Slavoj Žižek said in 2004, “Today everyone is talking about virtual reality. But I think, frankly, that the virtual reality — is a rather miserable idea. It simply means ‘let us reproduce in an artificial, digital media an experience of reality’. I think that a much more interesting notion crucial to understand, what is going on today, is the opposite — not ‘virtual reality’ but ‘the reality of the virtual’.”
The ‘reality of the virtual’ could not be a more important idea during this time of global self-isolation, quarantine, and shelter-in-place. Right now, most Americans are spending their time deep within the internet, sharing memes, watching Netflix, and the like, as we collectively wait for this plague to end.
During this time, institutions around the world have released many free or cheap online classes and virtual tours. These virtual tours include gardens, caves, museums, zoos, cathedrals, oceans, parks, and so on. Headsets are not always necessary. On some of these, users can simply point and click through the tour just as we have in video games for decades.
I think these virtual tours are not so much a means to appreciate the splendor of the virtual tour itself, or the technology used to bring it to us; rather I suspect that what these virtual tours are a means to assuage ourselves during our pandemic isolation. It is a way to assure us that the world out there — the world outside of our quarantined homes — does in fact still exist.
This is not at all to belittle or condemn virtual tours or online classes during this crisis. Not at all. I’m more interested in the apocalyptic anxiety that this crisis has imparted on many people, coupled with the famous question, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
The virtual tour has come to remind me of the Observer Effect in quantum mechanics. If you don’t look at a particle it doesn’t exist (rather the particle dislocates into an unfixed probability distribution-based quantum state (formerly known as a waveform). And it is exactly this anxiety that I think people are feeling: If we are not present, if we are not observing and participating, will our favorite persons, places, and things disappear?
In some ways this is absolutely true. There are many small business, bookshops, bars, and restaurants that will in all likelihood disappear during this pandemic — not to mention people.
Needless to say a virtual tour is not a realtime visit — even digitally speaking. We can virtually plug into tens of thousands of public CCTV cameras all over the world and be there in a present (albeit digital) capacity. However, all virtual tours are prerecorded. It’s not like with every virtual tour operators fly out a drone to capture fresh images of that given day. All virtual tours are prerecorded in the past, whereas a CCTV feed is live.
During this crisis we are not only seized with the very real anxiety of who will be left standing, but the question of what institutions, businesses, bars, clubs, stores, and scenes will be left standing as well is another real anxiety. We all share the sneaking suspicion that the world will be a drastically different place once we exit our universal corona cocoon. Virtual tours, I suspect, are not only a way for us to virtually travel as we self-isolate, but a means for us to reinforce the idea that the world still exists somewhere out there — even if we can’t see it right now.
Until it is truly safe enough for humanity to be loosened once again upon the world, we will no doubt continue to appreciate the reality of the virtual.