- not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so
- carried out, accessed, or stored by means of a computer, especially over a network
- almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition
The word “virtual” has become part of everyday language, but we’re not always exactly sure what the correct usage should be. So I figured it was worth 600 words to explore its meaning and the level of virtual experiences that are now part of our lives.
As you can see above from our friends at Merriam-Webster, it is not an entirely clear concept and needs a lot of words to explain. Part of the problem is there are really three distinct meanings of the word, but they all point to the same idea that if something is virtual then it does not exist in reality but simulates it.
I think it’s easiest to use examples…
The first definition – not physically existing but made by software to appear so – is the easiest to illustrate. Even the most Luddite of us has at one time or another seen or played a video game. Let’s take Pacman (yes, I am dating myself and yes, I was really good at it). There really are no Pacmen or ghosts or power pellets. Even the random pieces of fruit don’t actually exist. They are all virtual.
The easiest way to think about the second definition – accessed or stored by means of a computer – is to think paperless. Any place where information is stored digitally rather than in physical form – so a computer file instead of a book – is a virtual library or file cabinet.
So, thus far, we have anything that exists only in digital form being described as virtual. The third definition I think is what causes confusion. This is where something actually does exist in the real world but in such an insubstantial state that we say it “virtually” doesn’t exist.
If a tornado hits a town and takes out most of the buildings, we might hear a news report that says the town was virtually destroyed. It wasn’t really destroyed, it’s still there, but it has been reduced to such a shadow of its former self that we say it is virtually gone. Note that what is virtual here is not the town but the destruction.
It can be used in the opposite way too, so if the town starts fixing the damage and restores all but a building or two, we can say the town has been virtually rebuilt. In this case, virtual, as an adjective, refers to the restoration. In other words, virtually can be a synonym for “almost” and implies a high degree of almost-ness, so maybe “almost completely” is more accurate.
Now, for a few examples from daily life in the 21st century:
One of the most common “virtual” experiences we all have is the Zoom meeting. When we are on Zoom sessions are we virtual? Of course not! We obviously exist and we are really having a meeting. This has become known conventionally as a virtual meeting, but in fact the meeting is real. It’s the meeting place, the conference room, that is virtual.
Here at CapeSpace, we offer something known as a “virtual office.” It’s a commonly used (and just as commonly misunderstood) term that essentially means a mailing address. It’s for those who want a professional, commercial street address to use for their business cards, website, marketing materials, etc. but don’t need or want a physical office. Virtual office is a standard term that has been used globally for years by its providers but still creates confusion among its users, which is why we now call our virtual offices “business mailing addresses.”
Today, many of us think of the word “virtual” on a grander scale, thanks to extreme versions of virtual reality like immersive video games and other high-tech simulated experiences. At the risk of showing my Trekkie self again, the ultimate virtual reality was the holodeck. And when are we going to have those widely available? (Inquiring minds want to know.)
But the level of sophistication doesn’t matter for the word. If it doesn’t exist as a tangible, physical thing in reality, or if it does exist in reality but only barely, then we can call it virtual.
So to recap, I have spent virtually all morning writing this blog and it will be published soon in a virtual newsletter, and when you finish reading it you will be virtually edified on virtual usage!