To be or not to be? That is the problem
West Coast Editor
April 2005

“Virtual reality”—a state of existence that, well, doesn’t really exist. This concocted computerese cliché is virtually unavoidable by virtue of the control that computer programmers have on the way we speak.

In a time long, long ago, before Microsoft and the Internet—1959, to be exact—virtual reality was all around us, but we knew it by more honest names. A mirage, for example, is an illusion that seems real from afar but is far from real. We see one every time a heat haze on a highway gives the illusion of water up ahead. I don’t ever recall hearing someone say, “Hey, look at that virtual water!”

One source dates the word “mirage” to 1812, a derivative of the French verb se mirer “to be reflected (mirrored),” which in turn came from the Latin verb mirare. Given that the word was first associated with the great heat and expanse of African and Middle Eastern deserts, a more plausible etymology would be the Arabic word miraj, by which the shimmering haze imitated the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad to Heaven from the al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem.

Movies (moving pictures) have accurately described a pseudo-reality since at least 1912. Put images and sound onto a strip of celluloid, pass it in front of a light, et voilà—instant reality, only the actors on the screen don’t exist, especially those who have died.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cult of reality shows that now pass for TV entertainment. In the early days, all TV shows were shot live. Later they were produced live-to-tape to be edited for later broadcast. Recently, I heard an ad for the show Tony Danza Live! calling it “the ultimate reality show.” Pardon me while I virtually puke.

For some lamentable reason, our computer culture has made us embrace linguistic nonsense as technological sophistication. In 1982, sci-fi novelist William Gibson gave us the insufferable “cyberspace,” to describe the ephemeral world of the Internet, yet there is no space, and cyber means to steer (from the Greek kybern). The term is meaningless. What was he thinking?

We would be so much better off without geek-speak, but saying that makes a virtue out of necessity.