Virtual and Physical

I wrote,

The difference between the physical and the virtual is illusory - it is a distinction that has been marketed hard by companies that want to keep sellig you paper. But the virtual is the physical - the people online are real, the computers are real, the impact of your words is real, and it all happens in the physical world to people with physical bodies

to which Dave Snowden replied,

Now there is a very basic (and so basic its surprising) error here. Yes the participants in a virtual community are real (well I suspect one exception). However the environment and the nature of their interactions is radically different from a physical environment. All sensory stimulation is more limited in nature, but as a counter it is also possible to have anonymity, and asynchronous interaction in the virtual. I could go on but there are multiple differences some good some bad. The basic point is that they are different and its perverse to argue otherwise.

and I commented as follows:

You may well make the case that the two realms are different (if not contrary, which is what you would need to make the case for 'balancing'), but you haven't done so in this post.

You argue...

1. "All sensory stimulation is more limited in nature....", presumably in the online, but this isn't true. We pay partial attention to people and events in the physical as well, and our perception of (say) an instructor in a 300 person classroom is arguably no more detailed than one opnline.

2. "...but as a counter it is also possible to have anonymity..." Interestingly, anonymity is the hallmark of the physical, not the virtual, which is why you can purchase a newspaper at a 7-Eleven without registering.

3. "...and asynchronous interaction in the virtual." This is also a hallmark of the physical, being characterized by books and magazines, letters, bulletin boards, telephone answering machines, and more.

I don't aim the 'punditry' remark at anyone in particular, but rather, as a catch-all to cover what has amounted to a somewhat less than thorough style of analysis. It's pretty easy to fall into lazy coverage - I do it myself - and it is this that I target.

The 'balancing the virtual and the physical' (at least you don't say 'real') metaphor is a cliche, one that is not rooted in a thoughtful analysis of the phenomenon, and it does play into the hands of those who wish to protect and preserve traditional content publishers.

I think we can make the case that the use of digital media engenders greater capacity, and hence empowerment, on those who use it, but from this it does not follow that any sort of 'balancing' with media that disempower us is required.


  1. Did Paul's letters to the Ephesians have a real or a virtual impact on the world? Were Einstein's letters to Roosevelt less real because they did not communicate in physical space? According to Christians, "in the beginning was the word".

    Words are virtual representations of our thoughts, limited as they may be. Without language, would the physical world be more or less "real" than the virtual world?

    You're right, there is no balance required. Whether I write a letter, talk to someone on the phone, meet in public, blog or collaborate on a wiki, it's still me, with my limited communication abilities helped by a few technological extensions.

  2. Harold - if you really think you have the same experience talking with someone in person and talking with them on the phone then I feel sorry for you. The question is not if you are the same person, but the nature of the environment.

    Stephen - I think there may be some confusion here (you seem to be thinking about publications, my original comments were on collaboration and education. However in all three of those areas I think your statements are wrong.

  3. Dave, please don't feel sorry for me.

    The phone and in person are but two ways of communicating and luckily we many more ways to communicate, with VoIP, video, etc. For instance, one of my business partners is Jay Cross, but he lives 4,000 miles away from me. We have known each other for eight years and have only met in person 3 times. Without the virtual connections, we wouldn't know each other at all.

  4. Of course harold - and I know Jay myself and use multiple ways to communicate with colleagues and friends.

    My point is a simple one - you are missing the point of the original post. The virtual and the physical environments are different. Both a crtical, both offer possibilities but the environments are not the same and operate in different ways.

  5. Say... faces from old times. Here are two oldies from times past, if you are into reading...

    Philip Duchastel,
    Now happily retired.


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