The Culture of Real Virtuality
In the second half of the 1990s a new electronic communication system started to be formed out of the merger of globalized, customized mass media.
And computer-mediated communication.
The new system is characterized by the integration of different media and by its interactive potential.
Multimedia, as the new system was hastily labeled, extend the realm of electronic communication into the whole domain of life.
From home to work, from schools to hospitals, from entertainment to travel.
Yet business, not governments, was shaping the new multimedia system.
Indeed, the scale of investment in infrastructure prevented any government from acting by itself.
For the United States alone, the estimates for the launch phase of the so-called Information Superhighway were $US400 billion.
Companies from all over the world were positioning themselves to enter into the market.
That could become, in the early twenty-first century, the equivalent of what the automobile-oil-rubber-highway industrial complex was in the first half of the twentieth century.
The business control over the first stages of development of multimedia systems will have lasting consequences on the characteristics of the new electronic culture.
For all the ideology of the potential of new communication technologies in education, health, and cultural enhancement.
The prevailing strategy aims at developing a giant electronic entertainment system.
Considered the safest investment from a business perspective.
Thus, while governments and futurologists speak of wiring classrooms, doing surgery at a distance, and teleconsulting the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Most of the actual construction of the new systems focuses on “video-on-demand,” tele-gambling, and virtual reality theme parks.
Their actual use in the early stages of the new system will considerably shape the uses, perceptions, and ultimately the social consequences of multimedia.
Because of the newness of multimedia, it is difficult to assess their implications for the culture of society.
Beyond acknowledging that fundamental changes are indeed under way.
On the one hand, the increasing electronic equipment in European homes has increased their comfort and stepped up their self-sufficiency.
Enabling them to link up with the whole world from the safety of the home.
Together with the increase in the size of housing units and the decrease in size of the household, more space per person is available.
Making home a cozier place.
Indeed, time spent at home went up in the early 1990s.
On the other hand, the new electronic home and portable communication devices increase the chances of individual members of the family to organize their own time and space.
For instance, microwave ovens, allowing for individual consumption of precooked food, has reduced the incidence of collective family dinners.
Individual TV dinner sets represent a growing market.
VCRs and walkman devices.
Together, with the decrease in the price of TV sets, radio, and CD players.
Allow a large segment of the population to be individually hooked into selected audiovisual worlds.
Overall, in Europe as in America or in Asia.
Multimedia appear to be supporting, even in their early stage, a social/cultural pattern characterized by the following features.
First, widespread social and cultural differentation, leading to the segmentation of the users/viewers/readers/listeners.
Not only are the messages segmented by markets following senders’ strategies.
But they are also increasingly diversified by users of the media, according to their interests, taking advantage of interactive capacities.
As some experts put it, in the new system, “prime time is my time.”
The formation of virtual communities is but one of the expressions of such differentiation.
Secondly, increasing social stratification among the users.
Not only will choice of multimedia be restrained to those with time and money to access.
And to countries and regions with enough market potential.
But cultural/educational differences will be decisive in using interaction to the advantage of each user.
The information about what to look for.
And the knowledge about how to use the message.
Will be essential to truly experience a system different from standard customized mass media.
The Culture of Real Virtuality
What is then a communications system that, in contrast to earlier historical experience, generates real virtuality?
It is a system in which reality itself (that is, people’s material/symbolic existence) is entirely captured.
Fully immersed in a virtual image setting, in the world of make believe.
In which appearances are not just on the screen through which experience is communicated.
But they become the experience.
Castells, Manuel. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol.1:
The rise of the Network Society. Blackwell Publishers: New York, 1996: