For most people, the word “virtual” has become a synonym 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, something virtual 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 a physical goldmine or to think that he is either gold, or a mine, or both. There is no actual, no physical goldmine. His knowledge has aspects of a goldmine (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 some of the qualities of the dead (unmoving, unconscious, lying down, etc.).
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 a 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. They spend more time interacting with Facebook friends than physically interacting with actual friends and family members. 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 have their heads in their phones and are only vaguely present in the real meeting (see photo above right).
I have noticed some tourists here in DC so buried in their phones (perhaps reading about a particular monument), that they spend little time looking at the monument itself. Some fiddle so much to get the perfect picture that they miss the actual moment. A picture is not real, it is virtual. It shares aspects of the real thing but is not that thing. We spend a LOT of time with our eyes focused on a virtual world while often neglecting the real world among us.
A strange migration has happened for many today wherein we interact more “virtually” than really. As a result, old-fashioned things like dating, marriage, meeting new people, and just getting together with friends have 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 up 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. Our world becomes smaller and our personal formation more stilted.
Even more so, our ability to listen and be a “captive audience” has declined. We increasingly demand that everything should appeal to us quickly. Otherwise we should be able to click on a new bookmark, change the channel, or 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 how virtual notions do not work in the real world.