How do we know what is real? Are we all experiencing the same reality now? Are we necessarily experiencing different realities? The obvious answer might, of course, be the correct one. In general, it would seem that humans (even children) are particularly good at determining what is ‘real’ from what is imagined and what is merely an augmentation of the real, hyperreal or virtual. But with the advent of new technologies and the expansion of virtual worlds, have you ever wondered if the line is beginning to blur?


Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. – Friedrich Nietzsche.

Do we know what is real? Are we all experiencing the same reality now? Are we necessarily experiencing different realities? You might not be sure after this week’s lecture(!)

The obvious answer might, of course, be the correct one. In general, it would seem that humans are particularly good at determining what is ‘real’ and what is not. Research has demonstrated that, contrary to what Freud thought, children learn (or instinctively know) the difference between the real and the imaginary early on, even those who lead rich imaginative lives (Harris et al., 1991; Wellman & Estes, 1986).

However, once we start to consider the phenomena of our experience things can become unstuck. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy which actually denies the ‘idealistic splitting of reality into subjective and objective, apparent and actual’ (Bowman, 1998, p. 255), and restores the ‘experiencing person’ to centre stage. Take for example the experience of listening to music. Clifton declares that ‘music is what I am when I experience it’ (p. 256) rather than music being something that is ‘out there’. This style of reflection privileges our individual subjective experiences which would imply that reality is always a subjective experience. So how do we reconcile this with our experience of time, which seems to slow down and speed up depending on what we are doing? “Lived time bears little resemblance to the conceptual time mediated by such things as clocks and historical narratives. Lived time consists in an infinite succession of present moments, of ‘nows’, rather than in a past, present, and future” (Bowman, 1998, p. 258). In fact, we rely almost exclusively on media to construct an idea of the past that is beyond our own first-hand experience of previous ‘nows’.

And our consumption of media becomes a part of our perception of the real. Of course, we can tell the difference between a dramatised performance and ‘real life’, but that doesn’t stop us from becoming emotionally involved in things that we perceive as unreal (Harris, 2000), nor from allowing mediatised images to construct what we consider to be an acceptable reality.

This is, of course, a retelling of concepts we have already encountered in Media Studies: media both reflects and constructs our reality. Media predicts the future, but it also retells and makes sense of the past. It seems obvious that Creative Media is a subjective retelling, but post-structuralism also tells us that historical narrative is equally interpretive. Or, as Goodall says, ‘Facts are Opinions’ (H. L. Goodall, Writing the new ethnography, 2000).


Reality is the conjectured state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. In a wider definition, reality includes everything that is and has been, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible. A still broader definition includes everything that has existed, exists, or will exist. Of course, we rely on others to tell us everything that has existed, and this knowledge is created and mediated. History is written by the victors, the adage goes, so how can we be sure that what we take to be true, to be real, is not simply a construction of something that we believe to be real?

Hyperreality is an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies. See Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality for an entertaining journey through the hyperreal landscape of the United States.

Augmented reality is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

Virtual Reality which can be referred to as immersive multimedia or computer-simulated life replicates an environment that simulates physical presence in places in the real world or imagined worlds. Virtual reality can recreate sensory experiences, which include virtual taste, sight, smell, sound, and touch.

Maybe there are parallel universes with alternate realities based on decisions we did or didn’t make?

Well, if that possibility manifested, we’d call it a multiverse. Recent modeling based on Robert Grosseteste’s early unification theories (1225) suggests that a multiverse might have been implicit in early thought about the universe, enough that the Pope specifically banned such discussion in 1277.


Incredible hyper-realistic sculptor Ron Mueck creates work that at first appears too human-like to be sculptures. That is until you see the size of them once displayed in a gallery.

Hyperreality is a term associated with the effects of mass culture reproduction, suggesting that an object, event, experience so reproduced replaces or is preferred to its original: that the copy is ‘more real than real’. In the writings of the French social philosopher and commentator on postmodernism, Jean Baudrillard (1929- ), and of the Italian semiologist Umberto Eco (1932-), hyperreality is associated especially with cultural tendencies and a prevailing sensibility in contemporary American society.

In Baudrillard’s discussion hyperreality is synonymous with the most developed form of simulation: the autonomous simulacra which are free from all reference to the real. In the essay, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’, Baudrillard writes of Disneyland as ‘a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation’ (1988: 171). Its function is less the ideological expression of an idealized America than to disguise the fact that ‘all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and simulation’ (1988: 172). Baudrillard therefore sees the hyperreal of selective imitation and image-making presented by Disneyland as the rule rather than the exception. The resulting ‘society of the image’, prompts a panic-stricken attempt to shore up the real that has been eroded. This, so Baudrillard believes, is futile, since the attempt to produce meaning and save ‘the reality principle’ in a media-saturated society can only produce its opposite, an exacerbated experience of hyperreality.

 http:ler/glossary/hyperrea.htmVirtual Reality

There are multiple ways in which we shape our determination of the ‘real’. The various categories of experience below, point out some of the ways in which the real and the virtual interact. While some are based on emerging technologies and have not yet become part of what we consider everyday reality, there are others that have already moved into the background of human experience, their artificiality now passing unremarked.

Simulation: think of aerospace “visionics” equipment which produces photorealistic real-time texture mapped worlds through which users can navigate. From military flight simulators to applications in medicine, entertainment, education, and training.

Interaction: In this sense, virtual reality is any electronic representation with which we can interact. The recycle bin in Windows, for example.

Artificiality: Human culture is interlaced with artificial constructs, from swimming pools, to buildings with controlled environments, to codes of behaviour, to ‘genuine’ imitation mayonnaise. Heim feels uneasy about this sense of virtual: When a word means everything, it means nothing. Even the term real needs an opposite.

Immersion: Virtual reality means sensory immersion in a virtual environment. This is the definition preferred by those who associate VR with specific software and hardware: optical displays, head-tracking devices, and data-gloves or hand-held devices to manipulate objects perceived to be in the virtual world. Immersion is important in flight simulators where outside distractions are minimized using feedback loops to encourage interaction. NASA’s VIEW (Virtual Interface Environment Workstation) allows an operator on Earth to view and manipulate objects on the Moon or Mars through feedback from a robot.

Telepresence: Present from a distant location. Telephone. Television. Photographs. Postcards. Using video-conferencing to give a lecture in two places at the same time. Laparoscopic surgery.

Full-Body Immersion: Myron Krueger has pioneered environments in which the user has no gear; cameras capture the user’s image, then displays it on a monitor where the image is thus able to interact with virtual objects: David Rokeby’s Very Nervous System; Perry Hoberman’s Bar Code Hotel; the Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Networked Communications: In this view, a virtual reality is a shared construct–think of the telephone–which relies on connectivity. Howard Rheingold emphasizes this sense of virtual in Virtual Communities. Networked communications are essential to the transformation of organizations into virtual corporations, virtual classrooms, and virtual universities.

Virtual world-making

Design (more so than commodities) is central to the new capitalism. We now have the capacity to design virtual spaces for socialising, networking, commerce and play. Some argue that these virtual spaces have replaced the ‘real’: people are always glued to their phones on public transport now, have we lost the art of conversation?

Others, like PBS Ideas channel (above), point out the tremendous benefits that come with the rise of the virtual: an end to boredom, the ability for geographically diverse people to collectivise around a shared interest, or to channel political dissent.


What virtual spaces do you inhabit?
Do you think they have replaced a ‘real’ space, or do they offer something different?

If you have a specific example, tweet it to @ciu_sae, or post it in the comments box on the right side of the page in Campus Online.

Case studies

1. Show me the money

Sure it is interesting that people are prepared to pay ‘real’ money for ‘virtual’ assets. This kind of investment could only be worthwhile for someone who lived a hyperreal existence. This also has implications for how we understand the nature of value and acquisition. We can argue about whether buying something in a virtual space is a good investment, but what of the nature of the transaction and specifically the currency?

What is ‘real’ currency? Essentially currency is an agreement of the value of something. A pound note is a metaphor: a promissory note (or IOU) that carries the agreed value of a pound of silver. However, pound notes, dollar bills, or coins, are all essentially worthless without a prior agreement of their value. Similarly, your online bank balance is only a collection of numerals: signifiers that denote a promise of value. Three numerals in the balance might denote the implied value of a new outfit, a number of hot dinners, or a holiday. They are just numerals, but they are extremely powerful – adding a simple ‘0’ to the end of your account balance could land you in jail.

2. Ethics implications

What happens when the virtual becomes hyperreal – when we can no longer distinguish between an enhancement and the ‘real’ thing? Watch the videos below and reflect on the ethical implications. An interesting point to start would be to consider how the virtual and the real experiences differ and then to reflect on the effects of the new technology on people, institutions of power. Do you have an instinctive response to the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of developing these technologies? There is more to this than a reactionary distrust for a new form of media – what are the implications?

3. Avatars and virtual identity

Online worlds are spaces where identities are made and remade and the technologies we use to do this become part of our ‘everyday’ lives. The ways in which we represent our selves can be read by different others in multiple ways: the visual, textual, verbal signifiers can have diverse cultural interpretations (alternate realities).

You may be consciously aware of the impression you are attempting to create, the persona you are trying to portray. You may even modify the way that you signify your identity depending on the context (email to grandma vs. online dating profile).

How do we understand the relationships between these identities; how do they interact; and, how do they shape ‘real world’ identities?

The (re-)construction of one’s identity online, might be different to the way that you choose to construct yourself as a virtual character in a virtual world. For example, a game avatar in an online gaming world.

The construction of a playable avatar provides the opportunity for the player to project one’s values and desires onto the virtual character. This allows us to see “the virtual character as one’s own project in the making” (Gee 2004). And, to project an image of the ‘kind of person’ one wants to be (Steinkhueler 2005). This constitutes a creative mediation of identity in virtual space. While it is becoming more and more possible to represent yourself ‘accurately’ as an avatar, there may be aspects of the real that we choose not to depict in avatar form. And for those that choose to create avatars that are not copies of themselves, the multiple levels of creative decision-making that are necessary could reveal more about your aesthetics and ethics than the ‘accurate’ representation.

Think about the following, and come to class prepared to engage in a lively debate on the ethics of online identity and virtual world making.

How many identities do you manage?

Do you feel that you are constructing an ‘unreal’ version of yourself or an accurate representation of your many sides? Do you think your online identities ‘perform’ the version of yourself that you intend?

Is it ok/possible to perform your identity as a ______ in all the realities you participate in?
If you are a middle-aged male accountant you may choose to construct yourself online as a 20-year-old female astronaut. If you were then to meet an online friend in the real world is it necessary to provide an explanation for the discrepancy? Is one form of identity construction (the virtual) any different to the ‘real’ construction of identity through material signification?

How do we understand the relationships between these identities; how do they interact, how do they shape ‘real world’ identities recursively?

How do discourses and affinity groups in our virtual worlds (i.e. online gaming and/or social participation) shape ‘real world’ ways of thinking and being?


Shields, R. (2002). The Virtual. London: Routledge.



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