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Linguistic virtual reality: is there no way out?

MORE THAN TWO DECADES of research and development have contributed to a "reality" produced by technology. Virtual reality refers to a world accessible through technology and subject to manipulation by those who access it.

Some extensions of virtual reality include the virtual reality "story" that has multiple potential outcomes, contingent upon the decisions and actions of those who "participate in the story." In a virtual reality "flight," the plane may either land safely or explode on impact, depending on the skill of the "pilot."

Entrance into a world of technological virtual reality requires conscious thought and action. Entrance into a world of "linguistic virtual reality," on the other hand, can be gained with or without conscious or deliberate thought. And for some who unknowingly enter a linguistic world of their own creation, there may be no way out.

Many general semantics practitioners have long recognized that language allows us to create powerful linguistic worlds that resemble the directly perceivable "real" world. Most of us give little thought to our ability to create an attractive linguistic world -- when we think about relaxing on a sunny beach, for example, while we endure a root canal. Nonetheless, the idea that the linguistic virtual reality we and/or others create may have more power over us than the directly perceivable real world has serious implications.

Many who study technologically-created virtual reality concern themselves with such significant questions as how to distinguish between "real" and "unreal." And what if virtual reality becomes so attractive to participants that it literally "becomes their reality?" Perhaps those of us who study general semantics could also benefit from concerns like these. Consider, for example, a virtual reality/simulation game in which a participant "chooses" to be employed as a teacher. Because the predetermined parameters of the technological game preclude employment as a teacher, she fails.

Might linguistic virtual reality be just as limiting to an unemployed teacher seeking work in the "real" world? Suppose the teacher perceives his employment outcome to be based solely on a predetermined, immutable set of circumstances outside of his control, e.g., "No one is hiring teachers now!" Do you think he will enjoy any more success than the simulation game participant?

There is, of course, at least one important difference between these two people and their worlds: teachers who find themselves living in a linguistic virtual reality can, at any time, redefine themselves as something other than "teacher," and seek alternative employment. If we can linguistically define ourselves as teachers, we can also linguistically define ourselves as entrepreneurs and electricians. While few people, other than Professor Hill from "The Music Man," perhaps, would suggest that merely thinking of ourselves in a particular way will somehow "make us what we think," we do need to consider the possibility that language-based self-concepts can, and often do, determine the employment we seek.

Of course, when we're unknowingly lost in a world of linguistic virtual reality, it's not easy to imagine employment options or any other opportunities that may "be out there." But general semanticists have great potential for helping themselves and others to see possibilities that lie beyond the world of linguistic reality. It's not a matter of having all the answers; it is a matter of understanding a few of the questions that must be asked, then being brave enough to ask them.

Correction: In "Can Linguistic Realities Kill Us?," by Charles G. Russell and Judith C. White, which appeared in the Winter 1992-93 Et cetera, the location of the city of Sighet was erroneously transposed from Transylvania to France through an editorial oversight.

Charles G. Russell is Professor of Communication at the University of Toledo and a management\communication consultant. Judith C. White is medical editor and president of Scribe Communications Ink, a writing and editing service.
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Author:White, Judith C.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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