort co-ordinating the meetings of both family and in-laws on the one day. One solution includes visiting one family for lunch and driving some time to be with the other family for dinner. It is worth doing one day a year and I certainly wouldnt want to do it too often.
Now, consider that the word phoney was first coined to refer to conversations on the telephone! People had been so accustomed to talking face to face, that they considered any conversation whereby you couldnt see the other persons face to be a phoney conversation. The dictionary definition of phoney means false, not true, to be a fraud. How times have changed with regard to the value of telephone conversations.
Back to Christmas dinner
How about putting your computer on the dinner table, hooking up your video camera and having a video conferencing dinner streamed via your website with your family every night? Youd be able to see and hear your family and have real-time interactions. It puts a whole new spin on TV dinners! It wont be the same as having them seated there and neither is a phone call as good as having the person seated in front of you.
Business Virtual Travel
In the business world, video conferencing is establishing itself as a major saving for companies. It not only saves the cost of travel, it saves the wear and tear on the executives who can remain at the local office (or even stay home) to attend their meetings.
At a more subtle level, virtual travel happens everyday for the thousands of people who telecommute to work. Telecommuting is virtuality at work. The major push toward home-based business is another level of this pattern.
I know several people who already design websites for clients they have never met face-to-face. In this case, email, fax and phone are the conduits for communication.
The need or expectation to meet people face-to-face is changing and this will change further with virtual travel.
In this example we have considered the link between being virtual in cutting the ties of location through a personalized and interactive application of the internet, to create Virtual Travel.
Being virtual is an interesting distinction. It often appears undistinguished and unacknowledged because we fail to connect a new technology that has a direct relationship to other more familiar things.
In this example, we are suggesting virtual travel in the guise of personalized webcasts or videoconferences will have a direct impact on the volume of direct travel via cars, planes, etc.
This strange inter-relationship suggests that any city planner looking to alleviate traffic snarls may be better off encouraging video-conferencing and telecommuting than to build new roads.