Virtual and the actual: Representation and the object
It is declared that we live in an ‘information age’, one where much of our daily experience comes in mediated form, in print or on screen. Information about our world is brought to us through words and images selected and interpreted by others. We can communicate by fax and e-mail, don alternative persona on the Internet, experience alternate realities in computer games, and create convincing digital images from mathematical co-ordinates. Yet we still rely, for sustenance, clothing and housing at the very least, on real things. What then is the significance of real objects: the actual, and what are the limits of the virtual experience in replacing them?
The focus of this thesis is on objects – ordinary, everyday objects or things – and the significance they have in human lives. Frequently overlooked, or disregarded as unimportant, objects nevertheless fulfil functions of use, of consumption and transaction, signification of status, and demarcation of social roles.
“Soon we will all be doing our shopping on the Internet”, and “we won’t need museums at all soon, it will all be done by virtual reality”. These two examples of frequently heard rhetoric provide a base for the research, selected as areas where unfamiliar objects may be encountered for the first time and which can be expected to reveal the limitations of representation through a virtual experience.
In order to assess how effectively the properties of objects can be represented, it is necessary first to understand the range of properties that objects have, and the role of the images which will carry the representation. This has been sought from those who work with or study objects and their place in society. From the fields of education and child development, craft and art theory, philosophy, photography and anthropology; from sociology, museology and material culture studies have come insights into the significance of objects and their qualities. The wider contextual settings of museums and shopping have been explored, and in depth studies conducted. Museums were visited, both in New Zealand and in London, with staff interviews augmented by visitor experience. A survey of Internet shoppers and non shoppers has revealed attitudes and behaviours which will undoubtedly influence the course of the virtual experience.
After examination of the practicalities and implications of technological development, the thesis concludes by collecting together a wide range of the identified properties which objects can have, and examining the limitations of conveying them through image and text. Drawing these findings together with the contextual background, allows informed appraisal of the phrases “soon we will all be doing our shopping on the Internet”, and “we won’t need museums at all soon, it will all be done by virtual reality”, and of the implications which would follow.