Hygienic reality

Many people take it for granted that we occupy two worlds: the physical and the virtual. In 1997 MIT digital researchers Ishii and Ullmer  stated that people potentially “live between two realms: our physical environment and cyberspace” (Ishii and Ullmer, 1997). They took on the challenge of  developing digital devices that connect the two spaces together.

Just the porthole of a washing machineAdvocates of virtuality and cyberspace are generally referring to the storage, presentation and experience of data in some form, understood through the metaphor of spatial geometry.

The concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality are bolstered by the power of dynamic 3d imagery, the automation of rapid perspective rendering, and their combination with networked communications. The ethereal otherness of supposedly virtual spatial experience occasionally dominates people’s reflections on digital media, accented by immersive games, multi-user 3d environments such as Second Life, and other MMORPGs (Oliver, 2002).

The discourse of cyberspace is potent and alluring. But there is growing resistance to the concepts of virtuality and cyberspace. Many critics think the theme of virtual reality distracts from engagement in everyday experience (Kline, et al., 2003). Many of those who now study digital media from a social perspective oppose the imaginative but non-verifiable assertions of the enthusiasts of cyberspace, a protest that is gaining ground amongst researchers into pervasive computing (Weiser, 1991). Concepts of space are after all subservient to concepts of society; space as place is socially as well as materially constructed (Lefebvre, 1991), not the product of three-dimensional geometrical presentations to the eye.

From a pragmatic point of view we could ask: what value does the idea of virtuality add to discussions about computing and digital media? At best we are dealing with a metaphor — the metaphor of spatial geometry. In Technoromanticism I argued that digital narratives that take as their starting point the idea of an invisible other realm, a digital communicative substrate to the material world, find resonance due to our familiarity with Platonic Idealism, though in highly technologized form.

Some architects like the idea of another spatial substrate to the material. Virtual reality brings digital studies into the architect’s domain of space and environment, as “virtual architecture.” Cyberspace clearly inspires fans of fantasy and science fiction.

A simple test of the utility of the cyberspace metaphor is to apply this descriptive technique to other technologies. When I call someone up on the telephone am I immediately transported into “phonespace”? When I watch television am I in “mediaspace”? Operating the washing machine do I merge into “cleanspace” or “hygienic reality”? If the narrative strategy seems to work everywhere then perhaps it works nowhere, or perhaps we are now in the realms of “absurdspace,” or as André Breton called it, “surreality.”


  • Hiroshi Ishii and Brygg Ullmer, “Tangible bits: towards seamless interfaces between people, bits and atoms,” Proc. CHI 97, 22-27 March, Atlanta, Georgia (1997).
  • Julian Holland Oliver, “The similar eye: proxy life and public space in the MMORPG,” in Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, , ed F. Mäyrä (Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2002)
  • Michael Rymaszewski, et al., Second Life: The Official Guide (Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2007).
  • Stephen Kline, et al., Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture and Marketing (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).
  • Mark Weiser, “The computer for the 21st century,” Scientific American 265, no. 3 (1991); Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, “The coming age of calm technology,” Xerox Parc Report http://www.cs.ucsb.edu/~ebelding/courses/284/w04/papers/calm.pdf, (1996).
  • Richard Coyne, Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).
  • Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991).
  • Breton, A., Manifestoes of surrealism, Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1969.


  1. Olga Paraskevopoulou says:

    “Trust in your cloud, watch out for the ground”
    (ad @ Schiphol airport)

    I am conducting research on mobile communication and mobile application design and development. This post brought to my mind Mc Cullough’s (2005) book “Digital Ground” and Shields (2003) “The Virtual” and therefore i would like to leave a short comment concerning some of the ideas that are found in those books and to express some of the inquiries that my research is currently focusing on.

    -Is it essential to distinguish virtuality from virtual reality when reflecting on how digital networks affect our spatial awareness? Should nowadays, the term virtuality relate more to concepts of augmented reality and situated interaction? Would that distinction emphasize, on the one hand, the fact that the virtual is by no means the opposite of real and, on the other hand, that shared representations of actions are not oriented spatially just with the eyes, but also with the body?

    -Moving from network-centered computing and universal connectivity to based on where we are connectivity and to expectations that are shaped by embodiment: has the focus been shifted from the concept of VR and the metaphors of spatial geometry to contextual computing that begins from physical geometry? Is that a swift driven merely by technological advents or by human needs and agency?

    1. rcoyne99 says:

      Thanks for your comments Olga. I tend to agree that there’s a move to embodiment and augmentation as key terms in thinking about these media, though there are others who like to think in terms of virtual architecture, ie spaces existing inside a computer somewhere that we can inhabit, somehow. James’ comment below is telling. As for your last question … I would have to say that human agency is paramount. In any case we agents collectively invent and support the technologies around us. That’s not to say we have a pre-existing need for these things. Is “need” the most useful way of thinking about technology? Is necessity the mother of invention or its offspring.

  2. James Stewart says:

    Hi Richard.
    Gibson, who coin the termed cyberspace, considered it a pure buzzword, but when questioned used to answer – Cyberspace is where the banks keep your money. Like money it is an inherently social, indeed performative, concept, the physical embodiment of it is always temporary and fleeting – it never rests long in one place, and can disappear.
    In this way it could argued to be like culture. Money and culture, and cyberspace all have direct impacts on our lives, but are infuriatingly difficult to pin down on an analytic level.

    Virtual and virtual reality – linking ideas of physical space to this disembodied idea probably ends up causing more problems than it solves.

  3. rcoyne99 says:

    James, I agree. Recently I heard that Gibson said the current generation of teenage readers would not think Neuromancer very real as a story as there are no mobile phones … or is that apocryphal.

  4. Siying Liang says:

    Technology development has really changed our world these years, and it also makes the distinction between reality and virtual reality more ambiguous. “OTAKUs” maybe are the people merged into virtual world most. They seldom leave home, and can’t live without computer and internet. Their social life is based on the virtual world too, they making friends in a net game, build their reputation by hunting a giant dragon in MMORPGs. Even they live in the same house as others they feel that their life in the virtual world is more realistic. Maybe “second life” is their real life.

    A question raised here, if the virtual world is different from the physical world, and we enjoyed those cyber space and science fiction, but why we want to make the virtual world more realistic? Are we trying to combine these two realms together? Like we study digital media and using blender to model something, we still have to base on the real world object, like we can change the shape of our model whatever we want, but if it’s too abstract it may not make any sense and looks awful. So is that means these two realms should related to each other in some aspects and different in romantic imaginations?

    That’s an interesting way to think about when we operating the washing machine that we may merge into “hygienic reality”. When we make a phone call, our voice is been transported out of our body to another space, in the mean time, our voice also exist around us, like somebody walked by can hear what we are talking about. So is that means our voice on the phone is virtual reality and the voice around us is virtuality?

  5. Yi Yang DDM says:

    EA Games Company has issued a set of life simulation PC games called “The Sims”. The series has sold more than 100 million global units, making it the best-selling video game in the history of the game. This game is designed base on realistic scenarios and interprets people’s life in the virtual world. In the game, you can do whatever you want in real life, and you also can do something in your mind or you create by your own imagination. Such a game to some extent compensate for the spiritual shortcomings of real life. In other words, virtual reality can satisfy our spiritual world. Through my study, I learn that virtual reality has been widely used in many fields such as distance learning, virtual shopping, electric power system, flying simulation, digital earth and so on. Virtual reality is widely adopted by healthcare which encompasses surgery simulation, phobia treatment, robotic surgery and skills training. The advantages it brings are that it provides a safe environment for healthcare professionals to learn new skills and it will not cause any danger to the patients. Virtual reality is mainly used in education for teaching and learning situations. Students can interact with each other as well as with the objects in that environment in order to discover more about them. It also presents complex data in an accessible way to students so that they can understand easily. Virtual reality games is another area adopted virtual reality. It becomes very popular with many teenagers who are interested in the graphics, animations. Most of these games are available for Xbox, PS3 as well as the Mac and PC. No matter what console you use there is a VR game for that and it is really cool when you play it.

    As a DDM student, I think we can use artistic form to present virtual reality. We may combine our design thinking with advanced science and technology processing method, and then we create a more immersive environment and make our dream in the reality world come true. In the virtual world, we can imagine to simulate a lot of scenes we have never seen in the real world. On the other hand, of course, the technical characteristics of virtual reality itself have also brought the defects which we cannot ignore. If you immerse in the virtual 3D world for a long time, it may harm the human body such as dizziness and other symptoms.

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