For most people, the word virtual has come to mean 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, if something is virtual it has aspects of the real thing but is not the real thing. In the sentence “The man is a virtual goldmine of knowledge on the subject,” one would be silly to look for a physical gold mine or to think that he is either gold or a mine or both. There is no actual, no physical goldmine. Rather, the man’s 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 “The man 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). But he is not dead.
So virtual means “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. Many 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 have their heads down looking at their phones only vaguely present in the real meeting (see photo above right).
I have noticed some tourists here in D.C. so buried in their phones (perhaps looking up information about a particular monument) that they spend little time looking at the monument itself. Some fiddle so much to get the picture just right that they miss experiencing 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 and often neglect the real world around us.
Yes many today interact more “virtually” than really. As a result, old fashioned things like meeting new people, dating, marriage, 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 containing only the things we want to see. Meanwhile the real world with all its diversity, its mixture of more and less desirable things, is increasingly neglected. Our world becomes smaller and our personal formation more stilted.
Even more so, our patience at listening and being a “captive audience” has declined. We increasingly demand that everything should appeal to us quickly. And if it doesn’t 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 and more onerous as we start to prefer the virtual to the real.
Allow the following video to make the point. Enjoy a humorous look at our obsession with the virtual while the real passes us by.