“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
By Msgr. Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington
The word virtual has become, for most people, a euphemism for the Internet, or the computer world; as in “occurring or existing primarily online.” But the word virtual has an original meaning that is actually quite descriptive of a modern problem.
Prior to its application to the computer world, the word virtual meant: being something in effect, though not actually or expressly being such. In other words, it has aspects of the real thing, but is not the real thing. So, in the sentence. He is a virtual goldmine of knowledge on the subject one would be silly to look for physical gold mine or to think that he is either gold or a mine, or both. There is no actual, no physical, goldmine. Rather his knowledge has aspects of a gold mine (value, worth, depth) but he is not an actual goldmine.
The adverb, “virtually” means, for the most part, almost. In other words, it is close to the thing, but is not the thing or quality described. So in the sentence He was so exhausted, he was virtually dead; he is not, of course, actually dead but, rather shares in some of the qualities of the dead (unmoving, unconscious, lying down, etc). But he is not dead.
So virtual may mean “almost, like, or similar,” but NOT “is.” The virtual is not the full reality. It is lacking in existence and other important qualities of the actual reality.
And this is very important truth to recall in today’s “virtual” world of the Internet. Many people are substituting too much of the virtual for the actual. Many people spend more time interacting with Facebook friends than physically interacting with actual family members and friends. Many people digest large quantities of virtual Internet life, and only small amounts of real life. In an actual meeting with real people present, many will be seen to have their heads in their phone and be only vaguely present to the real meeting (see photo above right).
I have noticed some tourists here in DC so buried in their phones (perhaps studying about a particular monument), that they spend less time looking at the actual monument. Some fiddle so much to get the picture that they really miss the actual moment. A picture is not real (it is virtual, it shares aspects of the real thing but us not that thing). We spend a LOT of time with our eyes focused on a virtual world, and often neglect the real world among us.
A strange migration has happened for many today wherein we interact more “virtually” than reality. As a result, old fashioned things like dating, marriage, meeting new people and just getting together with friends has declined.
Another problem with the virtual world is that it is, most often, self-defined. We select our favorite sites and bookmark them. We set Facebook filters, RSS feeds, twitter feeds, iPod playlists, and the like. In effect we create our own little virtual world. Meanwhile the real world with all its diversity and less desirable things is increasingly neglected and our world becomes smaller and our personal formation more stilted.
Even more so, our patience at listening and being a “captive audience” has declined and we are increasingly demanding that everything should appeal to us quickly. Otherwise I should be able to click on a new bookmark, change the channel, of skip to the next song in the shuffle. But the real world is not quite so accommodating. Patiently listening and working with what “is” seems more odious as we start to prefer the virtual to the real.
Well, let the following video make the point. Enjoy a humorous look at our obsession with the virtual while the real passes by.
Archdiocese of Washington website, July 20, 2012