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Going Virtual - WHAT IS VIRTUALITY AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?, A TECHNO-SOCIAL VIEW OF VIRTUALITY

reality context knowledge shared

Evangelia Baralou
University of Sterling, Scotland

Jill Shepherd
Simon Fraser University, Canada

WHAT IS VIRTUALITY AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Virtuality is a socially constructed reality mediated by electronic media (Morse, 1998). Characterized by the dimension of time-space distantiation (Giddens, 1991), virtuality has an impact on the nature and dynamics of knowledge creation (Thompson, 1995). The relentless advancement of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in terms both of new technology and the convergence of technology (e.g., multimedia) is making virtual networking the norm rather than the exception. Socially, virtual communities are more dispersed, have different power dynamics, are less hierarchical, tend to be shaped around special interests, and are open to multiple interpretations, when compared to face-to-face equivalents. To successfully manage virtual communities these differences need firstly to be understood, secondly the understanding related to varying organizational aims and thirdly, the contextualised understanding needs to be translated into appropriate managerial implications.

In business terms, virtuality exists in the form of life style choices (home-working), ways of working (global product development teams), new products (virtual themeparks), and new business models (e.g., Internet dating agencies). Socially, virtuality can take the form of talking to intelligent agents, combining reality and virtuality in surgery (e.g., using 3D imaging before and during an operation), or in policy making (e.g., combining research and engineering reports with real satellite images of a landscape with digital animations of being within that landscape, to aid environmental policy decisions).

Defining virtuality today is easy in comparison with defining, understanding and managing it on an ongoing basis. As the title “going virtual” suggests, virtuality is a matter of a phenomenon in the making, as we enter into it during our everyday lives, as the technology develops and as society changes as a result of virtual existences. The relentless advances in the technical complexity which underlies virtual functionality and the speeding up and broadening of our lives as a consequence of virtuality, make for little time and inclination to reflect upon the exact nature and effect of going virtual. As it pervades the way we live, work and play at such a fast rate, we rarely have the time to stop and think about the implications of the phenomenon.

The aim of what follows is therefore to reflexively generate an understanding of the techno-social nature of virtuality on the basis that such an understanding is a prerequisite to becoming more responsible for its nature and effects. Ways of looking at virtuality are followed by some thoughts on the managerial implications of “going virtual”.

A TECHNO-SOCIAL VIEW OF VIRTUALITY

Marx foresaw how the power of technological innovation would drive social change and how it would influence and become influenced by the social structure of society and human behaviour (Wallace, 1999). This interrelationship means that an understanding of virtuality needs to start from the theoretical acceptance of virtuality as a social reality; considering it involves human interaction associated with digital media and language in a socially constructed world (Morse, 1998). More specifically, Van Dijk (1999) suggests that going virtual, in comparison with face to face interaction, is characterised by:

  • A less stable and concrete reality without time, place and physical ties
  • More abstract interaction which affects knowledge creation
  • A networked reality which both disperses and concentrates power, offering new ways of exercising power
  • Diffused and less hierarchical communities and interaction due to the more dynamic flow of knowledge and greater equality in participation
  • A reality often shaped around special interests

Each of these areas is explored below, with the aim of drawing out the issues such that the managerial implications can be discussed in the following section. The emphasis is not on the technology, but on the socio-managerial implications of how the technology promotes and moulds social existence within virtual situations.

A REALITY WHICH IS LESS STABLE AND CONCRETE

Arguably, the most fundamental characteristic of virtuality is the first on this list, namely time-space distantiation (Giddens, 1991). Prior to the development of ICTs, the main mode of communication between individuals was face-to-face interaction in a shared place and time. The presence of a shared context during face to face contact provides a richness, allowing for the capacity to interrupt, repair, feedback and learn, which some see as an advantage (Nohria & Eccles, 1992, cited by Metiu & Kogut, 2001). In a virtual context, individuals interact at a distance and can interact asynchronously in cyberspace through the mediation of ICTs. The absence of shared context and time has an impact on communication (Metiu & Kogut, 2001; Thompson, 1995).

POWER AND EMPOWERMENT

Giddens (1991) suggests that virtuality offers new modes of exercising power and that virtuality is creating a more reflective society due to the massive information received. This can be questioned on the basis that more is read than written and more is listened to than spoken within the virtual world, which could shape an increasingly passive society hijacked by its own knowledge drifting around the infinite and complex reality of cyberspace. The relationship between power and knowledge in a virtual context remains under researched. Perhaps it is knowledge itself, which becomes more powerful. It has been found (Franks, 1998), that in an organizational virtual context, the demands of quick changes in knowledge requirements result in managers not being able to keep up. They entrust related decision making to the remote employees. Although, this empowerment enhances greater equality in participation, the property rights of the produced knowledge remain organizational, which can make individuals feel weaker and objects of control and pervasiveness given that their whole online life can ironically also be remotely supervised and archived (Franks, 1998; Ridings, Gefen, & Arinze, 2002). Power dynamics are therefore usually different in virtual reality when compared to face-to-face reality.

A REALITY OFTEN SHAPED AROUND SPECIAL INTERESTS

The claim that virtuality shapes communities around shared interests can be understood in relation to the way traditional relationships are shaped and maintained in a virtual context. Dreyfus (2001) emphasizes the withdrawal of people from traditional relations, arguing that the price of loss of the sense of context in virtuality is the inability to establish and maintain trust within a virtual context (Giddens, 1991). Trust has been in the centre of studies on human relations (Handy, 1995). Hosmer (1995, p. 399) defines trust as the “expectation by one person, group, or firm of ethical behaviour on the part of the other person, group, or firm in a joint endeavour or economic exchange”. Traditionally, individuals establish their relations based on trust and interact inside a context of social presence, which is affected in virtuality by the physical and psychological distance, by loose affiliations of people that can fall apart at any moment, by a lack of shared experiences and a lack of knowledge of each other’s identity.

Sapsed et al. (2002) suggest that trust in a virtual environment is influenced by the accessibility, reliability and compatibility in ICT, is built upon shared interests and is maintained by open and continuous communication. The quantity of information shared, especially personal information, is positively related to trust (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999; Ridings et al., 2002). Being and becoming within virtual communities also depends more on cognitive elements (e.g.,competence, reliability, professionalism) than affective elements (e.g., caring, emotional, connection to each other), as emotions cannot be transmitted that easily (Meyerson et al., 1996, cited by Kanawattanachai & Yoo, 2002).

That said, virtual communities do exist which are perhaps breaking with tradition. Consequently, what is “normal” or “traditional” in time is likely to change. In such communities the lack of trust allows views to be expressed more openly, without emotion and people are more able to wander in and out of communities. Special interests are more catered for as minority views can be shared. An absence of trust is less of an issue. The Net is always there and can be more supportive than a local community, making the Net more real than reality and more trustworthy.

In considering the above characteristics of virtuality within management, three factors of organizational life are taken into consideration in the following section; the first is context, the second is the organising challenges which emerge within organizational contexts, the third is the matter of taking into account advancements in technology.

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about 5 years ago

I'm a student, and I'm interested to know more about the "virtuality in architecture"... please let me know.

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