Virtual Reality and the Understanding of Being

M Johannessen, 27 Oct 2005

Information technology, globalisation and virtual reality have altered aspects of human existence as well as the concept of being.
The Information age is dominated by new communication technologies, including the Internet. These new technologies have profoundly influenced people in Western societies today. They offer new experiences and ways of being.
The term ‘virtual reality’ raises some problems of perception theory dealing with reality and illusion. (Evans, 2001) These are important concepts to look at in relation to the influence of virtuality on our understanding of being.
Virtual reality can alter the understanding of identity because the audience might “take on new and multiple identities and personalities”. (Ross and Nightingale, 2003, p. 148) The anonymity of the Internet can have a positive effect on people by giving them the chance to engage in new relationships and reveal aspects of themselves that they normally would hide. (Ross and Nightingale, 2003, Markheim, 2003) It can also have the negative effect of creating deceptive identities that aims to exploit the naivety of others (such as children). At the same time as the Internet can create a feeling of personal control when interacting, it can also lead to a decrease in control.

Internet is regarded as a cost- efficient way of operating within the business world as well as the private sphere. (Heim, 2005)
Information technology is constructing the increasingly complexity of contemporary society. (Heim, 2005) Information technology, like the Internet, is changing the social and personal domain. (Heim, 2005)
It has been argued that virtuality extends social life by creating new possibilities for human interaction, such as cyber communities, virtual friendships, education and organisations. (Heim, 2005, Fernback 1997) It offers a new way of relating to others and express oneself.
Turcle (1996) claims that cyberspace can create new identities, because people can decide how to present themselves. In virtual reality they have the possibility to create a new identity for themselves. (Turcle, 1996) He claims that in virtual reality people can explore “aspects of the self”. (p.158) This is one way that virtuality changes the understanding of being.

Ross and Nightingale (2003) talks about the phenomenon called ‘mediascape’ referring to the flow of media in contemporary society.
Interactivity through the Internet and the engagement in the mediascape allows audiences to contribute and participate instead of being left out. (Ross and Nightingale, 2003)
The mediascape allows for activist engagement, giving people the opportunity to express opinions about important causes or social issues. (Ross and Nightingale, 2003) This allows media consumers to have a more active attitude to society through online communities and the virtual reality.
Thus, virtual reality can extend peoples social lives, as well as being an important tool to form relations with people who have similar goals and passions. (Ross and Nightingale, 2003)
A more interactive audience is emerging. (Ross and Nightingale, 2003) The Internet opens for online communities where people can exchange ideas and be activated.

Virtual reality allows people to express themselves openly and contribute in power battles, such as cultural battles. (Castells, 1998, in Ross and Nightingale, 2003) Castells (1998, in Ross and Nightingale, 2003) claims that the power to influence behavior is a characteristic of the networks of information exchange. Actors in online communities can influence each other, and thus experience that their actions in virtual communities give them a voice that they would otherwise not have had. This way, virtuality can alter peoples understanding of being by adding a new level to it.

Cyberspace can bring people together in new, exiting and unprecedented ways. (Evans, 2001, Ross and Nightingale, 2003) Tofts (2004) describes cyberspace as a “world- within- the- world” (p. 149). He discusses how Internet can be used for artists who want to express themselves and for Aborginals in Australia who can express their culture through the Internet.

Markham (2003) distinguishes between online and offline life by claiming that online life is based in text and offline life is based in the body. An important question is whether online life which is based in text leads to an alienation of the body. It can be argued that in online life, the body is non- existing, non- important. In Markhams interview with Terri (2003), Terri reveals that being online “marks an impossible attempt to escape the body”. (p.259) Escapism is a phenomenon which has been linked to virtual reality. (Evans, 2001) When being online it is likely that one’s identity changes due to the absence of the body. Because people’s experiences and emotions are so much linked to the body (Merleau- Ponty), the perception of the self alters in virtual reality. (Evans, 2001) The way that the actor experiences his identity changes. (Markham) This experience varies from person to person. In the case of Terri (Markham, 2003), it becomes evident that escaping the vulnerability of the body is a feeling of freedom and empowerment. In virtual reality, Terri can construct new identities and chose her level of immediacy. (Markham, 2003) For her, it is a way of being in control of her life, which is not possible for her in the physical, offline life.
For a lot of people, living in the online life of the Internet can generate a positive experience of the self. It can lead to a feeling of freedom, independence, braveness, power and control which is closely linked to the act of escaping the body. (Markham, 2003, Fernback, 1997) Markheim (2003) considers “cyberspace as essentially disembodiment”. (p, 160) She claims that the “self is constructed through dialogue and thus is embodied more by the text than by the body”. (p. 261) Constructing our selves through online performances can be a positive and invigorating experience which feels real. However, engaging extensively in virtual reality is a form of escapism which might be unhealthy. As Terri notes, (Markham, 2003), sitting in front of the computer too much is not healthy for the body which needs to move. Too much time spent in virtual reality can lead to “social alienation and health problems like backache and obesity”. (Evans, 2001, p. 61) Because the construction of the self in online life is linked to the text and not the body, (Markham, 2003) the experience of being is changed.

When engaging in online conversations one can control the conversation to a larger degree than in offline life, by being able to edit the words that are communicated. (Markheim, 2003) The separation from the physical body in online life can thus be experienced as a great freedom. Some women might for example feel this freedom because they are not judged by their physical appearance. (Markham, 2003) This might give them a chance to interact more openly and freely. This way, virtual reality can be experienced positively in a world where people too easily judge each other by their appearance. In online life people can enjoy the absence of prejudices concerning race, gender, age and beauty.

Markheim (2003) claims that “online technologies extend our physical capacities in many ways and offer the potential for greater control over the flow of information and the presentation of self”. (p. 264) A lot of people use the Internet as primarily a tool to access information. But for other people, the Internet is a ‘place to be’, where you can participate and communicate with other people. (Markheim, 2003) Participants of the virtual reality claim that their experiences there are ‘real’. (Markhaim, 2003) If ‘real’ is defined as “that which is experienced or that which is known” (Markham, 2003, p. 261) then what goes on in virtual reality is certainly real.
However, virtual reality needs to be distinguished from the physical reality. Virtual reality is a place which is based on illusions, that is; illusions of identities, including age, gender, looks and personal characteristics. In virtual reality people can pretend to be someone else, they can construct their identities (Markham, 2003) and interact with other people whom they often don’t really know anything about. No one is able to judge the truth or authencity in the online performances. This can be experienced as a seductive and liberating way of acting; there are fewer restrictions on what you might allow yourself to say and how you might represent yourself. Due to characteristics of illusion, virtuality reality can be compared to the theatre, where the actors pretend or give the illusion of being someone else. This ‘someone else’ is a construction which is different from the actor’s ‘real’ identity.
It seams important not to confuse the concept of ‘real’ with a place where a lot of the interaction is based on illusion and the construction of new identities. Virtual reality is a great place for fantasy and for the transformation of the self. It can be a good experience to escape to virtual reality sometimes as long as the actor is aware of the escapist element.
Evans (2001) talks about escapism as a ‘mantra of Western society’. It is a phenomenon which is closely linked to the media world, including the Internet and virtual reality. (Evans, 2001) Extensively interaction in the virtual community can lead to an increase in problems of maintaining relationships in the physical world. (Evans, 2001, Shaw, 2001)

Evans (2001) says that “virtual reality is, along with artificial intelligence, the most exiting element in a potential Brave New World”. (p. 193) The Webster dictionary defines ‘virtual’ as “being in essence or effect, but not in fact”. (Evans, 2001, p. 193) Thus, virtual reality is characterised by the illusion of participation. (Evans, 2001) The artificial environment called cyberspace, can simulate the real world or create 3D fantasy worlds. (Evans, 2001) In this world people can represent themselves as avatars in a virtual world, deciding what kind of character they want to be. (Evans, 2001)

Identity is traditionally understood as “aligned with notions of presence, of embodiment and location”. (Tofts, 2004, p. 152) Tofts claims that “the duality of actual self and digital representation, or avatar (be it text, graphic or image) is the anchor that smoothes out and reconciles the ambiguous split that seems to occur between the worlds of the body and virtuality, when we communicate across a network”. (p 152) This ambiguity or duality of the self is an interesting issue in the Information age. Evans (2001) discusses this duality in relation to virtual reality. In Sum Res Cogitans, Descartes claims that “I am a being whose whole essence or nature is to think, and whose whole being requires no place and depends on no material living”. (Evans, 2001, p. 199) This reflects the duality of mind and body which is interesting to consider in relation to virtual reality which is a place for the disembodied mind. (Evans, 2001)
The human body is an important part of our understanding of our identity and of the world. Bodily awareness is closely linked to human knowledge. (Evans, 2001, Merleau- Ponty, 1962) Therefore, the disembodiment in virtual reality will necessarily have an effect on our understanding of being.

Tofts (2004) talks about the Internet as decentered and fragmented. This fragmentation might have an effect upon our understanding of being. (Tofts, 2004)
An interesting question in relation to this is whether “identity is constructed entirely by context and interaction” (Tofts, 2004, p. 154) like the poststructuralists claim, or whether the identity is strongly related to a nation and culture and that there is a subjective self; a deep core personality in every human being. (Mehren, 1987)

When interacting online it seams that identities can be constructed according to context and interaction. It demonstrates the self as changeable and fluid.
But the self which is formed from cultural and personal experiences and which is linked to place, time and memory is less changeable.
To escape this personality which is profoundly related to the body, with its vulnerabilities and imperfection, can be a relief for a while, but will eventually lead to dissatisfaction. The richness of emotional experiences and sensations based in the human body can not be compensated in virtual reality.


Evans, Andrew, 2001, This Virtual Life, Escapism and Simulation in Our Media World, Fusion press, UK

Fernback, Jan, 1997, The Individual within the Collective: Virtual Ideology and the Realization of Collective Principles, In Steven G. Jones, Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety, London

Heim, M, 2005 Phenomenological Approaches the Information Technology and Ethics, Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Markham, Annette N., 2003, Critical readings: Media and Audiences, edited by Nightingale, Virginia and Ross, Karen, Open University Press, England

Mehren, Stein, 1987, Vaar tids bilde som entropi og vision (In English: Images of our time as entropy and vision), Aschehoug, Oslo

Merleau- Ponty, Maurice, 1962, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge Classics, New York

Ross, Karen and Nightingale, Virginia, 2003, Media and Audiences, New Perspectives, Open University Press, England
Shaw, Jeffrey, 2001, Multimedia from Wagner to Virtual Reality, edited by Packer, Randall and Jordan, Ken, WW Norton and Company Ltd, London

Tofts, Darren, 2004, Virtual Nation, The Internet in Australia, edited by Goggin, Gerard, UNSW Press book

Turcle, S., 1996, Parallel lives: Working on identity in virtual space, in Grodin D. and Lindlof, T.R. Constructing the self in a mediated world, London

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